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Top 3 fuel-saving techniques for pilots

A top concern among AOPA members is the rising cost of avgas. Although alternate fuel sources are being explored all over the world, it will be some time before any of them have a direct impact on general aviation.

You can minimize the hit to your wallet by practicing a few simple fuel management techniques. Proper leaning combined with a lower economy cruise setting and a cruise descent profile can result in significant savings. Also, remember when you’re planning cross-country flights to check FBO fuel prices in AOPA’s Airport Directory for the best deals.


Leaving the mixture knob forward the entire flight is a big fuel waster; not to mention that a full rich mixture at cruise power can actually hurt some engines by causing rougher engine operation and vibration. When properly done, leaning provides greater fuel economy, smoother operation, and longer engine life.

Most engine manufacturers recommend leaning when operating at or below 75-percent power. Above 75-percent power, the engine needs more fuel to help keep it cool. Flying lean of peak is another step to maximize your fuel savings. We’ll leave this decision up to you per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

On longer cross-country flights, adjust the mixture to account for pressure and weather changes and changes in altitude to maintain the best economy fuel/air ratio. On the ground, at lower power settings, you don’t have to worry about over-leaning. You can save fuel by leaning aggressively during taxi.

Economy cruise

In combination with proper leaning techniques, consider bringing the throttle lever farther back during cruise. A best-economy power setting will provide the most miles for the gallon.

For instance, on a 200-nm cross-country flight in a Piper Archer, bringing the power to 65 percent at best economy will save 3 gallons (6 gallons round trip) when compared to flying at 75-percent best power. AOPA’s Real-Time Flight Planner shows the flight arriving nine minutes later when flying at 65 percent. Time is valuable, but nine minutes is likely worth the $18 savings on each leg of the flight.

Aircraft manufacturers provide best-power and best-economy fuel flow based on proper leaning technique, so fly at the recommended power setting. Simply leaning at a random power setting or only reducing power without touching the mixture won’t yield the desired fuel burn and may lead to serious fuel mismanagement.

Cruise descent

The most poorly managed segment of a flight is the descent. Instead of flying straight to the airport traffic pattern, leave the power setting where it is and prepare for a gradual 500-fpm descent to the airport.

If, for example, you are cruising at 5,500 feet msl and want to descend 3,500 feet to the traffic pattern altitude, start your descent about 15 miles out to achieve a smooth cruise descent profile. No need to touch the power, just lower the nose slightly with a trim adjustment. The passengers in the back will also enjoy this smooth and well-planned descent. Compared to the alternative practice of arriving at the airport high and adding time in flight by circling down to the proper altitude, you can save $6 in fuel costs.

Over the course of a 200-nm cross-country in the Archer, a pilot can save a gallon by leaning when taxiing on the ground, 4 gallons in flight with proper leaning and economy power settings, and another gallon with a cruise descent.

At a total of 6 gallons and $6 per gallon, that’s $36 one way and $72 round trip! Over the course of a dozen flights, investing a few minutes of your time each leg of your trip will yield a savings of hundreds of dollars. Not a bad way to fight back against inflated fuel costs.

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