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On December 18, 2004, about 1645 Pacific daylight time, a PA-28-180, N32034, experienced a loss of engine power and collided with terrain during a forced landing in Jean, Nevada. Pacific Coast Flyers was operating the rental airplane under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. The private pilot and two passengers were not injured; the airplane sustained substantial damage. The personal cross-country flight departed French Valley Airport, Murrieta, California, about 1445, with the planned destination of North Las Vegas, Nevada. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a flight plan had not been filed.
During a telephone interview with a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, the pilot reported that his proposed flight was to depart McClellan-Palomar Airport, Carlsbad, California, en route to North Las Vegas with an intermediate stop in Murrieta (were he would pickup two passengers). Prior to departure, he obtained a weather briefing for his predetermined cruising altitude and route of flight, which forecast the winds aloft at 20-30 knots, from a southwesterly direction. Using flight performance data and the forecasted wind conditions, the pilot calculated the flight time to North Las Vegas to be about 1 hour 50 minutes to 2 hours 10 minutes. During the preflight inspection of the airplane, he confirmed the fuel quantity on board the airplane using a clear straw dipstick (specific to the PA-28-180), measuring each tank to have about 15-16 gallons; both quantities were just below the reference tabs. He estimated that at the intended power setting for the flight, the airplane's fuel tanks contained between 2 hours 50 minutes and 3 hours 10 minutes of fuel.
The pilot further stated that the flight departed Carlsbad about 1415, arriving at Murrieta about 1435. After landing, he again visually verified the fuel quantity, which he estimated to be about 15 gallons in each tank; the pilot departed for the final leg of the flight about 1445. While en route, he noted that the wind conditions at the selected cruise altitudes of 7,000 feet and 8,000 feet mean sea level (msl) were stronger than he had anticipated. He queried an air traffic control specialist (via radio transmissions) about the airplane's groundspeed, which according to radar returns, indicated about 80-85 knots, equating to 40-45 knots slower than he expected. As the airplane approached the California/Nevada state border, the pilot became increasingly concerned with the diminishing fuel quantity and elected to proceed toward Jean airport where he would land.
As the airplane entered the proximity of the airport, the pilot switched between the airplane's two fuel tanks, exhausting the fuel quantity in both; about 1645 the pilot performed a forced landing. During the landing rollout, the airplane's right main landing gear impacted a large rock, and the airplane pivoted to the right, collapsing the nose landing gear. After the pilot egressed the airplane, he performed a post-crash examination, which revealed that both of the airplane's fuel tanks were completely empty. The pilot reported no preimpact mechanical malfunctions or failures with the airplane.
In a written account of the accident, the pilot stated that during the final leg of the flight he encountered strong headwinds. In addition, he experienced crosswinds, which required him to crab the airplane and input heading corrections of up to 35 degrees in an effort to remain on the intended flight path. Despite his corrective actions, the airplane drifted off course on numerous occasions. The pilot further remarked that after the engine was exhausted of fuel, the cockpit fuel gauges indicated about 1/8 fuel remaining in each tank.
According to a representative of the operator, the airplane's Hobbs meter indicated a total elapsed time of 2.5 hours from the initial departure point in Carlsbad to the accident site.
An aviation routine weather report (METAR) for Carlsbad at 1353, about 12 minutes prior to the airplane's departure, reported a temperature 24 degrees Celsius. A METAR for Dagget at 1554 reported surface temperatures of 18 degrees Celsius.
A winds aloft report from the closest reporting station to the site of the accident (50 miles to the northwest) indicated that between 1400 and 1700 mountain standard time, wind conditions at altitudes between 4,000 feet and 8,000 msl were from the west-southwest at less than 15 knots. The routine weather reporting station in Barstow-Daggett, located 90 miles to the southwest and along the route of flight, reported at 1554 that the wind conditions were calm at the surface.
TEST AND RESEARCH
During a telephone interview with a Safety Board investigator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector who responded to the accident reported that both of the airplane's undamaged fuel tanks were empty.
The pilot's flight originated from Carlsbad (elevation 331 feet msl), and thereafter, headed in a northeasterly direction reaching an altitude over 3,700 feet msl and cruising between 110 to 120 knots indicated airspeed. The pilot made a planned stop at Murrieta (elevation 1,350 feet msl), an estimated 28 nautical miles (nm) away, where he shut down the engine as two passengers boarded the airplane. Before departure he noted that the fuel quantity was slightly below the indicator tabs, which equates to less than 34 gallons on board. After taxiing back to the runway and completing his second run-up, the airplane departed Murrieta en route to North Las Vegas.
The en route portion of the flight continued over California in a northerly direction over San Bernardino, Lake Arrowhead, Apple Valley, and then headed to the northeast over Daggett and Baker. Continuing on the same flight path, the airplane crossed the California/Nevada border and experienced fuel exhaustion several miles from Jean. The estimated distance from Murrieta to Jean, via the airplane's reported flight path, is about 176 nm, equating to a total trip distance of about 204 nm; the distance for the proposed trip to North Las Vegas is about 232 nm. While en route, the airplane cruised at altitudes of 7,500 and 9,500 feet msl, and between indicated airspeeds of 120 to 130 knots.
The Airplane Flight Manual (AFM) for the PA-28-180 indicates a total fuel capacity of 50 gallons, of which 2 are unusable. The manual further states that the fuel consumption, when operating at 75 percent power, is approximately 8.8 gallons per hour in cruise flight, assuming the engine is leaned according to the manufacturer's specifications. With the information provided (a total flight duration of 2.5 hours and a starting fuel quantity of 30 gallons usable), the fuel burn rate equates to about 12 gallons per hour. The "Operating Tips" section of the AFM states that in an effort to verify fuel capacity, without replenishing to the maximum capacity, the pilot can fill the tanks to the bottom of the filler neck tube or visual indicator (tabs), ensuring a quantity of 18 gallons total in each tank, of which 1 gallon is unusable. The airplane manufacturer does not approve any method or device to verify fuel quantity other than the visual reference of full fuel tanks (48 gallons usable) or fuel to the bottom of the visual indicator tabs (34 gallons usable).
The Textron Lycoming operator's manual for the applicable O-360-A4A engine indicates that the fuel consumption, when operating at 75 percent power, is about 10.5 gallons per hour.
An examination of the airplane's fuel system preformed by recovery personnel, revealed that while the sending unit for the left tank was manipulated in the empty position, the cockpit's left fuel quantity gauge indicated 1/4 fuel remaining. As the sending unit was manipulated to the full fuel position, the fuel gauge needle moved to the full indication.
According to Federal Aviation Regulation 14 CFR Part 23.1337, each fuel quantity indicator is required to be calibrated to read "zero" when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply.