Fuel Strainer Lottery

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It was a Wisconsin-warm, winter-to-spring day. Roads and runways were plowed, but the heavy rains from the previous night did little to diminish several feet of snow on lawns and fields. My friend (let’s call him Bill) and I drove to the airport at 12:30 p.m. to practice some aerobatics in a rentable Super Decathlon. I had recently completed my first 10-hour course of basic aerobatics, while his history included teaching aerobatics in Cubs, Stearmans, Decathlons and gliders, and he was typed in a handful of corporate jets.

On recent flights, I had goaded him into showing me rolling 360-degree turns, which he eventually limped through (no fault of his own in a Decathlon), and I intended to learn this because it was so damn hard to do. This would not be the day I’d learn anything like that.

The FBO guys had added 15 gallons of fuel before our 90-minute practice session. We back-taxied on the 2100-foot runway, did the runup and began the takeoff roll. Bill was in the rear seat. Shortly after we lifted off, I noticed that Bill was reducing power. I thought, “That’s a weird thing to do, but I guess it’s a surprise emergency test.”

I pushed the throttle forward, and realized it was already full forward. I wondered about the mixture, but wait … he doesn’t have a mixture control. All of this happened, of course, over a few seconds of time that seemed like a minute. When Bill suddenly recognized I wasn’t fiddling around, he said, “I got it!” I relaxed my grip on the stick. (I was OK with that. Remember his credentials.)

So here was the problem. We were nearing the end of the runway, which terminated at 90 degrees to the airport’s road. Across the road was a pure, white, inviting farmer’s field. But we both knew something about that field. Under the snow were trailers and harvesting equipment. If we knew exactly where they were buried, maybe we’d survive. Or maybe and rip up the belly, and end up inverted. The fuel line down there could then light us up.  And it’s hard enough to get out of that back seat at all, much less doing so upside down and on fire.  We didn’t discuss this as there wasn’t time, but we were thinking alike.

“Take the road?” I asked or wondered.

“Got to,” he said, already in a descending, steep bank.

So, the airplane did what they all do when they run out of lift. We impacted with a large, crunching noise, and then experienced Newton’s third law -- every action having an equally angry reaction. We were lofted maybe 15 feet in the air, and again, no time for discussion. My fear was again that damn fuel strainer on the bottom of the fuselage. Did we rip it up on impact? After we put it on the road, did we have functional landing gear, or did we splatter them?

Sirens of soft, non-flammable snow called to me. “Put it in the snow!” I demanded or suggested or begged. Luckily we had enough airspeed to allow some aileron control, and after clipping a road sign with the right wing, we swooshed to a stop, about six feet off the road. All was quiet, including us.

I secured the airplane – mags, fuel, mixture, master,  and finally said, “You OK?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

After another 10 seconds, I said, “I think I broke my back.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

We talked a bit more. Bill was in pain. Cars passed us, but nobody stopped. We had barely left the airport, so I told Bill I’d go back and get some help. I walked in and asked the new employee if the airport owner was available. He told me Leo had gone to lunch. I asked if the owner of the Decathlon was there, and was told Jim was at lunch with Leo.

Suddenly he jerked back and said, “Didn’t you just take off in the Decathlon?”

I explained what happened. He called the fire department. This was his second day on the job. A day earlier, an instructor and student cartwheeled a Cessna 150 on a landing. When Leo and Mark returned, their new employee explained what just happened, and quit on the spot.

By the time I walked back to the scene, there was a fire truck, several squads, and lots of cops and sheriffs and medical people, some of whom were talking to Bill. He was still in the airplane. As I trudged through the snow, a sheriff intercepted me, asking where the hell I thought I was going.

“Back to the airplane. I’m the pilot.”

“No you’re not. The pilot is in the airplane.”

I am! I‘m the guy who walked back to the airport to report this.”

“I can’t let you get any closer to the airplane.”

“Go ask the guy in the back seat. It’s the passenger seat. You can’t fly this airplane from the back seat unless a pilot or student or passenger is in the front seat. I’m the pilot. Ask him.”

Soon after Bill convinced the sheriff I wasn’t crazy, he accepted their offer of an ambulance ride to a hospital, and I was invited along. He was on a stretcher; I had a seat next to him. To pass the time, we sang “Stayin’ Alive” most of the way to the emergency room. Later, Bill was told he’d have to stay a night or two for observation. I was free to head back to the airport and retrieve Bill’s car and the six-pack he had buried in the snow for our post-flight briefing.

When I got back to the field, the Decathlon was there. Leo told me they started it up in the presence of the NTSB investigator, and it ran fine. He wanted to know exactly what I had done before, during and after the accident. I felt I was being accused of something. (I probably was.)

Later, they drained the fuel. Turns out, there were six gallons of water in that poor little airplane. At least a quarter of the fluid in the tanks was H2O. That prompted them to check the fuel in the underground tanks, which rewarded them with another 150 gallons of municipal water.

Did we forget to drain the sumps? Sorta. The owner had stated to his students and renters that he didn’t want a fuel sampler banging around inside the cockpit during aerobatic flight, so he suggested draining fuel right onto the ramp and just smelling it. (Today, that could cost you a $10,000 fine.) Following that advice was just stupid, and it would result in the NTSB’s final conclusion that I failed to do a complete preflight.

Leo’s insurance company came to visit me a few weeks after the accident. They wanted to agree on a settlement based on how much I earned per day, how many days of work I lost, and what kind of money I was looking for. They were shocked that I had not retained an attorney. They were elated when I said that the accident could have, and should have, been prevented by me. I eventually and somewhat reluctantly accepted $200 for lost wages, and signed a full release. Bill and I never discussed whether he received a settlement, but the NTSB report stated there was one minor injury, and one serious.

To this day, something puzzles me about that engine runup after the landing. The Decathlon has two fuel exits per tank, one fore and one aft. After that airplane sat tail-low for an hour or more, why wasn’t the water immediately sucked in from the low side? How could it have run on water? I’m open to suggestions.

I still meet pilots who never bother with a fuel sampler. Why? Because (tada) they have never found that mysterious half inch of water in the bottom of the device. Yet by not checking, they guarantee they never will. Sure, a situation such as mine might be as rare as winning a state lottery. But people buy tickets anyhow, just in case. Properly straining fuel is free, and every time you don’t get what you’re looking for, you win.