Your planned fuel stop doesn’t have fuel. Now what?

Thanks to their unparalleled flexibility in where they can land, helicopters are less susceptible to accidents caused by fuel exhaustion than just about any other class of aircraft. That doesn’t translate to complete immunity, though. Precisely the wrong combination of insufficient planning, ill-advised pilot decisions, inhospitable terrain, and just plain bad luck can result in the engine quitting while the aircraft is still in the air. And each such accident follows a moment or two when a different decision could have eliminated the risk of crashing.

The Flight

On Jun. 11, 2023, a pilot and an aerial photographer boarded a Bell 206B JetRanger at Dodge City (Kansas) Regional Airport (KDDC) to continue a pipeline inspection. They’d stayed in Dodge City overnight after ­completing the previous day’s work. Winds were gusting to 26 kt. when they met at 8:00 am but were forecast to subside, so they waited about an hour before taking off.

The main pipeline the pilot and photographer were following ran southwest to the vicinity of Beaver in the Oklahoma panhandle, and the pilot determined that they could inspect that area and all the branches “except one really long one” en route. The pilot planned to refuel at Perryton Ochiltree County Airport (KPYX), 20 miles southwest of the end of the pipeline and just across the Oklahoma panhandle in northernmost Texas.

They landed at Perryton but found no one at the FBO. There was a self-service pump, but, to quote from the pilot’s account on the NTSB’s Pilot/Operator Aircraft Accident/Incident Report form (Form 6120.1):

“I began paying for the fuel and getting the grounding cable and hose pulled out for the refuel. I couldn’t get the fuel pump to operate correctly. I threw every switch and pressed every button on the pump and it did not work. I called the airfield manager on the number that was left on the desk and there was no answer. Left a message asking for help with the pump. My passenger and I walked around the airfield looking in hangars to try to find someone that might be able to help and weren’t able to find anyone. We still had over half a tank of fuel so we decided to depart and fly a new main line to the north and we would break off for fuel at a nearby airfield.”

As they flew north past Ashland, Kansas, the pilot decided to refuel at Comanche County Airport (3K8) in Coldwater, Kansas. While planning the flight that morning, he’d identified 3K8 as offering full-service Jet A, but “upon arrival that was not the case.”

The Wichita sectional chart depicts 3K8 with symbols indicating fuel is available, but the FAA’s Chart Supplement (formerly the Airport/Facility Directory) lists only 100LL gasoline. The pilot surmised that he must have mistakenly pulled up the listing for Comanche County, Texas, instead.

With the fuel gauge showing 15 gallons and the nearest source of Jet A 40 nm northeast at Pratt Regional Airport (KPTT), no available options looked good. Hopes to flag down a motorist for help faded as 20 minutes went by without a single vehicle passing the airport. The pilot ultimately decided “to fly north 15 to 20 miles and find a road to land next to” as offering a better chance to flag down a passing vehicle or “even be able to get a call out from the fuel truck at KPTT.”

About 20 miles northeast of 3K8, the helicopter crossed a sizable wind farm, one of many in the area. After clearing the turbines, “we [were] pushing 25 to 30 miles and I was looking for a good spot next to a road.” He identified a landing site and set up the approach, but at about 100 ft. agl and 40 to 50 kt. the engine flamed out due to lack of fuel. The pilot entered autorotation but touched down hard. “The nose pitched down and the tail came over the top, and the aircraft came to rest on the left-hand side,” he reported.

The skids separated, the main rotor severed the tail boom, and the helicopter rolled onto its left side. Its owner described the main and tail rotors as “completely destroyed.” The pilot and photographer escaped through the shattered windows. While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officially classified their injuries as “minor,” the pilot described the photographer as “bleeding badly in a few places,” which he helped dress. After finding his phone in the wreckage, he was able to call 911.

The Aircraft

The Bell 206 has a semi-rigid, teetering, two-bladed main rotor and a conventional two-bladed tail rotor driven by a single Rolls-Royce (formerly Allison) M250 turbine engine rated for 420 shp. Standard fuel capacity is 91 gallons. At its last 100-hour inspection 15 days before the accident, the 1972-model helicopter had logged 22,057 hours. It was registered in the restricted category with a Part 133 external-load certificate.

The Bell 206’s main rotor and tail rotor were completely destroyed as a result of the accident. (National Transportation Safety Board/Local Authority Photo)

The Alternatives

The two obvious decision points during the flight were the departures from Perryton and Comanche County. (On the ground with the engine shut down, the risk of an accident is just about zero.) However, opportunities to avoid the accident were available before the pilot and photographer left Dodge City. Small airports in rural areas don’t get a lot of traffic and consequently may not pay for continuous staffing. An advance call to Perryton advising of an ETA might have improved the prospects of someone being there to help—and if no one answered, flagged that airport as unreliable for fuel-planning purposes.

Several more options were open after they landed at Perryton. Perhaps the simplest and potentially most useful was to phone back to base, asking for help identifying fueling stops that aligned at least somewhat with their inspection schedule. (The helicopter’s operator is a substantial firm specializing in power-line and pipeline inspections by both airplanes and helicopters, so it seems likely someone would have been there to answer the phone and would have had the resources to perform the search.) If that conversation wasn’t helpful, the fairly busy Liberal (Kansas) Mid-America Regional Airport (KLBL) was less than 40 nm to the north-northwest—not the direction of the patrol route but well within their existing fuel supply.

The published reports don’t state whether the pilot communicated his plan to refuel at Comanche County back to his employers, but that information would surely have helped them decide how to manage the situation.

Finally, whereas gasoline engines can’t burn jet fuel—misfueling has caused detonation progressing to several catastrophic engine failures—turbine engines have some ability to burn gas. The operations manual for the Rolls-Royce M250 engine lists MIL-G-5572E, essentially aviation gasoline of whatever octane rating, as an emergency fuel to be burned with the boost pump on for no more than six hours per turbine overhaul cycle. The Bell 206B flight manual doesn’t seem to mention this option, however, so we can’t fault the pilot for not knowing that pumping 15 or 20 gallons of avgas at Comanche County would have gotten them to Pratt.

The Takeaway

Even in the densely populated regions that boast multiple full-service FBOs within any 50-mile radius, availability of fuel is never guaranteed. Whether due to mechanical problems with the truck (where there’s no self-service), the self-service pump (where there’s no truck), or the only staffer taking an off-airport lunch break on a slow day, situations arise in which a planned fuel stop suddenly isn’t one. The question is, what do you do then?

Numerous factors figure into the answer. How much fuel do you have left? Do you know where the nearest alternative source might be? Can you reach someone to help you figure that out if you don’t have the answer at your fingertips?

It’s already given that the day’s plans are going to need some readjustment, so don’t be afraid to step back and focus on the bigger picture: the aircraft isn’t going to fly long after the fuel runs out, and the consequences of an unplanned landing are almost never better than those of a flight that concludes as planned.

Far-flung rural airports—often unattended, perhaps with self-serve equipment of unpredictable reliability—compound those concerns, and their operators aren’t necessarily energetic about filing NOTAMs advising of outages. This places a still heavier burden on the pilot or dispatch office to confirm fuel supplies before taking to the air.

In both situations, however, one fact remains constant: Landing because you don’t have enough fuel is wise. Taking off for the same reason isn’t.

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David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a fixed-wing ATP with commercial privileges for helicopter. He also holds degrees in statistics. From 2008 through 2017, he worked for AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, where he authored eight editions of its Joseph T. Nall Report and nearly 500 articles. He’d rather be flying.