April 1, 1998
By Barry Schiff
The remaining three reasons involve depriving an engine of spark, air, or fuel. An engine failure caused by an ignition malfunction is rare, primarily due to redundancy. Choking an engine of air is almost always the result of carburetor or induction icing. This, too, is an uncommon cause of power failure. An attentive pilot can usually combat it successfully by applying carburetor heat or selecting the alternate air source (when operating a fuel-injected engine).
The fourth cause of engine failure is by far the most common but also is the most easily avoided: fuel mismanagement. A predictable number of airplanes and lives are lost every year simply because pilots are insufficiently judicious about ensuring uninterrupted fuel flow to the engine.
This is perplexing because the vast majority of engine failures due to fuel exhaustion or starvation are caused by the pilot. Unfortunately, such traumatic events will continue to occur with regularity (but only to the other guy, right?).
Over the years, I have gleaned from experienced pilots some useful advice that I would like to pass along. Hopefully, these tips will be helpful in ensuring that you are never involved in a fuel-related engine failure.
There remains, however, some confusion between fuel starvation and exhaustion; they are not the same. Starvation occurs when an engine is deprived of fuel while there is still some available (usually in one or more unselected tanks). Exhaustion means that all fuel has been depleted.
A recent study concluded that adopting the following procedures and advice could prevent the majority of fuel-starvation accidents:
Two years ago, I mentioned in this column one of my early instructors who drummed into me that there was absolutely no excuse for running out of gas. He obviously was right, even though numerous pilots offer excuses for doing so every year.
If they are honest, pilots interviewed after experiencing fuel exhaustion usually admit that they had become uncomfortable about their remaining fuel quantity some time prior to fuel exhaustion; it rarely comes as a surprise. Preventing such a trauma, therefore, can be more the result of a state of mind than a calculation of fuel remaining.
When any doubt develops about whether a pilot has sufficient fuel to reach his destination, that is the time to plan for a landing at an alternate airport irrespective of how much inconvenience this might cause. It should not matter that this might necessitate an extra night en route, missing an important engagement, and so forth. Imagine the consequences of a fuel exhaustion accident. And then ask yourself how much inconvenience you might endure in order to avoid destroying your airplane and harming your passengers.
Do this and you'll never run out of gas.
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