What if I were low time, low energy, low fuel in low IMC?

What if I were low time, low energy, low fuel in low IMC?

The Tallahassee fatal accident raises some interesting and challenging scenarios.  Let me share some reactions if I were flying a similar scenario.

Note, this is not speculating what happened to the accident pilot, but placing myself in similar circumstances.  We simply do not know enough to judge this pilot.  But we can reflect on how each of us might react to related scenarios.  Emphasis: this is not about Don Hess, it is about Rick Beach.

Low time-in-type

When my airplane engine was away being overhauled, I seriously considered renting a local Cirrus SR22.  Until I realized that my 2000+ hours in a six-pack plane would put me back to zero hours in a PFD plane.  Sure, the plane flies the same but the information and systems are so different.

I didn't need to fly.  I had the skills but not the knowledge, nor the ability.  I became really aware of what low time-in-type would mean to me.

More Cirrus pilots will transition to used planes.  More pilots will fly without Cirrus factory training.  COPA could reach out to those pilots with some safety resources for low time-in-type Cirrus pilots.  Good idea.

Low energy

I'm about the same age as the accident pilot and I know my energy level has changed in the past few years. 

In the past, I've flown myself across the country 12 hours overnight to a funeral, but I wouldn't do that again today.  My research career involved frequent all-night work sessions, and I'm a night owl when my energy is best.  So I flew with the knowledge of how my body reacts to fatigue.  I did okay on the way out, but really suffered on the way back.  Long flights were routine and I took care to prepare and enjoy them.  This year, when flying to the M6 migration, I noticed that I didn't handle the fatigue as well.  Adrenaline only gets you so far.  Mental mistakes and tunnel vision crept into my experience.  Oops!  New plans for shorter legs, more exercise breaks, and snacking while flying.

This accident flight was two legs of 2 hours and 4 hours from mid-morning to early evening.  Probably okay for me, but I would be snacking and hydrating on the longer leg, not waiting to eat upon landing.  And I would be vigilant for the day/night transition.  Probably be on oxygen since at 10,000 feet, I know that my O2 sats would be borderline; just something that I've learned about my physiology.

Low fuel

Any long-leg flight will involve fuel considerations.  Add headwinds.  Add ROP for go fast mode.  Add confusion about the SR2X fuel system.  Not a simple or stress-free situation!

During the Single Pilot Resource Management sessions that I teach at CPPP, I ask "what is the lowest fuel level that you have landed with?"  About half the pilots have never seen the fuel warning annunciator!  And about a quarter report being worried when it came on for them.  That leaves about a quarter who understand what's going on.

The Cirrus fuel guages are non-linear as the fuel level drops.  The first 10 gallons hardly registers any movement, but the last 10 gallons seems to drop as you watch it!  This produces anxiety.  Yet, you probably have lots of fuel, just an unfamiliar indication.

When the low fuel annunicator does come on, you could have anywhere between 28 gallons (both just below 14 gallons) and 14 gallons (one empty and the other below 14).  At LOP flows, that's over 1 to 2 hours of flying time.  When the light first comes on!  So relax!  Maybe…

Did you know that you can exhaust the fuel in one tank and never get a low fuel annunciator alert?  BOTH TANKS must be below 14 gallons in an SR22.  So you could run one tank empty and with 15 gallons in the other, and no low-fuel light.

If you have never experienced a fuel starvation event, you are in for a big surprise.  It got my attention.  But I realized what had happened, switched tanks, and the engine restarted in less time than it takes to type this sentence!  Thanks for the muscle memory of switching tanks every 30 minutes or so.

Finally, why does low fuel always seem to happen at the more stressful time of a flight, the approach to landing?

Low IMC

Eventually, you need to get down on the ground.  This accident flight was flying towards worsening weather.  Forecasts showed thunderstorms in the area.  Yet, the METARs showed clear visibility under a low ceiling.  Seems reasonable.

Unfortunately, just as this accident flight was approaching Tallahassee, the visibilty dropped precipitously.  I didn't notice the temp/dewpoint spread was so close until I studied the historical METAR data, so I wonder if I would have realized the possibility as I was flying with my portable XM weather. 

Being first to experience low vis conditions really sucks.  I've made a practice of monitoring the tower frequency from far out so I can listen to what's happening where I'm landing.  Sometimes, nothing happens, so the approach is routine.  But sometimes there is heavy traffic and I get to sense what the pattern will be like.  And occasionally, I get to hear pilots report missed approaches.  Consider it a PIREP.  Plan accordingly.

Proficiency with Low IMC

Another aspect of low IMC is proficiency.  On the west coast with the marine layer and coastal fog, I get way too much opportunity to fly in low IMC.  My hours of actual goes up by only 2 minutes a flight, just 0.03 hours, but I get lots of approaches.  Would an east coast pilot have similar proficiency?


Flying is such a rewarding experience for me.  These details from accident flights provide another opportunity to explore "what if" scenarios.  I encourage you to do the same.

Have a great Cirrus day!

Cheers
Rick

Comments
  • Rick,

    Excellent post and great deductions. I,m sure many of us have been in some or all of these situations at some time.

    I can especially identify with realizing and admitting that your limitations change with the aging process. I can remember when my favorite time was flying at night. No more.

    Yes these are great flying ships these Cirri, thats why I am on my second one. However they can easily get ahead of us especially when you add in some of these circumstances.

    Fly safe fly often, Buster O.

  • Rick,

    Thank you for posting your observations. It is definitely a lot to think about. Long distance trips require planning and preparations. It is so tempting to skip steps in planning process and go right into flying. Another point is to ”Plan the flight and fly the plan”. I find myself in a situation where I change my flight because I want to save extra few minutes. Instead of VOR-A, change to contact approach, instead of waiting for IFR clearance, go out VFR etc. All these decisions need to be made before departure.

    After I read your blog I realized that COPA web site does not have area called “New Cirrus Pilots”. The link to this area would be on the main page and would lead new pilots to resources necessary to get them trained up on a new bird. Some of the subjects included on the page would be links to : LOP vs ROP, Check lists, W&B, fuel management, surviving equipment etc.

    Jack

  • Rick,

    Thanks for your analysis and comments.  You related some things I wasn't aware of and added much "food for thought", especially for us, let's say not older but  "more mature" pilots.

    Dee

  • Rick,

    Great observations ... as usual.

    Interesting comment on the 2 hr and 4 hr legs. On my long flights (Florida/MA - often solo) I make the first leg longer, the second leg shorter. It just makes the last hour or two of the journey much easier to handle.

    I'm also fine departing before sunrise, but usually avoid arriving after sundown.

    Eric

    N347CD

    and EclipseJet N21EK

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