It wasn't the kind of night I'd have picked for an instrument cross-country training flight. Hot, sticky and muggy, with no breeze at all. And while the ceiling was way above minimums, visibility was barely three miles with smoke and summertime haze.

The weather forecaster at Flight Service had advised that the possibility of thunderstorms existed all along our proposed route, from Peachtree-DeKalb in northeast Atlanta to Waycross, Georgia and back. It was early August 1977, and I was nearing the end of my instrument flight training. Bama, my instructor, had accepted a temporary assignment at Lockheed-Martin in Santa Clara and would be leaving for the west coast within days. So we were accelerating the program to get me through. As a caveat for him spending some of his last hours in Atlanta helping me, I had selected a route that would enable us to pick up his daughter, Gail at the Waycross airport in South Georgia and bring her back to Atlanta, in time for his going away party.

Preflight complete and with the engine running, we were "cleared as filed," but after taxiing into position on the active runway, we were told to hold in the run-up area, pending a release by Air Traffic Control. We held our position--window and doors open, the prop blasting us with welcomed hot air. The heat from the day steamed off the tarmac and seared the underneath side of the airplane.

As sunset approached, I turned on the interior lights, the red and green navigation lights, and the white position light atop the tail. Roughly twenty minutes went by before we were cleared for takeoff. I acknowledged the clearance, nodded at Bama, turned on the landing and taxi lights, and pushed the throttle forward. As our in-flight visibility was nil, he wasn't requiring me to wear the "hood," a device used during instrument training that limits a pilot's vision just to the airplane's instruments.

We departed Peachtree-DeKalb around 8:30 p.m., and were vectored around the Class B airspace at Atlanta's Hartsfield International on the east side. I was expecting a turn more toward the south when Departure Control advised that center radar was painting several cells from just north of Macon, south to the Florida line. The controller suggested we continue to fly a southeasterly heading and look for a possibility to navigate around them.

Just under two hours later, we were passing over Jesup in the southeastern corner of the state when the controller advised that he was showing a strong cell over Waycross, moving southeast. He asked if we could see any lightning. I rolled the airplane slightly to the right to take a look. Nothing. No sign of any bad weather at all. In fact, it appeared clear in the direction of Waycross. I acknowledge his report and asked for vectors to the Waycross airport.

We flew from somewhere southeast of Jesup to Waycross without getting the wings wet. As I overflew the field on an outbound course for the standard procedure turn back inbound, I saw that the windsock was stiff and the tetrahedron was pointing straight across the active runway.

Inbound on the approach, I held in enough aileron and opposite rudder to keep us straight, and held it all the way to touchdown. On the rollout, I noticed that the windsock was now limp even though the tetrahedron remained in a crosswind position.

I'd hoped to refuel at the Waycross airport, but the service buildings were dark. Since aviation was still feeling the effects of the oil crisis, many small airport operations closed at sundown. No problem, we'd refuel in Macon on the return.We visited the men's room, had a soft drink out of a vending machine, and walked back toward the airplane, now crouching silently on the ramp. I did a quick preflight check of the oil, the fuel, and gave the undercarriage a quick glance. Gail climbed on board first and settled in the back seat. Bama took the right front. I secured Gail's baggage and both doors, then buckled-up in the left seat. We lit the fire, turned on the lights and the radios and recited our pre-takeoff checklist.

As we taxied out to the runway, we contacted Flight Service and amended our instrument clearance to include a stopover in Macon. Gail was tired after working all week managing a Hallmark Gift Shop, and she quickly curled up in the back seat. After takeoff, I dimmed the cabin lights and put on a communications headset so she could rest. We were still climbing to our assigned altitude when Center gave us a turn to our en route heading toward Macon.

Thirty miles south, we contacted Macon Approach Control and were given vectors for an ILS approach to Runway Five at Wilson/Middle Georgia Airport. Inside the outer marker, we were handed off to the tower who asked our intentions after the instrument approach. I advised it would be a full stop landing for fuel. After a noticeable hesitation, the controller asked about our fuel status, explaining that all facilities had closed at 10 p.m.--no fuel service was available in Macon, either.

Bama and I shared a quick glance. Then I asked the controller to hold the phone as I begin calculating: Engine start was at 7:50, takeoff at 8:25. We landed in Waycross at 10:40. It was now 12:15 a.m. I estimated we'd burned two gallons of fuel for taxi and takeoff at Peachtree, another two gallons leaving Waycross. I added another two gallons for the climbout and ten gallons per hour for 3.9 hours. That totaled forty-five gallons. The aircraft carried sixty gallons--fifty-eight were usable. That left thirteen gallons--good for the 45 minutes flying time back to Peachtree with a 30-minute reserve, more or less. I was sure we'd be okay.

I advised the controller of the situation and requested the most direct route to Peachtree. For the next half-hour, all was quiet in the cabin. As we approached Hartsfield, the controller there asked again about the fuel and offered Atlanta/ Hartsfield as a landing alternate. I checked my watch and since we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, I declined the alternate and pressed on toward Peachtree-DeKalb.

Once over the city, Gail yawned, stretched, and asked how close we were to home. As our nighttime visibility had improved, I was able to point out the green and white airport beacon at Peachtree just off the nose, ten or twelve miles ahead. Approach Control broke the silence and cleared us for a visual to runway 20-left at Peachtree. Landing on 20-left meant we'd have to fly a few miles farther north in order to land back toward the south. We were on a high, wide midfield downwind parallel to the runway when Bama tugged at my shirt and said, "Man, with our fuel situation, unless you don't mind hanging your butt in one of those pine trees down there, if it were my airplane, I'd fly a much tighter pattern."

I turned toward the airport and tightened up the approach. Then, even with the numbers on the approach end of runway 20-left, chopped the power, yanked in 40 degrees of flaps and landed. Once the wheels squeaked onto the tarmac, I slapped Bama on the knee and said, "See, partner? I told you we had plenty of fuel."

We taxied to the parking area and shut down the engine. Bama was out the door in a flash, popping open the fuel caps. I helped a sleepy Gail deplane and grabbed her luggage from inside the baggage compartment. Bama was shining his flashlight first into the left, then into the right wing tank. Unable to see any fuel, he stuck his hand in as far as it would go and drew it out dry. He shook the wing, and when nothing sloshed, he said, "It looks pretty empty to me, man. We cut it close."

When the fuel truck arrived, we both watched the meter as it recorded the amount of fuel it was taking to fill the tanks. When the valve on the pump shut-off, I asked the attendant for the total. He said 53.8 gallons.

"See there, Bama? We had 25 minutes left. I told you I knew this airplane." He chuckled in disbelief, got in his car, and drove away. The next day, as was my habit, I returned to the airport to charge the fuel to my credit card. The office manager reached into my folder and pulled out two tickets:

"You've got two tickets, Ron," she said.

"Really? Should just be one from last night."

She studied the tickets for a moment and then remarked, "Oh, I see what it is. Alan misread the meter last night and we had to fix it this morning. Instead of 53.8 gallons, your airplane took 56.5 gallons."

That meant, when we shut down the engine, we had less than ten minutes of fuel remaining. Ten minutes--all that separated us from a night landing in the trees! It brought to mind some advice another pilot had given me a few years earlier. When asked about practical emergency procedures for an engine-out night landing in a single engine airplane, he had advised, "Apply carburetor heat, turn on the fuel boost pump, switch fuel tanks, then switch magnetos. If the engine doesn't re-start, cut off the fuel valve, and turn on the landing light. If you like what you see within 45 degrees of the nose, leave it on. If you don't, turn it off."

Of course, he was right. I gasped and broke into a cold sweat, then somewhat reluctantly, phoned Bama and gave him the news.

"What did you learn?" he asked.

I vowed, "Never again."

And I kept my word. A few days later, I saw a placard in the Peachtree Pilot's Shop. It read: "Three things that will never help you: runway behind you, altitude above you and fuel on the ground."

Amen, brother.

©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.