Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here
Aircraft Spruce logo
Sponsored by Aircraft Spruce

Training and Safety Tip: Be fuel-foolproof

Prevent fuel exhaustion

After a flight school’s airplane made an emergency landing in a harvested cornfield, the flight instructor called the school to report the airplane’s engine had quit and that the student and instructor had made an off-airport landing.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Luckily, they were not injured, and there was no obvious damage to the Diamond DA20 airplane.

The flight school determined that the airplane’s fuel tank was empty and that fuel exhaustion forced the emergency landing. Apparently, the student and instructor each thought the other had checked the fuel level before takeoff.

The lesson learned was shared and incorporated into the flight school’s policy: Fuel exhaustion prevention must be an essential conversation between student pilots and flight instructors before each flight.

In another fuel exhaustion incident, a pilot noted during the preflight that the aircraft’s fuel gauge indicated a quarter tank of fuel. He calculated that his planned flight from Phoenix, Arizona, to Carlsbad, California, would require an additional 10 gallons of fuel, still within the airplane’s weight limitations. So, he added 10 gallons of avgas to the fuel tank to bring the fuel level to three-quarters of the 20-gallon fuel tank capacity. At 8,500 feet over the California desert, the engine quit. The airplane was directly over the Borrego Valley Airport near Borrego Springs, and the pilot, who had some previous glider experience, glided to a perfect landing.

When the pilot got out of the airplane, he placed a fuel-level dipstick into the tank and heard it clink as it tapped the bottom of the empty tank. The pilot then switched on the master switch to check the electric fuel gauge, and it indicated a quarter tank of fuel. The pilot confirmed the result a couple more times. He then realized that he had not visually checked the fuel quantity and had foolishly trusted the fuel gauge after fueling. Electromechanical fuel gauges in small airplanes are notoriously questionable in their accuracy.

There are other reasons why airplanes run out of fuel, but fuel exhaustion is the most common, and it’s preventable. Fuel exhaustion accidents usually result from pilots failing to follow the aircraft checklist, miscalculating headwinds, or failing to adjust for headwind updates before departure and en route.

Ed Helmick
Ed Helmick has been a flight instructor since 1988. He formerly managed a flight school in Spanish Fork, Utah, as well as schools in Scottsdale, Arizona; and Honolulu, Hawaii.
Topics: Training and Safety, Student, Flight School
aircraft spruce logo

Aircraft Spruce

Sponsor of the AOPA Air Safety Institute's Training and Safety Tips
Aircraft Spruce provides virtually everything a pilot or aircraft owner might need. As a Strategic Partner since 2012, the company sponsors programs that bring hands-on knowledge and DIY spirit to AOPA members.