On January 26, 1997, at 1825 central standard time, a Piper PA-28-151, N8478F, operated by Southwind Aviation as a Title 14 CFR Part 91 flight, impacted terrain following a loss of engine power during an approach to runway 17 at the Brownsville International Airport, Brownsville, Texas. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the instructional cross country flight and a VFR flight plan was filed. The private pilot, sole occupant of the airplane, was not injured and the airplane sustained substantial damage. The flight originated from Waco, Texas, at 1407.

During interviews, conducted by the investigator-in-charge, the operator and the pilot reported the following information. The private pilot was enrolled in an instrument rating curriculum and was building cross country time toward the instrument rating. The flight departed Brownsville at 0930 and arrived at Waco, Texas, at approximately 1230. After adding 30 gallons of fuel, the flight departed Waco Regional Airport for the return flight to Brownsville. During the landing approach at Brownsville, the airplane was about 1 mile from the runway threshold at an altitude of 500 feet AGL when the engine lost power. A forced landing was made to a field and during the landing roll the right wing struck a tree and the airplane turned 180 degrees before coming to a stop. Structural damage occurred to the right wing, elevator and rudder.

Upon reaching the airplane at approximately 2000, the chief flight instructor examined the airplane and found that the fuel tanks were intact. He determined that "there was no apparent fuel in the gascolator," and there "was no fuel available in either tank." The assistant director of maintenance inspected the engine and the fuel system and found no discrepancies. The operator reported that the student was "unable to produce any flight planning or fuel planning for the return flight from Waco."

During interviews, conducted by the investigator-in-charge, ATC controllers stated that the pilot had received flight following until south of Corpus Christi, Texas, where he terminated the service. Subsequently, the aircraft was tracked and observed maneuvering in the vicinity of the Port Mansfield Airport for approximately 15 minutes before proceeding to Brownville. Winds aloft for the route of flight were from 150 degrees at 14 knots.

The operator conducted a test flight in the make and model of airplane along the flight route from Waco to Brownsville and the fueled used during the flight with a headwind of 3 knots was 38.4 gallons (total usable fuel 46 gallons). The operator stated that 13 knot headwinds and 15 minutes of flight maneuvering at Port Mansfield would have deplete the remaining fuel.

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