I decided, in the face of glaringly sunny and clear skies, that today would be a good day to burn a vacation day and go flying.
So, I got up at my usual time, but made a leisurely departure of the house, finally driving off at about 9 am. I knew that Harvey Field would be socked in with morning fog, so there was no need to rush, but also that the sooner I was there and all pre-flighted, the more quickly I could leap into the sky when the fog burned off.
Thus, I had my pre-flight inspection done by about 10:30, but the fog had other plans. I ended up spending an hour in the FBO's plush chair reading my book (nunquam non paratus -- "never unprepared" after all) while the fog slowly dissolved. At 11:30, it was just about burned off, and I made my leisurely way back to the hangar. This was the beginning of the problem.
On my way to the hangar, I pulled out my phone to check in to the FATPNW group page on Facebook, to see if anyone else was planning aerial shenanigans today that might be fun to join in on. I had been pondering a flight around the Olympic Peninsula, or up to Eastsound on Orcas Island, but hadn't made any firm plans yet. There was indeed a post right near the top: several folks were planning on meeting at the Jefferson County International Airport (0S9), also known as Port Townsend, for lunch. That sounded good to me, so I set my sights on 0S9, although I knew from the start I couldn't possibly be there at noon. It was already 11:45 by the time I pulled the airplane out of the hangar, and I still needed to get fuel. So much for getting the preflight done early.
I taxied over to the fuel pump and added 10 gallons to the tanks. I had 9 already on board, and with the extra 10, I would have a guaranteed ~2 hours of fuel that I knew I'd just pumped in, plus some extra from the 9 (never take the dipstick reading at face value -- it's always off by some amount). I was trying to move quickly so I wouldn't be too late to the lunch, but I was trying for "efficient" rather than "rushed."
I didn't actually push back and fire up the motor for real until a couple minutes before noon. It would be at least half an hour's flight to Port Townsend, possibly a bit more, so I was guaranteed to be 45 minutes late after all the taxi, run-up, travel, and tie-down once I'd arrived. Even so, I was trying to keep efficient, since it would at least be nice to say hello in passing.
The run-up was normal, though the engine was a little off for the take-off and climb out. Not enough to cause me worry, and it picked up to normal once it warmed up a little bit more. I got myself cleared over Paine Field, then called up Seattle Approach to get flight following, and have some extra eyes on my sky.
The transit and landing were normal and unremarkable. I tied down, and had a good lunch, packed into a stool at the crowded bar. I wasn't the only one who thought skipping out on work to go flying would make for good lunch plans.
I got myself back out to the plane, belly pleasantly full of sandwich and marionberry pie, and started through the preflight: fuel on, check fuel drains for water, dipstick into the tanks to check level... Wait a minute. The right tank was normal, but when I got to the left tank, there was no gas cap.
This is approximately a Level 4 Oh Shit moment, on a scale of 10. Missing gas cap is embarrassing, because it means I was more rushed than I thought when I fueled up back at Harvey. But it also means (I confirmed a few minutes later on my walk-around) that the low pressure on top of the wing was sucking fuel out of the tank and scattering it to the wind, coincidentally leaving some tell-tale marks on the tail that confirmed the story. It also also means that, somewhere at Harvey Field, hopefully, hopefully, fingers crossed, nowhere near the runway, there was a ¼ pound piece of metal and rubber on the ground, ready to be kicked up by some passing airplane and potentially do some real damage.
So, this was bad juju. I was embarrassed, and scared, mostly because I was worried I'd dropped it where someone else was going to run it over at high speed, which conjured up all kinds of bad images in my head. I dipped the tank, and I still had 14 gallons between the two tanks, so I didn't lose too much fuel on the flight over. Maybe 2-3 gallons. Annoying, but not world-ending.
I had to find something to cover the tank opening with, but that was easily done by approaching the first mechanic I could find and begging a ziptie so I could fasten a nitrile glove over the opening for the flight home. Not terribly practical for everyday use, but enough to fly home safely.
No issues getting back to Harvey, and the instant I had the plane back in the hangar, I went for a walk to find the missing cap. I started by the fuel pump, hoping it just dropped there, which would be fairly safe. No luck. I asked the fuel truck guy, who happened to be driving by, if he'd seen a fuel cap on the ground, but he hadn't. I disconsolately walked along the taxiway, scanning as I went, distantly thankful that there wasn't more traffic trying to use the path. I did a full search grid over the run-up area, figuring that if it had miraculously ridden the wing all the way there, that's where it would be blown off, but no luck. I walked the entire length of the runway, where I located and removed a very sharp stainless steel #10 sheetmetal screw, but no sign of my gas cap.
I realized, as I was halfway down the runway (walking well off to the side, and constantly scanning for aircraft traffic, I'm not always a complete dummy) that I should check in to the maintenance office, on the off chance someone spotted it and turned it in. As I got to the north end of the runway, and turned toward the skydiving area, one of the skydiving folks walked toward me with that purposeful stride that says, "I'm going to challenge your right to be where you are." I quickly explained my situation, and she relented, telling me the tale of a dog-walker she encountered once, who nonchalantly walked his dog across the runway without apparently being aware of what he was doing.
I stopped in to the maintenance office, and before I could say anything, the woman behind the counter said, "Oh Ian, did you get my voicemail?" I gave her a dumb look and said, "Voicemail?" "Yeah," she responded, "someone turned in this gas cap and we thought it might belong to your plane..."
So, I was saved from the worst consequence of someone hitting my gas cap at high speed and causing real damage. I'm glad it fell off right at the gas pump like I'd first expected, and that it was quickly removed to safety. I'm glad I didn't have to rummage around for the spare gas cap that lives somewhere in the hangar.
I decided that I need to find a better place to stick the cap when I take it off to add fuel. I have two choices lined up to try out: one on the engine cowling, so that it will be obvious from the cockpit, and the other in my pocket, so that at least if I forget it, it won't cause anyone else any problems (and I can put it back on when I realize my mistake). I like the cowling idea better, but between the two I'm likely to have a good solution.
It occurred to me as I was walking the airport with my eyes down to the ground that I was lucky in another way: if I'd made the same mistake when intending to fly around the Olympic Peninsula, it could have easily killed me. Extrapolating from the actual fuel consumed on my trip to Jefferson County, I was losing about 4 gallons per hour extra from the tank. Presumably it would go faster if it was fuller, and slow down as it emptied out, but let's call it 4 gallons per hour on average. This plane only uses about 5-6 gallons per hour in normal operation, so I would nearly double my fuel consumption and be completely unaware of it. If I planned on having 4 hours of fuel on board, I would be in for a rude shock at about the 2 hour mark. The plane still glides with the engine off, and I tend to fly high, so I'd have some altitude to spend. But the peninsula is not full of friendly places to land, and my embarrassing error could easily have turned into a fatal one.
So, ultimately, I must both thank and curse FATPNW: without it, I probably would have felt less rushed, but I also would have been in for a longer flight (the path to Orcas is about twice as long as that to Jefferson County). I'm very glad it worked out the way it did, but I've clearly got some reforms to make in my refuelling practices.