Health tip: Don't starve the airplane

(IAD02LA044)

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AOPA Air Safety Foundation

Health tip: Don't starve the airplane

It's vital to know how much fuel is onboard your aircraft, but maybe more important is understanding how to get the fuel from the tanks to the engine. On April 23, 2002, a pilot sustained minor injuries when the Piper PA-32 he was flying crashed shortly after takeoff from Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky. The aircraft was substantially damaged.

During the preflight inspection the pilot completely filled both main fuel tanks. But because of upcoming maintenance on the left tip tank, both auxiliary tip tanks were not filled.

The pilot said the runup was completed according to the checklist, and the engine sounded fine during both the takeoff and initial climb. At about 1,000 feet, the airplane lost power and the engine died with no sputtering or popping. The pilot checked the position of the fuel selector and the fuel boost pump switch, then began to search for a suitable landing area. As the airplane descended it struck trees, a building, and eventually the ground. After impact, the pilot exited the airplane, only to return to turn off the fuel boost pump and magnetos, and remove the keys. In an interview after the accident, the pilot stated that the fuel selector was in the left main position during preflight, and that he never moved it.

An FAA inspector nearby responded to the accident, and noted that the left wing had burned, the right tip tank was ruptured, and the left main tank contained fuel. Inside the cockpit, the fuel selector was set to the left tip tank, the carburetor heat control was in the off position, the throttle was fully open, and the mixture was at full rich.

One tablespoon of fuel was found in the carburetor, and another half teaspoon was found in the fuel supply line. When connected to a fuel supply, the engine started after three turns, and ran from all positions on the fuel selector.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's inadvertent selection of an empty fuel tank, which resulted in fuel starvation.

Fuel management goes beyond checking the tanks during preflight. For some airplanes, fuel tank selection is as easy as selecting "both." In others, like the PA-32, selecting and then verifying that the proper fuel tank is being used can be the difference between an accident and a safe, uneventful flight.

For more information about fuel management, see AOPA Air Safety Institute's Fuel Awareness Safety Advisor.


Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.


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