Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Never Run It Dry


Keeping track of the time/speed/distance equation is only part of fuel management


It was the Christmas holiday, and I was on my way back from the Bahamas to Venice, Fla. Joe Ponte of Piper had graciously loaned me a Cherokee Six 300 in conjunction with a pilot report, and I had elected to take my mom and stepfather on a quick, four-day trek to Freeport and Nassau.

On the trip back, we made a stop in Fort Lauderdale to clear customs, turn in our survival gear and close our international flight plan, then relaunched for the short hop diagonally across the state to Venice on the Gulf Coast.

My parents were luxuriating in the back of the big Six as we cruised 6,500 feet above the swamp when the engine suddenly quit cold. The immediate silence got everyone's attention, especially mine. I was the number-one son, and mom trusted me implicitly in any airplane. I didn't want to dispel that trust by doing something stupid, though it seemed I already had.

Of course, I had let one of the Cherokee Six's four tanks run dry, and the engine had shut down in a heartbeat, without a telltale tick of the fuel flow or any other forewarning. As calmly as I could, I turned on the fuel pump, then, feigning a casual motion, reached down and switched to a tank with some fuel in it. I turned to Mom and Bob in the back seat, summoned what I hoped would be a reassuring smile and said, "Sorry about that. It's no big problem. I just ran a tank dry. The engine will pick up in a few seconds."

I turned back forward, expecting power to return at any moment. I waited and waited. Nothing happened. We were gliding down toward Lake Okeechobee, and I was beginning to wonder if we were about to discover firsthand that the lake was only five feet deep as I had read.

Finally, after perhaps 20 seconds that seemed more like 20 minutes, I heard some expectant coughs from the Lycoming before it came slowly back online. We continued to Venice, and Mom's only comment after we landed was, "Does that happen often?"

Fortunately, if you're smart enough to plan ahead, it need never happen even once. I obviously wasn't and didn't, so it did.



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