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Training Tip: What could go wrong?Training Tip: What could go wrong?

A night dual-instructional cross-country flight can be highly educational. That goes double when the flight instructor gets an unexpected lesson on the consequences of cutting safety margins too close.

Night flying requires different skills from daytime flight operations, in Frederick, Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.

The maxed-out Cessna 150 took off for a one-hour flight with 12.5 usable gallons of fuel. Assuming a 6-gph burn en route, it would be necessary to refuel before returning to the home airport.

What could go wrong?

Here’s what: You could start out late and land after the two fixed-base operations close. Then you could learn, as this pair did, that the airport has no self-serve fuel.

Now the choices you face will test your judgment in unexpected ways.

One choice you have is to call for after-hours fueling, and pay a fee.

Another choice is to scoot over to a nearby airport with self-serve fuel. “Nearby” means a 20-minute flight—but remember, fuel is already tight.


“We estimated we would have 4 usable gallons remaining. This was legal per actual fuel consumption numbers, but per a conservative burn rate estimate, it would have been below my personal minimums,” the CFI later wrote when sharing details of the night’s flying in a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

Just a short hop. What could go wrong?

Here’s what: You could arrive and find, as this pair did, that the runway lights aren’t working.

Now the choices you face, in a scenario that is starting to unravel, include landing without runway lights at the unfamiliar airport, or returning—into headwinds—to the airport with the closed FBOs.

Oh, and there’s one more option: Making a downwind dash to yet another airport with your four gallons—maybe—of usable fuel remaining.

What’s your call?

Their call was the downwind dash, which was accomplished—and it brings a chuckle when a pilot describes a fortuitous finale to a fear-fraught flight this way—“without incident.”

Safely parked at the pumps, the moment had arrived to learn how much fuel they actually had left.

“We had 2.5 gallons per tank for a total of 5 gallons remaining. 3.5 of those total gallons are unusable, meaning we had 1.5 gallons of usable fuel remaining. This was both illegal and below my personal minimums. I was horrified at what had happened,” the CFI wrote, promising a “big change” to future night-flight instructing.

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Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Training, Student, Flight Instructor
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