During yet another long Hope Air mission, I was reminded why the blue-tinted gasoline powering GXRP is key to successful flights.

I don’t mean just the obvious sense. GXRP carries over six hours’ worth of fuel, which is ample for one long (3-hour) flight with a big contingency reserve. It is not enough for two.

When flying to a small airport at an odd hour of the day, there is a possibility of having to go without a refuel. With a considerable tailwind homeward, there is a temptation to plan a return all the way home, simplifying the process but sacrificing the reserve. When subsequently flying conditions deteriorate, the reduced reserve can create a crisis. (Here, “crisis” is used in its dictionary sense, being a moment where an urgent decision is required, not as in journalism, where it is a fancy synonym of “trouble”.)

Enough generalities.

After 2.8 hours in the air to Cochrane, the airport turned up unattended. The left and right inboard tanks of GXRP were down to about 20%, and both outboards 80%. I anticipated a good wind homeward, so I figured I would go straight home. A helpful briefer at the London Flight Service pointed out that weather in the Toronto area was no longer as good as at the start of the day. “Good” in this case meant 30-40 kt winds inducing wild bronco turbulence, but still manageable visual conditions. The trouble: an infamous snow streamer formed in a narrow line from Lake Huron over to Trenton, wiggling back and forth, touching Toronto all the way about 50 nm north. I launched anyway, keeping in mind a sequence of possible stopping points: Timmins, Sudbury, Muskoka, and Barrie-Orillia.

To collect all available fuel in one set of tanks, which is desirable for landing or operating in turbulent conditions, I decided to burn off the inboard tanks before using the outboards. Since both engines burn fuel around the same rate, having them both run off of the inboard tanks could cause a double engine failure, even if only momentarily. So, instead I’ve used a little trick, where I alternate running down the nearly-empty tanks, on one engine at a time. So, there I was, at cruise altitude, with the left engine emptying its inboard tank, and the right engine drawing down its fuller outboard. As the minutes ticked by, the left fuel gauge got closer and closer to “E”, and I checked a timer constantly. When the left one was run down “enough”, I’d switch that to the outboard, and the right side to the inboard, for the same amount of time. The result: fuel balanced and collected, without much risk.

Suddenly, after 45 long minutes, the left engine drew its last sip of fuel from that tank. While I did not intend to actually run the tank completely dry (going instead by time or gauge indications), I did rehearse the maneuver to instantly flip the fuel selector valves to restore flow from the fuller tank. Still, when the engine really ran out, the sensation was about as uncomfortable as I ever want to feel in the plane. Within a second, the engine monitor indicated all cylinders cooling, power becoming intermittent. The other engine was pulling strong and there were no control difficulties. Once the fuel selector started feeding fuel from the outboard tank, I expected the left engine to come back to full power right away. Instead, for about ten more seconds, it was hesitating, as if the fuel lines had to be pressurized anew, or some other nasty education was about to take place. This was unexpected, and I disliked it enough to not want to try that one again. I’d rather leave a small amount of unused gas in a tank than have to wobblify the engines.

With that piece of excitement past, I switched tanks as planned, intending to use only about half of those 45 minutes from the right inboard side. Calculations indicated that this would leave about one hour of fuel left in reserve (inboards empty, outboards at 33%) at the time of landing. Just barely enough.

Then some weather news came in: that snow streamer has hit downtown Toronto. “Just barely enough” fuel was not going to cut it, since now there was a strong likelihood of having to try a couple of approaches, holding, diverting to Pearson (again), or some such timetaking entertainment. With low fuel, that’s no fun, so I went to work finding another place to land, somewhere close. I was just flying past Muskoka at this time, and knew that their weather has been all right, so it was my safe backup. I hoped to land closer to Toronto though, so I asked for a diversion to Barrie-Orillia (CNB9). From a long way away, they cleared me for an approach, but cautioned that they had no weather data for that airport. I was fortunately able to raise the Barrie-Orillia ground folks on the radio from way far out. When they told me that they were blasted with at least 4” of snow on the runway, I realized that it was out of the question. I turned around immediately (rather hastily, from an IFR clearance following perspective), and asked ATC to send me back to Muskoka. Ten minutes later, I landed at night on a small amount of fluffy snow, posing no slipperiness challenge to GXRP. After the complications of this flight, it was a relief to be on the ground.

The airport staff had gone home by then, leaving open the apron, and the terminal building with phones and washrooms. I ended up calling a cab to a hotel in nearby Bracebridge. It was fairly cheap, as was the awesome steak & beer dinner nearby. The only concern now was how GXRP was going to deal with being left out in the cold overnight.

Next morning, Muskoka weather was lovely. A crisp -14 C, blue skies, no overnight snow, lovely pine tree forests. I got back to the airplane before the airport staff got to work, and warmed myself by scraping off some of the overnight frost. Cleaning the wings and the tail properly constituted the second use of the handy dandy deicing fluid sprayer I have been carrying in GXRP for months. It paid for itself right there. However, only I will get to pay for the extra wear and tear on the engines, which were cold-started. Poor things: starting reluctance was both mine and theirs.

Once refueled and warmed, the airplane was happy to go home, as was I. There was still some cloud piercing, some airborne snow here and there. But with so much fuel on board, the stresses from the previous night were a distant memory. This short flight was just plain fun.