Fueling traps

The crew is ultimately responsible

February 1, 2012

Fueling traps

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a bit lazy during an aircraft fueling or two. The fact is that airplanes have caught on fire, run out of fuel, received contaminated fuel, or been overfueled countless times because of improper management and oversight of aircraft fueling by the flight crew. Here are two recent experiences that emphasize crew responsibilities when fueling aircraft.

February 2012
Turbine Pilot Contents

Inspect the fuel gun and look for the emergency shutoff before you start. In September 2010 I was getting ready to compete in the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. I joined my coach and a number of other competitors for a training camp in El Reno, Oklahoma. On the last flight of the second day of training, I pulled up to the fuel pump to top off my Pitts S–2C. My coach and a number of the other competitors had joined me at the fuel pump and started the postflight critique process while I was fueling.

As I realized that I was approaching full fuel, I released the fuel trigger expecting the pump to stop. To my surprise the pump continued to run, so much so that when the fuel tank hit full, a two-foot geyser of fuel shot out of the fuel filler hole, soaking me, the airplane, and the people around me. Not knowing what to do with a fuel gun that was stuck on, I pulled the gun out of the tank and gently placed it on the ground to avoid causing a spark. I ran to the fuel pump station about 20 feet away in search of the emergency shut-off switch, which I activated immediately. I was in shock and I was doused in 100LL. The smallest of sparks would have set my airplane and me ablaze.

A loose screw in the fuel gun trigger mechanism had jammed the fuel trigger. Now I always inspect the fuel gun and look for the emergency shutoff switch before starting a manual fueling process. This lesson is not limited to pilots of 100LL-powered aircraft as turbine operators still fuel Jet-A powered aircraft using self-serve fuel pumps.

Always supervise fuelers. It’s easy to get complacent when it comes to supervising fueling of your aircraft. I was flying a Citation CJ3 with a friend from California to Florida with a stop in central Kansas. When we deplaned at our fuel stop, the other pilot and I discussed the fuel loading and gave it to the fueler. As we had a full load of people onboard, we didn’t have the luxury of topping off, so we gave a very specific fuel order that would keep us under maximum gross takeoff weight for our next leg. We went inside the FBO to use the facilities, check weather for our next leg, and grab that obligatory chocolate chip cookie sitting on the FBO counter. By the time we got back outside we were surprised to find that the fueler had overfueled us by about 60 gallons or about 400 pounds, which put us well over gross. After the wave of anger/embarrassment passed over us, it was time to figure out what to do:

  1. Pretend the overfueling didn’t happen, and take off over gross.
  2. Fire up the airplane, taxi to the run-up area, and sit with the throttles powered up until we’d burned off enough fuel.
  3. Have the linemen find some large buckets and manually drain the fuel tanks using the fuel drains until we had emptied out enough fuel.
  4. Leave our two least-favorite passengers behind.

As we were in no rush, and we certainly weren’t going to break the rules nor hurt anyone’s feelings, we decided to go with option three. Thankfully, the FBO had a number of large 15-gallon tubs that could be used to capture the fuel once we activated the fuel drains. With the tubs placed under each wing, and the drain valves locked open (by pushing the valve open and twisting one-quarter turn), we were pleasantly surprised by how quickly the tubs were filling up. About 10 minutes after we started the draining process, we were exactly at our desired fuel state.

Don’t get lazy. How carefully you manage your fueling experience can set the tone for the success or failure of your next flight. Don’t take it lightly.

Cyrus Sigari is president and co-founder of jetAVIVA in Santa Monica, California. He is a type-rated instructor pilot in the CE-510, CE-525, EMB-500, and EA-500.