I am a regular lurker on /r/flying over on reddit, and today I read a scary story about a pilot experiencing an apparent engine failure in a Cessna 172. Fortunately, the emergency ended as well as they can, with the pilot achieving a normal landing at a closed airfield – with no damage to the plane or its occupants.
Although it must have been a frightening experience, the pilot kept his cool and lived to fly another day. However, things could have easily turned catastrophic, as with any power loss event. Reading through the thread, it became apparent that this was an easily avoidable incident, caused by pilot error, that could have cost him his life.
The loss of power was caused by vapor lock. In the particular model of 172 he was piloting, either the left or the right fuel tank must be selected at altitudes above 5,000ft, rather than leaving the switch in the ‘both’ position. Now, this requirement is not common across the majority of 172s being flown today, and as the comments revealed, many experienced 172 pilots had never heard of such a requirement.
But sure enough, the warning is there in black and white in the POH for this particular model. Furthermore, airplanes with this requirement must be placarded to warn unsuspecting pilots of this quirk. In fact, the POH even contains instructions for how to recover from the vapor lock if it happens in-flight. Had the pilot consulted the POH, he is likely to have been able to recover power and avoid the forced landing.
The vast majority of accidents in General Aviation are caused by pilot error. Don’t be complacent (invulnerability is one of the hazardous attitudes you should be trained to spot). Even if you think you are familiar with the airplane or type of airplane you are piloting, be sure to know the POH inside out. It just might stop you becoming yet another accident statistic attributed to pilot error. Over-confidence is a killer.