Why is fuel ex­haus­tion such a prob­lem?


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Stephen Pope

Fuel ex­haus­tion ought to be one of the most pre­ventable types of ac­ci­dents in all of gen­eral avi­a­tion, and yet, with alarm­ing reg­u­lar­ity, we con­tinue to hear sto­ries about pi­lots run­ning out of gas. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, which is­sued a safety alert on the topic over the sum­mer, GA pi­lots crashed due to fuel ex­haus­tion or star­va­tion about once a week on av­er­age be­tween 2010 and 2015. That’s a star­tling statis­tic. How in the world, you might ask, would a sane pi­lot ever take off with less fuel than re­quired to reach the des­ti­na­tion?

As any pi­lot who has stretched fuel re­serves be­yond his or her per­sonal min­i­mums un­der­stands, of course, a case of range anx­i­ety or worse rarely re­sults from a con­scious de­ci­sion to de­part with too lit­tle fuel. In­stead, it’s usu­ally the last link in a chain of events that might in­clude, say, an unan­tic­i­pated change in des­ti­na­tion or stronger than fore­cast head­winds.

But not al­ways. Early in my fly­ing ca­reer I heard about a pi­lot who de­cided he would fly to my home air­port to top up be­cause we had cheaper gas. He ended up crash­ing in a wooded area about mid­way into the flight af­ter run­ning out of gas

. The in­cred­i­ble part of the story is that the air­port from which he departed was only 3 miles away.

Many of us have prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced a flight or two that flirted with le­gal fuel min­i­mums. First­hand ex­pe­ri­ence gets you think­ing less ab­stractly about a topic. I had my epiphany many years ago af­ter an air­plane I was sup­posed to rent was mis­tak­enly dou­ble-booked. It turned out an­other air­plane was avail­able, but by the time ev­ery­thing was sorted my win­dow for mak­ing the flight was quickly nar­row­ing. Off I launched, with­out tak­ing the time to top the tanks — right into the teeth of much stronger than an­tic­i­pated head­winds. I cor­rectly rea­soned that I could al­ways land for fuel at any of a half-dozen air­ports along my route of flight, but as the miles ticked by I told my­self, “I think I can make it.” What I meant, of course, is that I thought I could make it with the le­gal VFR fuel re­serve of 30 min­utes. In a Cessna 172, though, that’s only two or three gal­lons per tank. What if I reached the des­ti­na­tion and the run­way was closed for an emer­gency? Could I make it back to one of the air­ports I had passed over? At least I’d have a tail­wind.

On a re­cent flight in the Cir­rus from Ohio to New Jersey, dur­ing which I bat­tled head­winds the en­tire way, ATC as­signed a hold be­cause of “VIP move­ment” and left me there for 40 min­utes be­fore clear­ing me for the RNAV ap­proach to Es­sex County Air­port. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had landed at nearby Mor­ris­town Air­port and the airspace was still shut down. Was I wor­ried? Not at all. Be­cause of the con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to flight plan­ning I’ve adopted (not to men­tion the SR22’s good-size tanks and low fuel burn) I landed with plenty of fuel.

“I think I can make it” should never be a part of any pi­lot’s vo­cab­u­lary.

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