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Selecting your fate: fuel starvationSelecting your fate: fuel starvation


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AOPA Air Safety Foundation

Selecting your fate: fuel starvation

Blind adherence to the before-landing checklist can have unexpected results. "Fuel Selector—Fuller Tank" (or something similar) is commonly seen on checklists in low-wing, single-engine aircraft lacking a "Both" position on the fuel selector valve. How many pilots have switched fuel tanks at low altitude just to follow procedures as they near their destination?

High-wing airplanes with auxiliary fuel tanks can also present problems. The pilot of an amphibious Cessna 206 learned the hard way that blind adherence to a checklist is a recipe for trouble.

On March 12, 2005, a 24,611-hour ATP made a forced landing in an open field after a total loss of engine power while on a visual approach to Runway 13 at Lancaster Airport in Lancaster, Texas. He and the one passenger were not injured. The pilot did not visually check the fuel tanks prior to takeoff and could not recall what the fuel gauges indicated during the flight. He thought both auxiliary fuel tanks were full, and both main fuel tanks were almost full. While descending for the approach, the pilot moved the fuel selector valve from the left main tank to the right main tank. Very shortly after, the engine quit. The pilot unsuccessfully attempted to restart the engine by switching the fuel selector valve back to the left tank and cycling the throttle.

Examination of the wings revealed the right main and right auxiliary fuel tanks were breached during impact. When the system was pressurized, fuel was noted in the right auxiliary tank's fuel lines. Both of the right main tank's fuel screens were free of debris. The left main and auxiliary tanks were intact, and both of the left main tank's fuel screens were free of debris. About nine gallons of fuel were drained from the left auxiliary tank, but the left main tank was empty. Grass at the accident site was discolored below the area of the right auxiliary tank, the inboard section of the right main tank, and the left auxiliary tank, indicating fuel spillage. According to the FAA inspector, when he opened the left auxiliary fuel cap, fuel poured out of the tank and onto the ground.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's mismanagement of the available fuel supply, which resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel starvation.

Unless fuel imbalance is an issue, or there is a questionable quantity of fuel in the tank currently selected, there is no reason to jeopardize a situation by switching tanks at a low altitude. Consider switching tanks at altitude prior to beginning a descent. This leaves an "out" in case things don't go as planned. By no means should pilots throw the checklist out the window, but, instead, they should exercise common sense when using it.

For more information about fuel management, see the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's recently revised Fuel Awareness Safety Advisor .

Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.

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