VFR Comm Pilot Scenario 1

A very bad first day on the job….

Congrats!  You are now a commercial pilot!  You just got hired at a scenic tour company with a 91.147 LOA to do scenic flights.  It’s your first day on the job and you already have a married couple you will be taking on a Sunset flight down the beach for their anniversary.  You show up to the airport early, and make sure they don’t put too much fuel in the Cessna 172 you will be flying since you do not know how much your two customers weigh, but you know between the three of you and fuel you will be pushing the max gross of the old 172.  You ask for them to add 5 gallons a side knowing that will give you 30 mins of burn fuel, plus 30 mins reserve, plus whatever else was already left in the tanks (presumably the airplane last landed with at least 30 minutes in the tanks right?).

Your two customers show up at the airport just a little late, and now you’ve been waiting in the FBO so long you are really hungry, and need to go to the bathroom, but as soon as they show up they want to get in the plane and catch the sunset, so you walk out to the plane with them and give them a quick safety brief.  They want to sit next to each other for the flight, and despite you asking one of them to sit up front with you for weight and balance, they insist on sitting together, and with no one to back you up with what you are saying, and the fact that the ink on your commercial certificate is barely dry, you concede and let them hop in the back together (they probably weigh 180lbs or less each).

You complete your checklist, taxi out noting how the airplane feels different with the extra weight in it.  After you takeoff there are a few little bumps, but the air smooths out climbing through 300′.  You cruise down the beach and catch the beautiful sunset, and are surprised at how fast your ground speed is.  Since they only paid for a 30-minute flight, you turn around just after the sun dips below the horizon and start heading back down the beach to the airport.  As you head back towards the airport, your passengers are asking you questions about flying and the airplane, but you are having trouble hearing them through the intercom.  You examine the audio panel and try to troubleshoot the issue.  Everything appears normal, and the ammeter is indicating just slightly past zero as it always does indicating a slight charge.  As you flick the ammeter, the needle bounces to the negative side, showing a drain on the battery, and now it becomes obvious, your alternator is not working and you have no idea how long it has not been functioning for.

When things start going wrong…..

At this point here are the things you do know:

  • your battery is drained to an undetermined level
  • you have at least 30-45 minutes of fuel remaining
  • you have two passengers that are getting agitated and worried because they cannot talk to you
  • you’re 20 miles from the small airport you departed from
  • you have to land at the airport you departed from per the regulations (under scenic tour flights)
  • and the daylight is fading fast

You take off your headset and yell to your passengers in back that the intercom is not working to talk with them and not to worry, it’s no big deal.  You are also preoccupied thinking of landing back at the airport with very little daylight as your lights may not work, and you know you need to start turning off some of the lights and electronics to conserve battery power.  You’re not sure if your radio will actually have enough power to turn on the runway lights. You scan the instrument panel and notice the right fuel gauge reads zero, while the left still reads around 8 gallons.  You figure that is just due to the electrical problem you’re experiencing, they both read 10 gallons when last checked prior to takeoff.

You think of landing at another non-towered airport that you are overflying on your way back to base so you will have more daylight to land in (plus the lights there are on 24/7 instead of pilot controlled), but you legally have to land where you departed from and your new boss won’t be too impressed if you strand his airplane and customers at a different airport.  You decide to continue on to where you originally departed from and fight the headwind back there. You add some power and speed up trying to race the setting sun.

Now that you’re getting close to the airport and its dusk, you figure since it’s non-towered you’ll just make a tight right base to the runway to save time and land asap. As you set up for the right base entry, you go to set 10 degrees of flaps per usual, and forget that by moving that flap lever you probably just used every last drop of energy left in your battery (oops). The flaps barely move and all you can hear through your headset is a cross between some sort of electric hiss and squeal. You try to click the lights on with no avail and decide to just turn the radios and intercom off to get rid of the awful noise. You try to turn around and tell your passengers you will be landing soon, but they are visibly shaken and it’s impossible to try and calm them while trying to scream over the noise of the engine.

You are already descending through 500 feet now and need to just focus on landing the airplane in pretty dim conditions. With the low lighting, you accidentally overshoot the runway a little bit, and try to tighten your turn to the runway with right rudder all while slowing down to final approach speed. What you are not thinking of is by applying rudder and making just a slight skidding turn all of your fuel is sloshing to the left sides of the tanks, which would be fine if the fuel selector was on both (would be bad if the fuel selector was on the left tank), but let’s say you at least remembered to have it on both. More bad news, that funky fuel gauge reading zero in the right tank was actually telling the truth. You’ve been flying now for nearly 30 minutes and despite your thorough preflight, you only sumped the tanks after they fueled the plane, rather than climbing up and sticking them too. The line guy never put the fuel cap back on the right wing when he finished fueling you and it has just been sitting there ever so nicely attached by its short little chain, all the while letting fuel get siphoned out of your right tank due to the low pressure right over the fuel cap.

So now all of your fuel has sloshed to the left, nothing was in the right tank to slosh inboard to where the fuel pickup line sits in the tank, and the few ounces of gas in the carburetor bowl quickly run out all while you’re in a skidding turn descending through 300′. All of a sudden you hear the stall horn as you feel a bump of turbulence airplane pitches down and to the right (you’ve descended through the low-level temperature inversion you climbed up into earlier that made things so smooth). You weren’t able to get the AWOS due to your electrical problem, but the winds are dead calm at the surface and you could even tell you had quite a bit of wind (20 knots or so) that had been on your tail flying up the beach and now would’ve been a headwind for you on landing, but shears to no wind descending through that low level temperature inversion that appears all too often in the evenings after a sunny day.

Congratulations, you are a brand new commercial pilot, with two passengers you cannot communicate with who are literally scared for their lives, you have just lost 15 knots of airspeed at 300′ agl that has put you into a stall and sharp roll to the right (thanks to that right rudder you had in there), you have an aft CG, and your engine just rolled back from 1,700 rpm to idle thanks to there being no fuel flowing from the wing to your engine.

How would you handle all of this? Let’s talk about both what you can do now that you’ve put yourself into serious jam, and also what you could have done differently along the way, starting with before you ever even boarded the airplane to avoid such a scenario, or at least be able to mitigate the threats that arose during this flight. Click on the link below to go to the discussion on this scenario….