Most are recurring themes frequently found in accident records and reports of pilots who landed in fields or on roads and highways. Casual preflights, skipping fuel stops, underestimating the fuel burn, even trusting to intuition that a destination is reachable are popular favorites.
Some pilots took the bold position that their fuel-management errors were offset by a well-done off-airport landing—a view not likely shared by their passengers. Consider this sampling of ways pilots fly themselves to fuel exhaustion, and the observations some offered in official filings about their unplanned landings.
- The no-visual-fuel-check scenario: “The Cessna 180 tanks are hard to check (high wings made worse by large tires and the lack of any steps to climb up on in case a ladder is not available). The good news is my flight instructor on my last 2 biannual reviews gave me engine failures, my first since Air Force training forty years ago. These helped a great deal.”
- Right idea, wrong checklist: “The checklist said to fill the tanks to the tabs. That is what I did. I know now that this is for storing the aircraft, but you can top the tanks in cross country.”
- “I thought I would be fine”: Unable to take on seven more gallons before departure, then climbing an extra 2,000 feet to escape turbulence, a Cessna 172 pilot lost power two miles short of the airport—where the engine ran again after a mud landing. “If the issue was carb ice or fuel exhaustion, these are things that I have been trained on and the fault lies with me for not engaging carb heat fully, or adding additional fuel even though I thought I would be fine.”
- Undisciplined diversion: “I was diverted by ATC (flight following) due to inclement weather, then direct on course to my final destination. Due to this diversion, I experienced fuel exhaustion approximately 8.3 NM from [my destination].”
When pondering this partial list, remember that when it comes to fuel, seeing is believing; gallons on board represent time in flight, and a healthy margin of error beyond published performance figures and required reserves will hedge against running out the clock.
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