Why is fuel exhaustion such a problem?
WHY DO PILOTS KEEP COMING TO GRIEF AFTER RUNNING THE TANKS DRY?
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.