ILAFFT: Fuel fiasco
PUBLISHED: 11:54 20 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:54 20 August 2015
A young airline training graduate sets out in for some carefree flying with the aim of building hours at the lowest possible cost...
It was November 1970, and I was in high spirits. Having recently turned 21, I had just passed my Commercial Pilot’s Licence exams and graduated from the airlines’ training college at Hamble, near Southampton. After a fortnight of recuperative leave, my course (originally of 36 cadets, but now whittled down to 24) would start their careers with BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways and then Britain’s sole intercontinental airline.
At little more than £1,000 per year, the pay wasn’t great even for those times, but I had spotted a way of improving it. Pilots with more than 250 flying hours on commencement of employment automatically jumped two lucrative rungs up the pay scale. This was presumably a sop to incoming ex-RAF pilots, for Hamble cadets graduated with only 225 hours, but I spied an opportunity. During our eighteen-month course I had taken the trouble to sit my PPL exams, joined White Waltham’s West London Aero Club, and subsequently took flying all of my family and anybody else who would contribute to the costs. Added to 7:20 of AEF Chipmunk time and my Air Cadet gliding course, my logbook total exceeded 238 hours, so I only needed a dozen more to qualify. As well as the pure financial logic of course, and after eighteen months of rigid aviation discipline, this was also an incentive to go and do some carefree flying.
Thumbing through the pages of Pilot’sSpring Where to Fly Guidefor inexpensive aircraft hire rates, my eyes lit upon Sportair at Biggin Hill. I knew little about their Fournier aeroplanes, other than that they looked very pretty, but the most important factor was their cost: £5 per hour dual, and £4 per hour solo (this, when a Cessna 150 cost up to £10). Better still, you could hire a single-seat RF4D for a whole day at just £15 provided you paid for fuel and landing fees.Pilot’ sAugust issue reported that, for the Air Fair, by doing some serious thermalling, one of Sportair’s RF4Ds had flown a whole 200 miles on just two gallons (nine litres) of fuel – then costing seven bob per gallon (7.7p per litre). Having recently flown 225 hours in eighteen months including more than a dozen solo in my latest love, the Chipmunk, I reckoned a type check should not take me more than three hours and one day. If I could then fly nine more hours in a second day, I should be able to do the lot easily within a week and costing significantly less than the additional income from just one year’s increased pay increment.
So, on a chilly, murky, but just-flyable morning I presented myself at Sportair’s bright Portakabin offices to meet their cheery chief pilot, a huge young Texan named Robby Dorsey. I explained what I wanted to do, and he immediately saw the anomaly in my plan: nine daylight hours of flying weather in mid-November? He smiled wryly.
The checkout went fine, and I remember little now except that I kept trying to raise the nose of our tandem-seat RF5 to the stalling attitude before touchdown, as is necessary in a Chipmunk. Robbie got out “before you completely loosen my fillings!” Then, after lunch, he sent me off in one of their single-seat RF4Ds, a wonderful experience that, like my first solo five years previously, I shall never forget. Its ‘Spitfire-light’ (Robbie’s words) controls, the unsurpassed visibility and joyous simplicity after my year-and-a-half of rigid airline-like aircraft operation immediately had me captivated!
The next two days had miserable forecasts, but Thursday, although threatening to be windy, seemed a possibility, so I agreed to rent G-AWGN for the day, arranging for its tank to be full. I had planned a near-rectangular course at a fuel-sipping sixty mph, from Biggin Hill clockwise around the Gatwick zone via Mayfield, thence into the strong westerly wind to overhead my Alma Mater, Hamble and beyond to Bournemouth/Hurn, then northeastwards to Blackbushe and finally an easy downwind scamper back to base. I had been told the Fournier’s consumption was a mere 0.7 of a gallon per hour at its best glide speed of 62mph, so its eight-gallon tank should easily keep me going all day.
As an impecunious recent ex-student (I didn’t even own a wristwatch) I was forced to borrow my father’s Ford Consul, and that meant dropping him off at the station before I could go flying. It also meant I had to be back in time to pick him up in the evening. This limited my feasible flying to eight hours, so I whizzed down to Biggin as rapidly as possible. There I ran around a quick pre-flight, slotted my sandwich and alarm clock (the only timepiece I possessed – I had no watch, remember) into the cockpit behind my right elbow, strapped on my kneepad and started the engine. Deeply imbued with airline-style procedures, I set the clock’s alarm to ring an arbitrary four hours hence, for by then I should be thinking about turning back downwind for home.
Finally, I visually confirmed that the fuel tank was completely full. Although I have since flown many aircraft types with similar float-and-wire gauges in their fuel caps, I had never previously encountered one, but reasoned that its simplicity suggested reliability. So far as I could see, its only possible failure would be a leaking float, resulting in a diminution of apparent contents and therefore a safe outcome. Nevertheless, as a suspicious afterthought, and before finally closing the canopy, I checked this gauge by pushing the top of its wire all the way down and watching the float waggling it back up again.
Taxying out, taking off and setting course southwards all went uneventfully, although the cloudbase was a ragged 2,000 feet and our drift was significantly greater than planned. Put it on your Dalton computor: sixty mph airspeed with thirty knots of wind at right angles. You get nearly forty degrees of drift, a figure I’d only thought possible in boats! You also get less than forty knots of groundspeed, so it took a full half-hour to cover the twenty miles to Mayfield. No matter, I was here to build flying time, although I was a little taken aback when we turned right and virtually stopped!
Making progress into that strong headwind seemed to take forever. Becoming seriously bored as we bounced through the bumps, I decided to compromise on the economy, increasing power to give a more perceptible progress over the countryside. After all, I had used very little fuel – the float wire’s top hardly seemed to have moved. Diagonally crossing the South Downs well over an hour later, it still didn’t appear to have stirred, but obviously the tank had been full to brimming, so the float wouldn’t sink for a while until some space had been left for it. Chugging past Portsmouth, I began to become concerned. We had been airborne much more than two hours; surely that fuel float should have descended a bit by now? I started becoming mesmerised by it, taunting me, just eighteen inches ahead of my face but completely out of reach beyond the latched canopy. It must be jammed, so I waggled the elevator and kicked the rudder in an attempt to dislodge it, but without any luck.
Not to worry, I thought, even at my current seventy mph this little thing shouldn’t burn more than a gallon and a half per hour, so that still gives me at least four safe hours, and probably quite a lot more. Let’s say five. Reassured for a while, I continued westwards towards Southampton, but now quietly pondering possible en-route alternates. Portsmouth was quite a way behind and, although an all-grass airfield, it had scheduled airliner traffic, so its landing fee was likely to be pricey. Dunsfold was military, so only available in emergencies. Southampton’s fees and requirements have always been outrageous, so that was completely out of the question. Popham didn’t exist back then. Despite being a proper airport, Hurn’s fees tended to be reasonable, so I decided to continue there. Despite its proximity, not far behind me, I was much too embarrassed to consider a low-fuel diversion to Hamble less than a week after graduation!
And so I persevered, frustrated by what was now obviously a stuck fuel gauge, embarrassed that I wasn’t sure how much petrol I truly had, and not a little scared that, since I didn’t really know this aeroplane, I might actually run out! I never even considered that I couldn’t know whether I had a fuel leak, or a stuck Curtis valve, or if the engine was running excessively rich or my consumption was too high for any other reason. And, since I had now been airborne for more than three hours, a distended bladder was adding to my discomfort. I increased power and speed even more.
The thing was, I had only been flying properly for eighteen months, and then in an intensely structured and controlled environment, so I was rather out of my depth. Nowadays I would divert at minimum power to the nearest downwind airfield, regardless of cost. Back then, I elected to keep on to Bournemouth. I did make one sensible decision though. Ten miles out, I called Hurn Approach and said I was diverting to them, “Due low fuel state”. They cleared me direct to the outer marker. Overhead I heard a Hamble Baron letting down in the pattern for a procedural ILS approach. I knew just how he felt. I’d been there only weeks previously, sweating through my Instrument Rating flight test single-handed with only a slaved DI, one VOR, one fixed-card ADF and no EFIS, transponder nor even a DME. And today was windy, so like me, he’d be struggling with the drift.
Doggedly, I plodded on at fixed rpm, not daring to increase power for fear of using up whatever fuel remained. I did start descending though, so my airspeed went up to 80mph (a mere 70 knots!) Approaching the outer marker by visual navigation (my new mount had no avionics but a 360-channel radio) and crossing it at the remembered correct height, my embarrassment was increased tenfold when I heard first “Alpha Echo, you’re closing on the emergency traffic ahead. Go around. I say again, go around, acknowledge.” This was followed by “Roger, Alpha Echo going around.” And then by the familiar melodious drone through my canopy and over the puttering of my near-idling engine as the Baron’s twin Continental sixes blared past at full throttle not far above. I muttered to myself a silent ‘I’m really sorry’ as my heart-rate doubled and my palms sweated with mortification while I squirmed with embarrassment in my snug seat.
But then I really crapped myself. The Baron’s diminishing hum was replaced with an awful clangour – a thunderously loud bell was ringing somewhere very nearby. What fresh hell was this? That bloody alarm clock under my elbow! Set to four elapsed hours, I had completely forgotten about it. By now I was thoroughly rattled, and the landing was far from my best. So ofcourse the fuel float was dislodged, dropping more than half-way down.As I taxied over to the terminal, scarlet with shame, opened the canopy and clammily clambered out, a fuel truck roared up, “Where’s that Pawnee? There’s one here somewhere that’s run out of fuel.”
“Ah, no, I think that would be me. It’s a Fournier, not a Pawnee, but yes, I would like some fuel please.” I still have that receipt. My fuel cost £2/2/7d (£2.13p) , and the landing fee was just £8/3d (41p), but I shall never forget the look of disgust on that driver’s face for being dragged away from his lunch to pump a mere six gallons of avgas into an idiot’s tank.If you’re wondering… yes, I did eventually get those hours and the increment, followed by a 33-year career with British Airways. Moreover, nearly 45 years later, I’m still flying Fourniers!
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