Learn the burn
Introduce fuel management early
The easiest crash investigations are ones in which airplanes ran out of fuel. All the evidence remains intact because nothing burns. Sadly, this type of mishap is also the most preventable. Perhaps the skyrocketing fuel costs is one reason that pilots are less likely to fill up. More likely is that pilots are ignoring the FAA's reserve fuel requirement. Apparently, such was the case with one Comanche pilot I'll call Bart. Bart's story began long before my buddy Dan encountered him at a California airport's fuel pump. The self-service fuel pump at this airport has been a constant source of irritation because of its idiosyncrasies. It took Dan four tries before fuel began flowing to his airplane, and during this time, Bart's Comanche idled, awaiting its turn at the pump.
Shortly before Dan finished, the Comanche's engine shut down. Being the polite man that he is, Dan asked Bart if he could help pull his airplane to the fuel pump. Bart gladly accepted the helping hand and all seemed right with the world. That is, until Bart shared his story. You see, when Dan apologized that Bart had to shut his engine down, Bart told him he never shut it down--it just quit. The reason? Fuel exhaustion!
Needless to say, this got Dan's attention. What made it even worse was Bart admitted that he considered flying to another airport to get fuel because Dan was taking so long. Dan stood there aghast, contemplating the possible consequences. More amazing was that none of this seemed to faze Bart. The fact that Bart was willing to risk flying on fumes demonstrated his more-than-cavalier attitude.
Dan had a serious discussion with him about pilot responsibilities, fuel management, and the fact that he could have killed numerous people on the ground if he had somehow managed to get airborne before flaming out, but even that failed to grab Bart's attention. Bart was fortunate that Dan was the one at the fuel pump because many others may have notified the FAA. Unfortunately, I suspect this is water under the bridge to Bart and is now little more than a memory. Thankfully, no one got hurt.
So, how does this story translate to flight instructors? It means that at least in this instance, fuel management was not stressed enough during Bart's initial flight training. You probably can't change people like Bart, but you can affect most of your students. In fact, flight instructors are charged with that responsibility.
Fuel awareness must begin from day one. It starts with teaching your students what water in the fuel looks like because it can cause fuel exhaustion. On preflights, don't just walk them around the airplane and show them where to drain fuel. Instead, add a little water to the fuel sample so they actually know what to look for. Follow up in your debrief; discuss what causes water in the fuel, and why water-contaminated fuel does not burn, and let that image soak in. Remember that most students are visual learners. Most likely, you'll only need to show them once.
Students should know what 100LL avgas looks and smells like. More than one piston aircraft has crashed after being filled with jet fuel. In such cases, defense lawyers would argue that better preflights could have prevented these accidents, and inadequate training can come back to haunt the flight instructor.
The preflight is just the beginning. Fuel planning is even more important, and can be simple or complex, depending on the nature of the flight. Let's say your fuel tanks are half full and you plan to remain in the traffic pattern to work on takeoffs and landings. While this may work fine for the flight instructor, the student loses out because no one ever discussed the fuel burn. In other words, teach your students to estimate how much fuel they will be burning per hour by remaining in the traffic pattern and they will never run out of fuel.
Experienced pilots know that takeoffs burn more fuel than cruising to the practice area, but if you haven't discussed this with your students, how will they know? Don't wait until the cross-country stage before discussing fuel burn. If you compare takeoffs to gunning your car's engine after the light turns green--and cruise flight to driving with the cruise control on--they will probably understand.
As their training progresses, have them estimate how much fuel they should land with on each flight and see how it compares to what's actually left in the tanks. Some instructors may see this as too basic or even unnecessary, but good instructors never overlook details. No doubt that Bart could have benefited from this emphasis on fuel awareness.
Equally important in teaching fuel management is mixture control. Make sure you include a discussion on how a reduced mixture raises the cylinder head temperature, and that there is a happy medium between overtemping with too lean a mixture and wasting fuel with a rich mixture. Simply pointing to the red mixture knob and telling them to pull it back until the engine starts to cough is of little value to anyone. In most cases, takeoffs will be performed with a full rich mixture, but high density altitude airports will require leaning during the run-up.
Preflight, fuel planning, proper mixture control, and never under-fueling are the recipes for proper instruction on fuel. Make your student a pilot in command on day one and lack of fuel should never be an issue.
Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.
Want to give your student fun, interactive, and important resources on fuel management? Let the AOPA Air Safety Foundation help. Go online to find things such as an interactive map of fuel-related accidents, a humorous look at fuel management, interactive online courses, and more. All the resources are free and provide a great way to impart fuel knowledge to your students.
By Mark Danielson