The flight plan showed forty gallons in reserve...
By ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien
At a glance, the reserves that are used in transoceanic flight
seem overly generous. Three hours of fuel? Why so much?
Canadian pilot Alan Wall could probably tell you, if you can
catch up with him. He is the pilot who nearly ushered in the New
Year paddling the forty-degree waters between Greenland and Ireland
in a raft or survival suit. That extra fuel was a godsend to Wall,
and made all the difference between landing on a nice solid runway,
and treading water... or worse.
We were not able to talk to Wall -- and we are not even sure we
have spelled his name correctly -- for reasons we will explain
below, but we were able to talk to enough other players and gather
enough other information that we have a pretty good handle, we
think, on what happened. Of course, if we get a chance to talk to
the man who sat in the left seat we will follow up.
Let us reconstruct the facts of the flight as they have been
reported to us.
Wall, a very experienced pilot, has ferried a number of planes
across the Atlantic -- a number of Cirruses, even. He was a natural
choice to deliver this aircraft from the factory to its new home
base in the Netherlands. Cirrus sells direct, and customers or
their agents take delivery at the Cirrus plant, so the ferry pilot
is chosen by the customer, or his agents.
The ferry tank was
fitted by one of the firms that specializes in that work, and it
appeared to be in good order. When we looked at transatlantic flying in our 2003
review of Captain Ed Carlson's training video -- "Flying the North
Atlantic... Safely!" -- we explained why ferry tanks are used.
"Almost any GA machine needs added fuel tankage, because, you see,
while normal IFR and VFR reserves are a matter of minutes, Atlantic
standards require three hours of reserve fuel on arrival at your
flight-planned destination. This large padding is there to protect
you from the North Atlantic’s gnarly and fickle weather."
Ferrying a single-engine aircraft across the North Atlantic is
not for the faint heart, feeble of mind, or spontaneous spirit. The
task is the same today that it was for Alcock & Brown or --
considering that ferry pilots generally travel alone -- Lindbergh.
But at this time of the year it is also not for the rushed. Wall
waited out the weather in Goose Bay. Then he waited, followed by
some more waiting. He was stuck there, sources tell us, for a
Somebody did not get his SR22 for Christmas or Boxing Day. But
as the weather improved, perhaps he could get it for the New
So Wall took off, and New Year's Eve found him enroute to
European landfall at Shannon, Ireland, traveling at 12,000 MSL to
take best advantage of the winds.
The way the ferry tank in Wall's SR22 works is that you burn
fuel from the right tank. Then you pump fuel from the ferry tank
into the right tank. When you've pumped enough fuel, you manually
switch the pump off. You cannot fly on the fuel in the ferry tank
directly. You can fly on the fuel in the left tank, but you cannot
top that tank off from the ferry tank, so you will probably leave
that one in reserve. It is not a bog-simple fuel system, but on the
other hand it is not the Concorde, or one of those old piston
airliners of the forties, with forty-eleven fuel tanks, between and
among which you constantly have to be pumping fuel. It will work
alright, but you have to be on the ball.
Somewhere over the cold Atlantic Ocean Wall realized that he was
burning fuel faster than he should have been -- the MFD of the
Cirrus can be set to display all kinds of fun fuel facts. Instead
of having several hours reserve, he actually had much less fuel.
Quite a bit less. He then saw fuel streaming from the
Another, unconfirmed, report, says that the alternator on the
SR-22 failed. It does not say whether this was before, during, or
after Wall's observation of the fuel problem. Fortunately there are
two alternators -- two complete electrical systems -- on the
all-electric SR22. But at whatever point, it was one more problem
that the ferry pilot did not need. Somewhere during this course of
events the Cirrus began to pick up ice, which would ultimately
drive it down into less-favorable winds at 5,000 MSL.
To make things worse, the ferry-tank system reportedly
malfunctioned and would not deliver any more fuel. There were
thirty gallons in that tank that were supposed to take the machine
safely to Ireland. He could not pump them into the right tank --
and perhaps, overboard, since he may not have trusted the right
wing tank any more. Even though they were right behind Wall, and
just two yards from the hungry injectors that desperately needed
them, those thirty gallons might as well have been at the bottom of
Alan Wall and the Cirrus were somewhere over the graveyard of
the Lusitania. With snakes in the cockpit. On his side: his plane,
his wits, and his radio.
We do nor have the
sequence completely pinned down, but at some point Wall made what
events have proven to be a very good aeronautical decision, and
declared an emergency. The emergency brought him help, in the form
of a Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft, a Nimrod, descendant
of the world's first airliner, the DeHavilland Comet. The Nimrod
would stay with him, and if the worst happened, stay on scene to
coordinate helicopter, or surface craft, rescue. In most of the
Atlantic, a survivor will have to wait for a ship. Helicopters
don't have the range.
We can only imagine what it must have been like, sitting in that
plane, watching the numbers on the MFD as the GPS-based nav system
keeps updating the position. Watching landfall get closer...
watching the airport appear. If you have to be in that situation,
of course, the MFD seems like a very good thing to enhance
situational awareness -- it sure beats an ONC chart and whiz wheel.
But nobody wants to be in that situation.
As far as the remaining events, our news story gives you the bulk of it. The
plane touched down, rolled out.. and the engine quit. The RAF's
Michael Mulford told the Associated Press, "He must have judged it
right down to the last turn of the propeller."
Except for one thing... the plane was not, as widely reported --
even by us -- dry. Sure, there were the 30 gallons inexplicably
trapped in the ferry tank. But there was an additional 10 gallons
still in the wings. Because after the engine stopped,
which is where most of the media left the story, the pilot moved
the fuel selector and the plane started right up and taxied in
under its own power. Still, when he got out, eyewitnesses described
him as exhausted and sweaty, and we cannot blame him for that.
Both Cirrus and the ferry-tank manufacturer would have liked the
plane to stay put so that they could examine it and try to find the
cause of the problem. However, after some rest and an inspection of
the machine, Allan Wall took the plane on one last leg of its
flight: to its new owner in the Netherlands. Normal procedure would
have been for the ferry tank to be removed at Shannon and
airfreighted home to the Canadian coast, and this was probably
followed. The fact that Wall did fly the plane, and on another leg
with considerable time overwater, suggests that he found no serious
problems with the plane.
What really happened up there? Was the fuel tank actually
leaking, or the cap unseated? Did Wall become distracted by one of
the other problems -- and he certainly had enough of them -- and
kept pumping fuel after the tank was full? What about the ferry
tank? Was it defective, or perhaps the installation was performed
Any time you have a situation like this, there is some
finger-pointing, reminiscent of the legendary Thomas Nast cartoon,
"Who Stole The People's Money?" It does not mean anything untoward
is going on -- its just very natural, and very human, to look for
someone to pin blame on in a case like this. But does blame really
matter? Let us focus instead on the positives. There was no
accident: plane and pilot are safe. The angry sea god Poseidon is
thwarted. The plane is sound, or at least, sound enough that Wall
did not mind flying from Ireland to Holland without any major
Finally, consider this: if Wall had been flying with normal IFR
reserves, instead of with the "Three Hours" Atlantic system, he
would have, at best, taken a bath -- literally. It could have been
a lot worse. So that is why they have that rule!
This is the best that we have been able to understand about what
happened, without talking to Wall. If and when we do, chances are
that we will revise our views. So why have we not talked to Alan
Wall, the only one who was there in the plane? I know that is
my job, but you try catching up with the guy
sometime. Tuesday he was sighted -- back in Duluth, Minnesota,
picking up a new Cirrus for its new owner in Europe.
He is probably somewhere on the ferry route now. If you happen
to run into him at Narsarsuaq or Goose Bay, ask him to give us a
ring, please. We need to check the spelling of his name.