Fuel starvation – myths and reality

This is a guest post by Jason Schappert from the highly recommended M0A blog.

iStock_000006296166XSmall “Aviation officials say there’s a simple way to prevent hundreds of small plane crashes: fill up the gas tank.”

This is the statement I woke up to in my RSS reader the other morning. It’s this very “compelling” statement that has caught the eye and ear of many major newspapers and newscasts.

For some of us general aviation maybe a hobby for others it maybe a career. I can effectively speak for both departments. Regardless of our purpose in aviation we all have to do our part to shed the real light on general aviation.

I’m a huge advocate for general aviation and to see articles like this with headlines like above breaks my heart. It’s our job as pilots to conduct a proper preflight, calculate fuel burn, weight and balance etc…

However let’s defend our position. The very next line in that report states: “The National Transportation Safety Board says running out of fuel has been a cause or factor in 238 small plane crashes in the past five years.”

After some quick research I found that in 2008 alone there were over 26 million hours flown! That’s in 2008 alone. So assuming these “5 years” the article refers to the yearly hours flown would be quite similar.

In other words out of an estimated 125 million hours flown there were 238 crashes related to fuel exhaustion. That’s less than .1%!

Yet there are two sides to every story. Yes, fuel starvation related accidents are low. However couldn’t they be lower? What can we do to prevent them. After looking over several NTSB reports related to this topic they all end with “The loss of engine power due to fuel starvation as a result of the pilot’s failure to manage and monitor fuel usage.” Or something to that nature.

Pilots don’t go flying expecting to run out of fuel. Fuel management is the most preventable general aviation accident yet still year after year a handful of pilots turn their aircraft into impromptu gliders!

This situation won’t be solved by simply saying. “only leave the ground with full tanks” because we know that’s not possible. Rarely can I take a student, myself, full fuel, and flight bags on a flight in my little 150. It’s just not safe.

How do I avoid this problem, while still staying within my weight limits? I plan. Before each flight I say: “Okay, this will be an hour long instructional flight my 150 burns 4.5 gph during flight instruction. However I’d rather be safe and call it 6. During my instruction flights I require my students to have an hour reserve. (although the FAA only requires 30 mins) So we’ll tack on an additional 6 gallons. (Again rounding high). It looks like there is some weather to our south so just to be safe let’s add another 45 minutes and make sure we’re within our weight and CG limits.”

That is a typical conversation in the hanger while preflighting. Shouldn’t you be thinking of these things? Yes the FAA says 30 minutes additional fuel for VFR day. But why not tighten the rules? Why do just enough to get by?

My friends aviation is a wonderful thing, let’s defend it and stick up for it. We’ll always have nay-sayers. Be safe, fly your best, and remember, a good pilot is always learning.

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