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Safety spotlight: Bruised egoSafety spotlight: Bruised ego

Are those fuel caps secure?

I flew a Super Cub over remote, mountainous terrain with my son in the back seat, a trunk full of camping gear, and both fuel caps missing. Both. Thankfully, the flight ended safely at our destination with only a bruised ego, and perhaps some shattered confidence from my son in his primary flight instructor.

Grant and I had anticipated this trip for months. Some time together, fleetingly precious as he matures. I launched from Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland on a spectacular day for Super-Cubbin’. Ahead of schedule, I meandered across to Morgantown Municipal Airport in West Virginia, doors open, satellite radio piped into my headset, exploring valleys and rivers on my way and thinking, as I so often did flying that Super Cub, Oh, the fortunate we, who have access to airplanes and a spectacular view of this grand country.

I landed at Morgantown, did a combined postflight/preflight of the airplane, checked the oil, and summoned the fuel truck. As I typically do, I asked to fuel it myself. In the Super Cub, the clear fuel tubes running directly out of the wing tanks serve as fuel indicators. It’s hard to see the indicators on the tank you’re refueling, so I put in what appeared to be three-quarters full and stepped off the ladder, expecting to return to add more. Perfect, three-quarters full. Over to the left tank, same procedure, stepped off and peered at the indicator tubes: right at three-quarters full. The line agent asked about the Super Cub. As we chatted, I handed him the hose, hung the ladder on the back of the truck, recoiled the static discharge line, and walked to the FBO lounge to await Grant.

This seemed an excellent flight to give a practical lesson in weight and balance. So, when Grant arrived, we reviewed our flight plan and dwelled on gross weight and fuel required. He drew the same conclusion as I, we should go with three-quarters fuel. We walked to the airplane, and I showed him the fuel gauges. After he climbed into the back seat, I gave the airplane a final, big-picture look, then climbed in and cranked.

En route, Grant flew most of the leg from the back seat. It seemed we were burning more fuel than normal; maybe I didn’t quite get those tanks at three-quarters full after all. Not an excessive difference, but noticeable—or was it? The tanks have different indicator markings for on the ground and in level flight. Bumping around at low altitude over the West Virginia mountains, it can be difficult to assess the fuel state from visual indicator tubes. We’d still have plenty of fuel and reserves at our destination, but I was beginning to worry about having enough fuel for the flight out.

We landed and my phone blew up with messages from friends and colleagues at Frederick, each some urgent version of “are you OK?” or “call when you land” and something about “fuel caps.” They had received calls from the Morgantown line shack. With a sinking feeling in my gut, I climbed up on the foot pegs and confirmed both fuel caps missing. I mentioned it to Grant, who climbed up for his own look and then turned a bit pale. He’d heard and read stories of fuel siphoning.

Our conversation around the campsite that night was dominated by the mistake. I was embarrassed personally, in front of my son; and professionally, in front of my colleagues. How could I commit such a blunder? What were the lessons learned and how could I prevent it from ever happening again?

First, never move away from a fuel tank without replacing the cap. It takes a couple of seconds to secure or remove a fuel cap. So, even if I intend to return with more fuel, or additives, or for any reason I “temporarily” move away, just replace the cap. Second, my big-picture look-over has been a part of my routine for years on stopovers. With postflight and preflight complete, I step to the front and look the airplane over for the big stuff: chocks, tiedowns, flat tires, leaks. There’s an old saying: “You’ll find what you seek.” If you go seeking an airplane ready to fly, you’re likely to find it, regardless of its actual status. So, I’ve implemented a more thorough and disciplined flow in my big-picture look-over. Third, whatever the flight, in whatever circumstances, climb up and check the fuel caps are secure right before strapping in. I broke my typical refueling process by stepping down to check the fuel level. Then, I got distracted talking to the line agent. The only way to ensure critical items are complete, especially when you deviate from a normal process, is to insert a final safety check that’s independent of your normal process flow.

I don’t know why more fuel didn’t siphon from the tanks that day. Whatever the reason, we were fortunate. I intended to give a lesson on weight and balance, but I gave an all-too-real lesson on distraction and preflight inspection.

Go fly. Check your fuel caps one last time.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Executive Director of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden lead’s AOPA’s ASI, committed to reducing General Aviation mishaps by providing free educational resources and supporting initiatives that improve General Aviation safety and grow the pilot population.

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