AVweb‘s Mary Grady recently did a podcast interview with Bruce Landsberg, the president of the AOPA Foundation and the Air Safety Institute, to discuss a problem that happens more often than you think: Aircraft running out of fuel. In fact and on average, such incidents or mishaps involving fuel happen twice a week in the USA as this interactive map from AVweb shows with many of the accidents happening near an airport (meaning the pilot almost made it….):
Luckily, the vast majority of fuel mismanagement assets are not fatal (Bruce counted 47 accidents on his map with only two having fatalities).
Bruce noted that fuel mismanagement incidents have decreased slightly in recent years thanks to the introduction of new technology. However, part of the problem is that pilots believe fuel gauges are inaccurate. The problem with that assumption is fuel gauges are required to be accurate when the tank is full and when the tank is empty. In other words, if the fuel gauge says the tank is full, its full; and if it says the tank is empty – its EMPTY. He also added that fuel is used up at a known consumption rate – meaning you can’t get five hours of flight out of 4 hours and 45 minutes of fuel.
So why do pilots run out of fuel? Bruce said he has a degree in psychology and still can’t answer the question, but he believes it has to do with a pilot’s risk tolerance. So rather than change human nature, he believes it should be up to technology and aircraft manufacturers. Years ago, Bruce had suggested to Cessna about doing something and the aircraft manufacturer responded by adding warning lights for when fuel gets low.
Bruce added that pilots have many excuses for running out of fuel that will sound plausible to them, but NOT plausible to an FAA inspector or to an insurance company. He then suggested using calibrated fuel dip stocks if you are flying an aircraft that allows for one to be used and to fly using the golden hour rule e.g. add another 1/2 hour to the 1/2 hour VFR rule or another 15 minutes to the 45 minute instrument condition rule regarding fuel. After all and as Bruce pointed out, an extra 8 gallons of fuel is worth the investment to avoid a mishap in a $30k to $300k aircraft investment.