In Spring of 1983 I was working as a sales manager for Memphis Jet center. We obtained a King Air 90 with no reversers previously owned by Bob and Spence Wilson which they traded on a King Air 200.
On Tuesday, June 23, I had a sales demo with George Nickey, a Memphis real estate developer, going to Nashville, TN. I instructed the line service to top off N75XA, a 1965 model King Air 90 LJ-50, with very inaccurate fuel gauges. While in the front lobby I observed the fuel truck in front of the aircraft with caps off and then went to review the flight plan. 15 minutes later I went to the front desk and asked to see the fuel ticket. The fuel sheet was in the truck across the ramp, so I walked over to see how much fuel it took. The fuel sheet showed N75XA taking 274 gallons of fuel which sounded like the correct amount as I had flown it the day before on a shorter flight and the aircraft holds 384. The previous flight would have taken approx. 100 gallons so that sounded correct.
George Nickey arrived, and we preflighted the aircraft with him in the left seat. We spent 30-40 mins on the ground going over systems and airframe. Due to the weather I had to file an instrument flight plan to Nashville with 600 ft ceilings and 2 miles visibility. We finally take off and climb to 11,000 ft breaking out of the clouds at 8000 ft. As we approach BNA, we are cleared to 8000 ft. Soon after we re-entered the clouds the left fuel flow went to 0, and the engine quit running. I reached across George and activated the manual cross feed. The engine started again, and I declared an emergency with Nashville approach. 5 minutes later both engines quit and fuel flows to 0. I notify approach that I need a vector to the expressway. They turn me right to a heading of 135 where they say there are fields down that way….
At that time I feathered both engines to extend my glide and told George to get in the back, sit behind me and prepare to crash. My initial reaction was that someone had done me in! I thought about my new wife, Tammy, since we had just been married the previous year. My next thought was if I had ever done any fancy flying NOW WAS THE TIME!
I broke out of the clouds at 600 ft and George yelled “There is a field to the right!” It was your typical Nashville field, 5 acres and a big rock in the middle, so I keep looking around. Next I spotted a two lane rural highway which I later learned was Hwy 96 which runs East and West out of Franklin, TN. Having done thousands of spot landings in my past, this one had to be my best.
On left downwind I observed a pickup truck heading West. I also saw a dump truck heading East towards me. Indicating a rate of glide of 120 knots I crossed over the pickup truck and fully cross controlled the aircraft into an extreme slip to lose airspeed. Going across the pickup at about an 70 degree angle, I kicked it back to line up with the road and touched down 100 ft in front of the truck. I retracted flaps about ten feet off the ground to get the best braking action and laid on the brakes. On the hilly road I topped the first hill and could see the dump truck still coming. The mailboxes beneath my wings were racing by as I tried to slow the aircraft down. As I topped the 2nd hill the dump truck hadn’t slowed down or noticed me, so I am standing on the brakes and burning rubber.
At the top of the 3rd hill my speed had slowed sufficiently to pull off the road. The dump truck pulled around my wing still sticking out in the road and stopped. George went flying out of the cabin door as the dump truck driver stopped. He stepped out of his truck and asked “ya’ll having any trouble?” George replied, “No we just stopped for a coke!”
The pickup truck that I went over sideways and landed in front of caught up to us and stopped. The lady driving got out and ran up to me and shook me shouting, “You could have killed us!” I replied, “No, Ma’am, I was not going to hit you.” Her husband finally pulled her away saying, “Mable, the man did the best he could!” Another car drove around us but didn’t stop.
Next a young man came down the driveway. He was 16 years old and had just joined the Civil Air Patrol. I thanked him for his first rescue and gave him $100 to guard the airplane.
The FAA arrived a very short time later. He asked me what happened, and I replied, “Well it is out of fuel.” The FAA then took his measuring wheel to see the stopping distance and returned to me saying that I stopped it in 1190 ft. He said, “You must have used full reverse to do that.” I just replied, “Yes Sir”, jokingly.
I called Howard Entman, the owner of Memphis Jet Center, to tell him what happened and explain that we would need to have a truck come pick it up. Howard said that he would come up and fly it out, but I decided that I would be the one to fly it out.
The next day was a circus! The Stevens Aviation fuel truck driving down to refuel the plane was following two Highway Patrol escorts too closely, and they collided. After they finally arrived I asked them to top off the nacelle tanks only, so it would be light enough for the short take off.
The aircraft received very little damage in my landing except for a power line which took off the rotating beacon, however, the Nashville FSDO took 3 hours to determine that it was airworthy for take off. During this time a crowd of about 200 people gathered in the heat to watch the show. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police gathered in preparation for my departure. Two different people came up to me and offered me a beer! I asked the Highway Patrol for cones to mark the power lines.
After the FAA finalized their report I taxied down to the point where I landed. Again with the mailboxes racing beneath my wings during my takeoff roll, I looked up only to see patrol cars at the end of the road stopping traffic. On the 3rd hill I had enough speed to lift off and pulled up over the patrol cars. Making a left turn over the huge crowd, I had thoughts of a victory roll but decided I was probably in enough trouble and just waved the wings to say ‘Good bye’. The next day the headlines in the Tennessean read, “Plane Runs Out of Fuel, Lands on Highway 96”.
Upon returning to Memphis Jet Center to determine what happened to my fuel, I learned that the lineman fueling N75XA had quickly departed. The other linemen said that he stopped fueling N75XA because he thought he was supposed to be fueling the Wilson’s other King Air. They said he had been smoking weed and was never heard from again!
The FAA filed a violation and tried to take away ‘All Airman Certificates’ held by me for 90 days for violating FAR sections 91.5 and 91.9 for improper visual inspection of fuel tanks. (Click here to read the NTSB Case) My great lawyer, June Entman, defended me at the NTSB court where we had 19 King Air pilots prepared to testify that you cannot visibly determine the amount of fuel in a King Air due to the dihedral in the wings. On the 13th pilot’s testimony the judge stipulated against the FAA lawyer’s protest that it was not necessary to visibly check a King Air for fuel. Even with this stipulation the NTSB judge said you must have done something wrong so you are guilty! June appealed the ruling where the judge turned it over with not guilty. To this day, I have not received an FAA Air Metal or an endorsement on my pilot’s license for a “turbine multi-engine glider rating”…
George Nickey was initially understandably upset with me, however, after being told by several other pilots that he was lucky that I had been the pilot, he bought 3 other airplanes from me.