Reserves? What reserves?

26 Dec 08 One Comment

Not long after the Paris Trip I decided to take the same girlfriend to Perranporth on the north coast of Cornwall.  I hired a Grumman Tiger from LSF at Elstree.  The flight down was unexciting and we had a good weekend.

It was on the return journey we had problems.  For some reason, Perranporth had no fuel available.  I calculated what we’d burnt on the way down and worked out that we had just enough fuel to get back to Elstree and thence, if necessary, to divert to Luton.  At that stage of my flying career, I’m not sure if I had never learnt or if I had forgotten about "reserves" but in any case, it didn’t occur to me.

We take off and I’m talking to Plymouth who asked me whether I was flying North or South of Dartmoor.  I said I couldn’t see Dartmoor on the map to which I got the reply, "That large danger area right in front of you.  I assume you’re not going to fly right through it!"

I’d managed to overlook it completely and yes, had planned straight through it.  "North," I said, picking one at random.  Now I had to turn left and work out where I was going next.

All the way back, I was keeping a very close eye on the fuel and was surprised to see both tanks showed a quarter as we approached the outskirts of the London control zone, I’d expected less.  I had noticed, however, that there was a definite tendency for the right wing to drop when the plane was in trim which was very frustrating as it meant paying constant attention,

Just as we approached Greenham Common and I was about to call for MATZ penetration, the engine spluttered and started to die.  I switched to the right tank and it picked up again.  Back to the left and it spluttered.  The left tank was clearly empty though still showing a quarter.   The right tank also showed a quarter but I had no idea how much was actually in it.

I had been talking to London Information so called them and calmly asked for urgent permission to land at Greenham Common.  The controller was more panicked than I was: Greenham Common had nuclear missiles at the time and was at the highest level of security.

Meanwhile the plane was flying fine on the right tank but I still wanted to get down as soon as I could.  I downgraded the emergency and was transferred to London Radar.  They pointed out that I was almost overhead Booker (now Wycombe Air Park) and suggested I land there.  They said they’d rung them and the airfield was closed but that it would be OK to land there and they’d give me vectors.  You could hear the relief in the controller’s voice that I would not be flying into Greenham Common.

As taught when landing at an unmanned airfield, I carefully overflew the runway and did one circuit.  "Would you mind just landing it this time," asked my passenger on the second final approach.

Of course, with the airfield being closed, there was no fuel available so our romantic weekend away ended with a friend having to drive out to pick us up.  He grumbled all the way back.

I felt somewhat vindicated though.  I recalculated the fuel burn and found exactly what I’d expected but all in the right tank.  When I complained to the CFI at LSF, he simply shrugged it off with, "Fuel gauges are never that accurate."

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