Safety Publications/Articles

Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

The silence was deafening

Which is worse--taking longer to reach your destination because of a fuel stop, or risking your life and the lives of your passengers on the possibility that you might make it? On July 13, 2003, the pilot of a Cessna 401 and three of his passengers died after running out of fuel and ditching in the ocean less than 12 miles from their destination. Two other passengers survived. The airplane sank in 300 feet of water and has never been recovered.

The 401 was filled with 102.9 gallons of fuel in Port Angeles, Washington. The pilot had also arranged for a fuel truck to meet him in Ketchikan, Alaska, to refuel en route. The flight then left Port Angeles on an IFR flight plan to Ketchikan, with a final destination of Gustavus, Alaska--about 757 nautical miles away.

En route to Gustavus, the pilot contacted Vancouver Center and changed his destination from Ketchikan to Petersburg, Alaska, which is 100 miles past Ketchikan. Thirty minutes later, the pilot contacted Anchorage Center and again changed his destination from Petersburg to his original destination, Gustavus.

Another hour progressed, and while in IMC about 22 nm from Gustavus, the pilot told Anchorage Center that he was concerned about his remaining fuel. Center asked how much fuel was remaining and the pilot responded "below five gallons in both tanks." The pilot was told of a closer alternate airport, but he chose not to divert because he was not familiar with it. Fifteen minutes later, the pilot radioed that he was out of gas at 4,400 feet. The left engine restarted briefly, but the flight ditched in the ocean less than a mile from land and twelve miles from their destination.

According to the two survivors, everyone on board lost consciousness momentarily. When they came to, there was about two feet of water in the cabin, and the aircraft was sinking. The pilot and three passengers exited the plane, but two other passengers could not. The four that got out began to swim to the nearest shore, but the pilot and one passenger became separated from the two survivors and were never found.

According to Cessna Aircraft, the cruise-power fuel consumption was approximately 31.4 gallons per hour. The maximum usable fuel was 140 gallons, or 4 hours and 24 minutes of endurance. The estimated total flight time after departing Port Angeles was 4 hours and 20 minutes. The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's inadequate in-flight decision-making process, and failure to refuel the airplane prior to fuel exhaustion.

Pilots read about accidents like this one and immediately think, That will never happen to me--I'll never run out of gas. But the statistics tell a different story. The number of accidents caused by poor fuel management is staggering. Nearly three accidents per week are a result of pilots running out of fuel or forgetting to switch tanks. The pilot highlighted in this accident changed his fuel stop not once, but twice. He tried to push the limits of his aircraft's capabilities and paid the ultimate price. To learn more about good fuel management techniques, visit ASF's Fuel Management Safety Hot Spot.

Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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