On December 8, 2002, at 2027 mountain standard time, a Piper PA-28-161, N2588Y, collided with ground obstructions during a forced landing following a loss of engine power during the takeoff initial climb from the Scottsdale Airport (SDL), Scottsdale, Arizona. The airplane, operated by Falcon Executive Aviation, Mesa, Arizona, and rented by the pilot for a cross-country personal flight, sustained substantial damage. The private pilot and a passenger sustained minor injuries. The ground damage was confined to a light pole in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. There were no ground injuries. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a flight plan had not been filed. The flight originated at Falcon Field Airport, Mesa (FFZ), at 1815, and made a stop at the Tucson International Airport (TUS), Tucson, Arizona. The flight departed from TUS at 1920, with a planned touch-and-go landing at SDL and a final destination of FFZ.

In a telephone interview, the pilot stated that after landing at TUS, he taxied back and took off again to return to the Phoenix area. The pilot completed a touch-and-go at SDL, repositioning the fuel selector to the left tank on final. During the climb out, the engine began to sputter and lose power. The power loss was smooth, without vibration or roughness. He lowered the nose to see if sufficient runway remained for landing and determined that the airplane was already beyond the point where that was possible. The pilot turned right in preparation for an emergency landing on a street, and the engine power came back. The pilot attempted to turn back to the runway; however, the engine lost power a second time. The pilot then landed the airplane in a parking lot, and the left wing struck a light pole.

During the interview, the pilot's preflight actions and fuel system management were discussed. He stated that during his preflight, he looked inside both fuel tanks and observed the fuel level "at or slightly below the tabs" (34 total gallons). The operator rents the airplanes on a "wet" basis, meaning the airplanes are fueled to that level after every flight. He started the flight on the right tank, and since his habit was to change tank positions every 30 minutes, he believes he switched to the left tank halfway to TUS, back to the right tank for the flight back to the Phoenix area, and finally switched to the left tank approaching SDL. The fuel gages appeared to register levels that were consistent with his observations of the tank levels during the preflight.

Post accident documentation of the airplane by the responding Scottsdale airport operations personnel, the fire department, and police officers found the fuel selector in the left tank position. Three gallons of fuel were found in the right wing tank, and zero gallons were found in the left wing tank. No fuel leakage was noted from the tanks, and no staining was evident to the asphalt under the airplane. Comparison of the Hobbs hour meter readings when the pilot checked out the airplane, and at the accident site, revealed that the engine had operated for 2.3 hours since engine start at Mesa.

The operator was asked for all documentation relating to fueling and operation of the airplane on the day of the accident. According to the company manager, Falcon Executive Aviation (FEA) rents its airplanes on a wet basis and also has the fuel concession for the Mesa airport. As the airplanes return from flights, the company fuel trucks refuel the airplane tanks to the tabs, unless the pilot requests more fuel. According to the rental records, the airplane was rented three times on the day of the accident. The first rental period was from 0900 until 1100, with that pilot operating the airplane for 0.9 hours. The second rental was scheduled from 1200 until 1600, with that pilot operating the airplane for 2.4 hours. The final period was scheduled by the accident pilot from 1730 until 2100. The fueling records show that the airplane was only fueled once that day at 1110, with the addition of 9.0 gallons. FEA's manager stated that an audit of the fuel dispensed that day showed that the total fuel dispensed balanced with the fuel slips, with no unaccounted for amount.

The fueling personnel for FEA provided written statements. One reported that he refueled the airplane once at 1110 on the day of the accident. The second fueler stated that he did not put any fuel into the airplane. He said that about 1810 he pulled up to the front of the accident airplane as two people were preparing to get into it. He asked the pilot if he needed fuel and the pilot responded that he was "good" and did not need any. The refueler said that after the pilot's statement, he did not check the fuel level and proceeded down the flight line checking the other airplanes.

According to calculations performed by the Safety Board investigator-in-charge (IIC), the airplane was flown for a total of 4.7 hours after being fueled to the tabs. The IIC performed a best economy cruise performance calculation at 55 percent power for the combined flights. The airplane burns 6.6 gallons per hour (gph) at 55 percent power. The calculated total cruise fuel burn for the two flights was 31 gallons. The calculations were based on cruise performance only.

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