The Smell of AvGas — It’s Not Success

This is a sad story, with an even sadder ending. Two pilots, who loved to fly their homebuilt Long EZ airplane (a very efficient canard design), got a bad case of get-there-itus. The problem was simple: they should have had a case of stop-and-figure-it-out-itus. This difference in afflictions in this case cost both pilots their life, and destroyed the airplane in the bargain.

ROUGH ARRIVAL. The pilots arrived at a small, rural airport on their return trip back towards home. The reason they landed was due to the smell of fuel in their composite plane’s cockpit – a smell so strong that it was making them sick to their stomachs. After they stood around for a while and cleared their heads, they started looking for the source of the leak.

A Note to Our Readers: AvGas is octane enhanced with Tetraethyl Lead. This stuff is as bad as eating lead-based paint — long-term exposure can cause brain damage and death. This is why there has been a push to eliminate leaded fuels in cars, and why there continues to be a push for unleaded fuels for airplanes — the stuff is very effective, but has extremely nasty effects on the human organism.

Our two pilots looked and they looked. Personnel from the FBO that operated a fuel service — but had no maintenance on the field — helped them look, too. They looked high and low in the fuselage, at the fuel lines, at the belly, under the seats, at the engine… Despite their efforts, they couldn’t find a leak. Begin accident sequence:

  1. While flying, the fumes were so bad that both pilots were nauseous, and HAD TO LAND.
  2. They looked but couldn’t find a problem.
  3. The pilots figure the problem must have “healed itself,” since it couldn’t be found.
  4. They decide to press on to their home airport.
  5. …this isn’t looking good, is it?

The plane was refueled, and the pilots climbed back in for departure. It was a warm day, and with the short runway, they needed all the power they could get. When the engine was pushed to full power, for unknown reasons full power was not achieved. The plane — now with partial power — pushed these two individuals, who with their weight, plus the weight of the fuel, were pushing toward max gross weight for the plane … and toward the end of the runway.

In situations like this, the seconds on the takeoff roll can seem like minutes. They had plenty of room to chop the power and stand on the brakes.

The plane became airborne when it was nearly at the end of the runway, lifting off into ground effect some five to six feet above the ground. It barely cleared the barbed wire fence that provided the border on the west side of the airport, but did not clear the corn, which had grown up above it. The corn tore at the wings, and pulled the plane down. The ensuing fire destroyed the aircraft, and killed its two occupants.

BAD DECISIONS COMPOUND IN AIRPLANES. Any single one of the decisions that was made individually was not fatal. However, when all the bad decisions were added up, along with the other factors that were in play — a fully loaded airplane, not enough engine power, and a short runway — this series of decisions ended up costing two pilots their lives.

THEY DIDN’T GET HOME ON TIME, OR EVER, FOR THAT MATTER. All their intentions and efforts, including their painstaking care of the airplane through the previous years, went up in smoke.

THE BOTTOM LINE: DO YOU HAVE A LITTLE VOICE THAT SAYS “This may not be such a good idea.” LISTEN TO IT! Fuel leaks are NOT self-healing. If you can smell it, there is a leak. If the smell is so strong that it gets you sick, you are looking at a dangerously large fuel leak! Listening to that voice in your head, and making the decision not to press on. Fly smart. Live long.