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Fuel Low - 'Been there, done that, got the T-shirt'

by Harlan Gray Sparrow III

Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Yeah, I know. How could anyone run low on fuel, especially if they had done any flight planning at all? Well, I have a long list of reasons, starting with un-forecasted head winds, engine runs rich, fuel gauge shows more fuel than is in the tank, aircraft is a rental, aircraft isn't rigged right, forward CG, mixture cable is out of adjustment'the list is probably endless. My all time favorite is the refueler didn't fill up the tank. Duh!

Since I have one of the 'Fuel Low' T-shirts, I will share with you how I plan on not getting another one. Oh, I guess you are wondering how I got mine. Well, there I was making an over water flight from Jamaica to the United States and encountered an un-forecasted headwind. Instead of landing on an island en route, which would have been an unpleasant option (Customs), I continued on to my destination. I informed ATC at my destination that I was 'minimum fuel.' They acknowledged and said I was number six for the approach. Fortunately, I got cleared for the approach and landing before I had to declare an emergency. From then on, when in doubt, I have stopped for fuel, but that's not the only way to avoid it happening again.

Now having trained in the military, I learned a couple of things about how to do flight planning. Later on, one of my first civilian instructors, Larry Joe Yon, tried very hard to instill in me the importance of flight planning the civilian way. As it turns out, fuel on board, no matter whether you are civilian or military, is all the same. Larry was patient with me and was able to convince me of the importance of having a plan and then flying your plan. He reminded me to be careful to check and recheck my flight plan estimates en route in order to be able to make timely adjustments. Not really a hard concept to grasp, if you set aside your ego and a little hard headiness. Larry further stressed that flight planning doesn't just stop at looking over the chart and picking airports to stop for fuel. Today, more than ever, it would pay to call the airports to check on fuel availability and, of course, method of payment. A visual check of your fuel tanks after refueling is a must. The only accurate fuel gauge I know of is the one that says empty when the engine quits. By the way, GPS is probably one of the best additions you could have in your aircraft today. The accuracy of these devices sure makes flight planning an easier task while providing numerous options in the way of available airports en route.

Over the years, I have attended numerous safety seminars, many which were targeted at flight planning. You would think that the FAA and other safety-oriented groups would finally get tired of talking about flight planning and fuel management. Well, it seems that in spite of their efforts, we (that's all of us pilots) still manage to run low on fuel, run out of fuel, or mismanage fuel. The latest NALL Report (courtesy of AOPA Air Safety Foundation), which shows accident trends and factors for 2004, indicates that there were 79 (four fatal) accidents as a result of fuel exhaustion. Although easily preventable, there were 39 (seven fatal) fuel starvation accidents as well in 2004. It would seem there is a trend, because in 2003 there were 90 (nine fatal) accidents as a result of fuel exhaustion and 41 (five fatal) accidents caused by fuel starvation. There is a simple answer to all of this. Rule Number One: plan on landing with at least one hour of fuel on board. This is on top of any regulatory requirements that may be in effect such as day, night, VFR, IFR, and alternate. Now I realize that if it were that simple we wouldn't have so many fuel related mishaps.

Every year there are many thousands of us who travel to and from Lakeland, Florida, (Sun & Fun' Fly-In) and Oshkosh, Wisconsin (EAA AirVenture - Fly-In). Unfortunately each year several pilots will earn a 'Fuel Low' T-shirt. As my friend used to tell me, 'When in doubt, duck, or in this case refer to Rule Number One.'

This article is dedicated to all of the flight instructors out there who have made a difference.

Harlan Gray Sparrow III is an Aviation Safety Inspector in Flight Standards' Air Transportation Division.