Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Really Low On Fuel


A dark and stormy night in Alaska


The pass is much too narrow to consider turning around inside, even with a Super Cub. Once in, your options are reduced to going on thru or landing steeply uphill and straight ahead. With boulders half the size of modest homes, such a landing would be a bad one. The only option is simply to fly on through the steep pass.

I crossed the saddle at about 20 feet, rolled into a right 45 degrees over the skeleton of an old military aircraft, and began a slow, descending left turn through the curving little valley that opened onto 20-mile long Chakachamna Lake, six minutes ahead and 1,300 feet below me.

When I reached the east end of Chakachamna, I called Anchorage radio for information on the oil exploration strip lying 15 degrees to my right and 25 minutes ahead. It was unpaved and unlighted, but it seemed a whole lot better than running out of fuel over the deadly waters of Cook Inlet or Knik Arm that feeds it. The strip was a generous 5,000 feet long. I could yawn and ho-hum through a night landing there. Anchorage radio was discouraging about permission for a landing at Beluga, the private strip in question, so I asked for vectors and straight-line distances to the nearest runway threshold at both Merrill Field and Anchorage International Airport.

Merrill Field was a few miles farther, but a beeline for that field would place me over cold water for only about 21⁄2 miles. If the engine finally starved out at that point, I could glide to dry land. I chose Merrill, which also gave me several emergency landing options that looked survivable. If I could just coax the thirsty Cub that far...

I had long before throttled back to best glide speed plus five, trying to stretch my fuel load as far as it would go. The slower airspeed was maddening but necessary. I needed maximum distance in the air under power. I wasn’t interested in being in the air without power.

I punched up Approach Control, advised them of my low-fuel situation, and requested whatever help they could give me. They approved a straight-in approach to Merrill Field’s runway 6, which would save me some air time by avoiding pattern entries and turns. It also would carry me over the major portion of the city of Anchorage, which I didn’t like. I went feet wet at 2,000 feet and throttled back for the long straight-in.

I landed short, took the first available right and taxied to the gas pumps. The engine was still purring along, but I didn’t know how.

The Cub’s tanks held a meager 38 gallons when topped off to the filler necks. Not all of that is usable. The meter at the pump read 39.6 after I had finished topping both tanks. Maybe I had larger tanks by a fat gallon. Maybe the pump wasn’t as accurate as it might have been. I couldn’t have cared less. I would have paid $20 a gallon for all 39.6 gallons right then.

I tied the little Cub down, gave her one last affectionate pat, and headed home for a hot shower, a warm dinner and a dry bed. Oh, yeah—I fixed that broken mixture control problem before the next flight. Flying full-rich isn’t my preferred method of engine management, even at sea level, much less through dark and rainy Merrill Pass.

Raised in the hills of southeastern Ohio, where hunting and fishing were activities performed for the table rather than sport, Mort Mason honed those outdoor skills that would later be the foundation for his profession as an Alaska Registered Guide. Transferred to Alaska by the USAF, he realized that outdoor pursuits in the huge state without a roadway system required airplane travel. Buying his own airplanes and using his guiding skills to earn their keep, Mort has never looked back.




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