Operations & Proficiency No. 5
You’re almost home. Through your headset the engine beats louder as you wait for the sound of silence, and the knot in your stomach grows larger as time seems to slow down. Your last refueling opportunity is well behind now. It will surely take longer to turn around than to press on, and you wonder if backing off on the power will make a difference. But the airplane’s going so slowly already that you decide to leave the throttle alone. One good thing about this groundspeed: It gives you plenty of time to pick out suitable landing sites—at least in daylight. But night fell an hour ago, and intuition tells you that surviving a forced landing now will be more a matter of luck than skill… This is the kind of scenario that often leads to a fuel exhaustion accident. Through a combination of circumstances and poor decisions, otherwise prudent pilots crash short—often in sight of their destination. Most pilots can recall a time when they dipped into the reserves, and most vow never to do it again. But somebody always does.
In the past decade, more than 1,700 accidents have resulted from poor fuel management. Safe Pilots. Safe Skies
In 2004, 79 fuel exhaustion accidents occurred, of which four were fatal. In the same year, another 39 accidents (seven fatal) were attributed to fuel starvation, and 18 (five fatal) were a result of fuel contamination. There’s a lot to know about fuel and fuel management. In the following pages we’ll discuss these subjects in detail, but first let’s look at a few things you can do to reduce your chances of having a fuel-related accident: 1. Know How Much Fuel You Have: You can’t know your range unless you know how much fuel you have, but knowing that isn’t always easy. • Think of fuel not in gallons or pounds, but hours and minutes. Why? Because fuel burn is a constant. The engine, barring malfunction, will always burn the same amount at a given combination of altitude, power setting, and mixture setting, but range will vary constantly due to changing winds and ground speeds. To know how much time you have, you need to know how much fuel your engine really burns. The POH (pilot’s operating handbook) figures will get you close, but only experience will tell you for sure.
Tip: The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends that pilots of unfamiliar airplanes add one or two gallons per hour to their computed fuel consumption until they see how much the airplane actually burns.
Know for certain how much usable fuel is on board. Fuel computers will tell you how much you’re burning and how much you have left, but the pilot still has to input the starting fuel quantity. A calibrated dipstick is a good way to measure fuel, but be sure it’s calibrated for your airplane: Some airplane models have several options for fuel tank capacity. Departing with full tanks is a good tactic, but it isn’t always possible. Most airplanes exceed weight and balance limitations with full fuel, all seats occupied, and maximum baggage. Some airplanes can be difficult to fuel completely. And what about the pilot before you who says, “I only flew an hour off of full tanks”? Were they really full? Did he/she lean the mixture? Trust but verify. It’s your safety and certificate on the line.
2. Know Your Airplane’s Fuel System: Pilots must also be familiar with and proficient in operating the fuel system on their airplanes. Fuel management on a Cessna 150 is easy. Two wing-mounted tanks simultaneously gravity feed fuel to the engine and the fuel selector is either on or off. Compare this with a low-wing single boasting two main, two wing auxiliary, and two aftermarket tip tanks with an engine-driven primary fuel pump, electric boost pump, and electric fuel transfer pumps. It’s not surprising that pilots have made forced landings with fuel still available. Accident Report: A student...
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