Trapped and Low on Fuel

I have a good friend who has a two red flag rule when it comes to flying. When one thing isn’t perfect – that’s one red flag. Add another little problem, and my friend is not flying. I like that rule. I like rules that keep me alive. This story is about Jim Lawson, an IA Mechanic from Afton, WY (KAFO). He started flying in the mid 1980s and holds a Commercial, plus a Seaplane rating. He flies about 30 to 40 hours a year in his Mooney M20D converted to retractable gear. Althought he has an Instrument ticket, he’s very rusty and has not maintained his instrument currency. His D model has a Garmin GNS 430 and a portable Garmin (396 or 496 or Aera for XM Weather).

The D model was produced from 1963 to 1966 with fixed gear and a 180 hp Lycoming O-360-A1D engine. Mooney wanted to have a fixed gear entry in the flight training business, and also appeal to owners seeking lower insurance costs. Most Ds have been converted to retractable gear, essentially turning them into C models. Jim Lawson’s D holds a little less than 5 hours of fuel (48 gallons – 4 gallons less than a C model), and travels at about 140 knots true.

On December 10th, 2011, Jim started out from Afton early in the morning, flying Christmas presents to his son’s family in North Bend, WA (East of Seattle). He had checked the weather before departing for Ellensburg, WA (KELN), depicted by a red and white aircraft symbol on the map below. However, upon arrival he found overcast skies. He was trapped above the clouds.

Distance flown from Afton to Ellensburg: 484 nm. Fuel used: About 35 gallons. Time flown: About 3.6 hrs. Fuel remaining: 13 gallons, or 1.3 hours before the prop stands at attention.

Jim’s portable Garmin with XM Weather, indicated that Arlington, WA, (KAWO), North of Seattle, had a green flag (VFR weather). The green flag indicates current weather, and not the forecast. In his narrative, he did not indicate if he had checked the forecast for Arlington. Hoping to find a break in the clouds at his alternate, he flew through a pass in the Cascade Mountains, and towards Arlington’s green flag. (Arlington is shown as the red and white aircraft symbol above. Ellensburg is the blue and white symbol).

Distance flown from Ellensburg to Arlington: 100 nm (584 total), burning another 5.4 gallons. Fuel remaining: 7.6 gallons. Time flown this leg: 42 minutes (Total time aloft: 4.2 hrs.)

He now has about 45 minutes of fuel remaining, and seeing some mountains sticking above the clouds, he thought he would go towards them, to see if there would be a break in the clouds. That took him 20 minutes and burned another 4 gallons of fuel. He now has about 3 gallons of fuel and less than 15 minutes to find a spot to land.

At this point, Jim admitted that he was in deep trouble and he was able to contact Seattle Center controller Ken Greenwood. He told Ken that he was out of practice flying by instruments only.  Greenwood and fellow air traffic controller Ryan Herrick did what they could to help.

Jim requested vectors to Auburn (S50), south of Seattle and shown here by the red and while aircraft symbol. (That’s a 50 nm flight and would use up 22 minutes of fuel – a little over four gallons). Flying south at 7,000 feet, the engine stopped due to fuel starvation. Jim switched tanks and the engine started again. About 20 miles north of Auburn, the controllers cleared him to descend. He was rusty and had a difficult time holding a heading in the weather.


Frustrated, and feeling a sense of urgency, the team of controllers, which had grown to three at this point, took COMMAND of the entire situation and vectored him to the SEATAC  airport (KSEA). Their thoughts were, that SEATAC is a bigger airport, has lots of runways and it’s easier to see. While proceeding to SEATAC, and cleared to descend to 4,500 feet, the engine quit again. Jim Lawson’s Mooney was out of fuel and suction.



He was in the weather, fearing for his life, armed with rusty instrument skills – and now he must maintain flight with a magnetic compass, turn coordinator and pitot static/instruments.

At 2,000 feet, Jim broke out of the clouds over Lake Washington and Mercer Island (the red and white waypoint on the map to left). He spotted the bright lights of Boeing Field (KBFI) on his right, and he wanted to glide there.

Fortunately, the controllers talked him out of it, insisting that he look for Renton (KRNT) at “12 O’clock and 4 miles”.

A mile and a half later, he spotted Renton, but noticed that the runway threshold was preceded by a blast fence that he’d need to clear. He already had his gear down, accelerating his descent, and he felt that he was not long for this Earth.

As he raised the nose of the aircraft slightly, the small amount of fuel remaining in the tank found its way into the fuel line and the engine restarted – giving him the needed power to lift him over the blast fence for a safe arrival in Renton.

Lawson radioed back to the controllers, “You know what? You just saved my life.”

“Anytime, sir,” was the reply.

What can we Learn?

Thirty years ago, when I asked my boss where he had learned to fly, he said, “I soloed in Show Low, Arizona in 1939, and I’ve been learning every since!” That philosophic quip has stuck with me, and I’ve tried to learn something from every flight. I also love to hear stories about other pilots,  because their experiences are wonderful teaching tools. Had I been in Jim Lawson’s situation, I don’t know how I’d do, but I can tell you that the seats would need to be removed by a HAZMAT team for a good cleaning. We are all grateful that he survived this “puckering, near death experience”. I also think Jim is a very brave man for sharing his story, so that we could learn from it. Telling the story could not have been an easy thing to do.

A Controller’s Thoughts

One of the Air Traffic Controllers, reflecting on Jim’s experience said, “If [Jim] had said [upon initial contact], ‘I just made it over the Cascades and I’ve got about five minutes of gas, and I need to land now’, we could have had him down sooner. Instead he was on the frequency 18 minutes, and we were hunting and pecking for a place to land him. It was a Q & A session.”

The Pilot’s Thoughts

Jim Lawson said, “I didn’t want to get in trouble so I hesitated and delayed contact with ATC. I should have contacted ‘em as soon as I couldn’t get down at my alternate, and I didn’t.” Pilots should not be afraid to ask for ATC’s help. They are not a police department, and their first priority is your safe return to Earth. When you are seeking their advice and help, don’t assume that they know all about your situation or fuel status.

Parting Thoughts

#1.When something goes wrong, that’s red flag number one. If another problem occurs, no matter how small, that could be the trigger that escalates matters into a full blown emergency, or worse.

#2. If you know when you took off, you can calculate your fuel burn and fuel remaining. Don’t trust your gauges. Maintain situational awareness and set limits of how far you’ll go in any quest. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped in an almost impossible situation.


#3. FAR91.151 & 167 REQUIRES that if you are flying VFR, that you have enough fuel to fly to your destination + 30 minutes of reserve fuel. If you are flying IFR, that you have enough fuel to fly to your destination and an alternate (if required) + 45 minutes of reserve fuel. According to AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, in an average week, three GA aircraft crash due to improper fuel management.

#4. If you are “into” your reserve fuel, it’s already a bad situation! The FAR reserve requirements are woefully low. I don’t like livin’ on the edge, especially when it comes to aviation. My personal reserve requirements are at least one hour of fuel.

#5. A METAR reports the current weather and a TAF indicates the forecast. Don’t depend on a METAR to determine if you can land at an airport in 30 minutes. Expect weather to change. Sometimes we can’t depend on TAFs either, so be ready with an escape plan. If a “green” airport is surrounded by blue, red and purple airports, that’s not a pretty picture.

#6. Most aircraft glide very well when clean, and Mooneys are no exception. Don’t extend the flaps or gear until the Landing Zone is assured.


Be vigilant for red flags when you fly. They will literally bury you. Jim Lawson survived the appearance of not one or two, but four red flags. You or I might not be so lucky.


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