Aviation Safety Corner
GREETINGS! For this Month's Topic, I would like to discuss "GASPING
FOR GAS." Many fuel exhaustion accidents share three common mistakes. This is Part I of IV.
The return trip from mid-state New York to Nashua, NH, was being made with some urgency. The pilot had an important meeting to attend. The meeting became the last thing on his mind, however, when the engine coughed to a stop only part way home. His very first thoughts: "Oh damn! I'm going to splatter myself among the trees below and kill myself! I can just hear my friends at the funeral. "He seemed to be a pretty smart fellow, how could he do something so stupid?"
After his initial shock at the silence, he became focused on the problem at hand. Rock the wings, there's always some fuel left in the tanks. The engine sputtered a few minutes and then quit again. He spied a small field he would have to use as his emergency landing site, but the only way to get through it was through a stand of trees. He remembered a magazine article he had read long ago: If you have to put a plane down in the trees, pick two big ones and fly between them. The wings will dissipate some of the energy without causing damage to the cockpit.
Miraculously the 40-year old, 200-hour private pilot did just that. With both tips damaged, he planted his Cessna 150 onto the ground in a field that was no more than 200 to 300 feet long. The nose wheel dug into the soft turf, and snapped in two. Seconds later the pilot jumped out of the plane and checked for injuries and damage. The injuries were minor, the damage significant. When the FAA inspector investigated the accident, he said of the between-the-trees-maneuver, "I've heard it suggested. I've never seen it work until now." As for the meeting the pilot was late, very very late. But at least he lived to fly again.
Fuel starvation accidents are perhaps the single most preventable type of accident in General Aviation. The familiar psychological aspects, most notably "get-home-it is" are compounded by the Three "M's" of running out of fuel: MISINFORMATION, MISMANAGEMENT, and MECHANICAL PROBLEMS.
The Cessna 150 pilot's accident combined portions of all three elements to create the problem, but often one factor is enough to create havoc. This time it was a Private Pilot on a pleasure flight, but when any one of the three "M's" arises, HIGHLY EXPERIENCED PROFESSIONAL PILOTS ARE EQUALLY AT RISK. Although the causes themselves seem relatively easy to explain, the reasons why those are allowed to snowball into accidents are much more complex. What is compelling, however, is that in almost every instance, the pilot or pilots involved had a means by which to recognize and resolve the problem before it became unmanageable, yet each ignored it until it was too late.
Now, let's discuss "M" Number 1. MISINFORMATION, believing something to be true that simply isn't, can occur in many forms and for many reasons. Our private pilot in question, even though he owned the Cessna, thought his plane was equipped with fuel tanks that carried 26.5 gallons of fuel per side. In reality, it carried only 22.5 gallons in each tank. On the other end of the equipment scale, an air carrier crew used to operating with liters calculated the fuel needed for their first flight in a new aircraft based upon that measurement. Unfortunately it was serviced in the United States with gallons. Somewhere the conversion went astray and the aircraft ran out of fuel short of its destination.
Another pilot told the ramp attendant to top off all the tanks and, even though the pilot signed a bill clearly indicating not enough fuel had been pumped to fill each tank, he took off without auxiliary tanks filled. In what is perhaps one of the most unusual instances of misinformation, a student turned back the panel clock in anticipation of a time zone change during a cross-country flight with his instructor. The instructor didn't notice the action, and thought they had one more hour of fuel when the mill stopped turning. They didn't get where they were going.
Now, let's discuss "M" Number 2. MISMANAGEMENT, though containing a certain amount of misinformation as well, is essentially knowing the right things but arriving at an incorrect conclusion due to faulty assumptions somewhere along the way.
One pilot expected a fuel burn of four gallons per hour; he got six. More than just a few pilots crash-landed prematurely having run their engines dry only to find a lot of fuel in the tank on the other side of the airplane. Just about as many calculated a flight for given set of weather conditions, only to find a stronger-than-expected headwind. One in particular blamed ATC for not knowing that an 8,000-foot altitude assignment would hurt his aircraft's performance to the degree that he ran out of fuel. Sadly, most victims had strong indications that running out of fuel was a distinct possibility long before it happened.
Now, in conclusion, REMEMBER, RUNNING OUT OF FUEL MAY BE THE CAUSE LISTED ON THE ACCIDENT
REPORT, BUT LACK OF ADEQUATE KNOWLEDGE IS THE REAL REASON BEHIND THE PROBLEM.
SAFETY TIP: THE METHODS AND INFORMATION TO ELIMINATE ALMOST THE ENTIRE FUEL STARVATION ACCIDENTS ARE AVAILABLE. IT STARTS AT THE BEGINNING OF A PILOT'S TRAINING, BUT THE LEARNING PROCESS SHOULD GO ON INDEFINATELY.
Don't miss next month's issue, "GASPING FOR GAS." Many fuel exhaustion accidents share three common mistakes. When we will discuss "M" Number 3, Mechanical Problems, and Gauging the Answer in Part II of IV.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! See you at this Month's Chapter Meeting! Bring a Friend Along! SAFE FLYING!
Larry G. Harmon
FAA AVIATION SAFETY COUNSELOR
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