Poor fuel management is implicated in a surprising number of accidents.
Have you ever made a mistake and afterward thought to yourself: “How could I have been so stupid?!” Well, of course you have, as everyone makes mistakes. However, aviation is notably unforgiving about errors that in other fields might be only minor annoyances, and fuel management is one of these.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports that improved fuel management could prevent an average of 50 general aviation (GA) accidents per year. “Running out of fuel in an aircraft is unthinkable, and yet it causes more accidents than anyone might imagine,” the agency said in an August 2017 Safety Alert.
Fuel management is the sixth-leading cause of GA accidents in the United States, NTSB data show. Fuel exhaustion (aircraft runs out of fuel) was involved in 56% of fuel management–related accidents, and fuel starvation (fuel is present but doesn’t get to the engine) accounted for another 35%. Surprisingly, equipment issues contributed to just 5% of these accidents, while pilot error was a contributing factor in 95%. Talk about crashing a perfectly good aircraft!
Armchair quarterbacks might think this is a mistake for rookie pilots, but that’s not the case. According to the NTSB, about half of the fuel management–related accidents involved pilots holding commercial or ATP certificates; only 2% involved student pilots.
Aviation history is littered with old and new examples of perfectly good aircraft being crashed (and lives lost) because of fuel mismanagement. Here are some noteworthy examples:
- On August 26, 2011, four were killed when a Eurocopter AS350 B2 crashed 1 nautical mile short of the Mosby, Missouri, airport where it was intending to refuel. Although the fuel system was operating normally, the aircraft had lost power due to fuel exhaustion. The NTSB investigation identified numerous errors by the pilot, including his failure to confirm the amount of fuel before departure and his improper decision to continue after he became aware of the critically low fuel level.
- A Hughes 369D crashed on November 27, 2012, in Childress, Texas, killing the utility worker suspended from it. The crash was due to fuel exhaustion caused by maintenance issues. However, according to the NTSB report, “any fuel gauge inaccuracies would have become apparent” if the pilot or operator had conducted their own fuel calculations independent of those gauges.
- On November 29, 2013, a Police Scotland Eurocopter EC135 helicopter crashed into a pub in Glasgow, killing all three crew on board and seven patrons of the pub. The investigation concluded that the cause of the crash was fuel starvation due to incorrect operation of the fuel system. The transfer pumps supplying fuel to the two engine fuel tanks were found with their switches in the off position, resulting in the engines flaming out despite 161 lb. of usable fuel remaining in the main tank, according to an April 8, 2019, report from the BBC. Investigators reported that the helicopter pilot, described as experienced and with 646 hours in type, had received five low-fuel warnings before the crash.
Managing Your Fuel
Here are some basic steps pilots can take to better manage fuel:
- Check Your Tank. Visually confirm your fuel quantity during preflight inspection (do not rely exclusively on fuel gauges). If you had requested refueling, don’t assume that was done: verify. Sample the fuel for contamination.
- Do the Math. Fuel calculation is an essential part of flight planning. Ensure fuel needs and fuel reserves are quantified before flight.
- Know Your Fuel System. Understand how your aircraft’s fuel system delivers fuel to the engine(s). Regularly check the fuel selector(s) in the aircraft on preflight to ensure full operability. Be familiar with fuel selector lever position during flight (know when to switch, and how to manage).
- Track Fuel Usage Independently. Know the exact rate of fuel consumption for your aircraft (depending on altitude, power settings, etc.). During flights, consistently track time-based fuel consumption independent of fuel gauge indications.
- Maintain Fuel Reserves. Monitor the flight to ensure that enough fuel will remain on board in the event of unplanned delays.
- Listen to Your Aircraft. If your aircraft is telling you that there is a fuel problem, listen! Treat this as the emergency it is.