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Sun, Jan 09, 2005

Ferry Fright

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 week.

Somebody did not get his SR22 for Christmas or Boxing Day. But as the weather improved, perhaps he could get it for the New Year.

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 right wing!

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 the ocean.

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 incorrectly?

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 work.

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.

FMI: www.cirrusdesign.com, http://iserit.greennet.gl/bgbw, www.goosebayairport.com/index1.htm

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