May 28, 2009
To say that Al Uhalt has been around the aviation community would be an understatement.
From 1977-79, the retired Air Force colonel commanded the 46th Aerospace Defense Wing at Peterson Air Force Base. For decades he has been a flight instructor, owning his own school and even serving on the city's airport advisory board.
Perhaps this kind of history makes Thursday's incident just a little embarrassing.
His plane ran out of gas.
Uhalt and his 16-year-old flight student Kyle Sundman were up for a 45-minute lesson in an Aviat Husky single-engine plane. About 10 a.m. they were cleared to land at the Colorado Springs Airport when the engine started sputtering. Uhalt took a look at the gas gauge and knew exactly what was wrong. Luckily, they were approaching the Fountain Valley School, which sits on 1,100-acres, about 90 percent of which are open fields.
"Obviously we were having a problem and I saw this field, a pretty nice field, and we landed. As simple as that," Uhalt said.
The landing was bumpy, but no one was hurt and the plane was not damaged. The plane is designed to make landings just like this, he said.
"I'm just embarrassed that apparently we ran out of fuel," he said.
The plane is owned by Kyle's grandfather, Jim Young. He was flying another plane behind and saw the whole thing. With Uhalt's experience, he said he wasn't worried about the landing.
"I've landed that plane on fields like this on purpose," Young said.
He laughed off the landing but Uhalt was a little more serious about it.
"It's my fault and I don't shrug this off lightly," he told Young.
Neither does the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been notified about the unscheduled landing, but isn't likely to do more than remind Uhalt to check the gas tank and kick the tires before taking off next time.
Pilots are supposed to check their fuel levels for obvious reasons - to get where they need to go - but it's also important to have enough gas in the tank to get to an alternate landing site in case of bad weather or another emergency, said Mike Fergus, an FAA spokesman.
A pilot who forgets to check his fuel level stands to get a "verbal admonition" over the phone, Fergus said. Any further sanctions would be considered only if the pilot has a history of poor flying, he added.
Kyle, who has been in small planes several times and is learning how to fly, doesn't have any qualms about going up again with Uhalt. He said Uhalt did not panic and calmly landed the plane in the field as if nothing was wrong.
"It couldn't have been a better situation," Kyle said. "A very experienced pilot, nice field. It guess it went pretty well considering the circumstances."
Since the plane wasn't damaged, Uhalt planned to fly it off of the field as soon as it was filled with gas. He's sheepish about what happened but is glad everything worked out. Also, his student got an extra lesson, he said.
"Don't fly without fuel."
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Gazette reporter Lance Benzel contributed to this report