It can happen to you – a low fuel confession

I always said of pilots who lived through fuel starvation that “God protects drunks and fools… and they probably weren’t drinking.” I never understood how someone could be so thoughtless. And then this…

A few years ago, a coworker and I were involved in a high profile, time-sensitive project that regularly took us from Valparaiso, Florida (KVPS) to Langley Air Force Base (KLFI) and Manassas, Virginia (KHEF). We carefully planned for each trip in our aero club’s red and white Cessna T210K. This time machine would change a three-day trip into a single-day event. It held 89 gallons of fuel and would burn as little as 13.2 gallons per hour in cruise.

Although simple math gave us more time, we planned for a maximum available engine-running time of no more than six hours. This made our T210K a perfect mode of transport for this trip since, with the right winds, the trip to either KLFI or KHEF was just short of four hours.

Map of flight path
No problem in a 210, right?

As our project began to come together, we had a very important meeting at Langley Air Force Base followed the next day by a meeting in Manassas. Another coworker who was about to begin USAF pilot training became interested in our project and asked to tag along on this flight. Additionally, one of our senior coworkers found the prospect of traveling by GA aircraft very interesting, and asked to fly from KLFI to KHEF with us on the second day.

Due to a multitude of scheduling issues, we were reluctantly forced into an early morning, day-of-meeting departure. Our planned wheels-up time was 4:00 a.m. so we could arrive around 8:00 a.m. The FBO was only about ten minutes from the meeting so we felt confident in making the 10:00 a.m. appointment.

The night before the flight, we saw forecasted VFR conditions and 10 knot headwinds over the entire route. Prior to our IFR departure, we confirmed the forecast and loaded the three of us into the trusty Cessna. The future flight trainee sat in the rear and watched our preparation and asked some very astute questions as we taxied out for departure. We were airborne just prior to 4:00 a.m. and were relieved to find the forecasted clear skies and light winds.

After 30 minutes, we changed tanks and noted we were slightly behind our expected location and began to discuss the cloud layer that was developing about 1000 feet below us. Thirty minutes later, we switched tanks again and noticed we were significantly behind schedule and now on top of a solid overcast. After a call to Flight Watch, we got the same forecast we had prior to departure. However, we estimated we were flying into a 40 knot headwind. Our PIREP regarding both the winds and overcast was met with the same skepticism and confusion we were experiencing in the plane.

A little public-cockpit math said that the four-hour flight time with a 40-knot headwind now became a five-hour flight. The ceiling at KLFI was now 1000 feet, but two very close airports were reporting marginal VFR. The difference in the forecasted and actual winds did not instill confidence in the forecast at our destination. Our comfort factor was now gone, but our optimistic calculations still suggested that we would have time for an approach and remaining fuel for more options.

This was the point where my rationalization began to become clear to me. In the backseat sat someone watching the decision-making process of two 20-year pilots. We weren’t trying to impress him, but we had really talked up the benefits of using the aero club airplanes for business trips and didn’t want to have to back-peddle on our story. At Langley Air Force Base was a senior coworker waiting on us to attend an important meeting which we had been working toward for many months. We really wanted to be at this meeting! We had made this flight several times recently and the weather at our destination was cause for caution, but not concern. As we ran through the scenarios in our heads, the worst case was that we landed with less than the hour of fuel we always want to have. So we pressed forward with full knowledge that we were no longer being our normal, cautious selves.

We changed altitudes but did not find better winds… in fact, it seemed to be getting worse. We kept careful watch on our time on each tank and continually calculated the fuel we had remaining on each tank. As we got within 25 minutes of KLFI, we began to feel more at ease. We were flying on the right tank and estimated 20 minutes left in that side and 23 minutes left in the left tank. As a precaution we began to look for airports with instrument approaches between us and KLFI where we could stop for fuel if needed… there were none.

Fuel gauges getting low
Can you really trust those gauges?

As we settled on that realization, the engine sputtered and began to slow. Switching to the left tank remedied the problem almost immediately. But we now found ourselves 21 minutes away from KLFI with an estimated 23 minutes of fuel and the knowledge that our best calculations on the first tank were 20 minutes off! At that moment I remembered thinking “so this is how that happens” and not having had anything to drink, I knew how I fit into the “drunks and fools” adage.

We checked the GPS and charts for the closest airport and obstacle clearance altitudes. Confident that we could be legal if we could get under the overcast, we found Greensville Regional (KEMV) just to the north of our route (but no instrument approach we could use). After talking to ATC and describing our intent, we descended through a hole that had opened about one mile to the north. It wasn’t graceful, but we found ourselves 500 feet below the overcast only seven miles from the airport. We closed our IFR flight plan, landed, and put 78 gallons of fuel in the plane before heading back into the clouds. At KLFI we shot an easy ILS and parked the plane only 10 minutes from our meeting… about 30 minutes after it began.

We had missed our meeting but made it to our destination. I am certain our observer was less than impressed with my decision-making skills, but perhaps the experience served him well in his flying career. Our senior coworker’s confidence in the utility of GA airplanes was not bolstered on that day, but he did fly with us to KHEF the next morning. My biggest revelation that day was that I was, indeed, susceptible to “get-there-itis” and that I had some work to do on my personal judgment.

I also consider every flight that followed to be a gift given to a very sober fool.

17 Comments

  • Never thought it could happen to me either but……… on a typical flight from Asheville to Ft Lauderdale in my Mooney it did. Came up on a wide cumulous cloud build up and decided I could go over it. It was building rapidly and when I decided I would have to go around it I had 2 choices, one east, but that would take me way out over the ocean or west. I chose west and needed to fly way west of Tallahassee to find my way though. I realized I would need to make a fuel stop but figured I could stop in the Tampa area or somewhere in the middle of the state. Each and every choice was under summer Florida thundershowers. I pressed on and made it home with way less than legal reserve.

  • Heading home in the evening from a business itinerary with various stops around the SE US in my rented 182RG, I was feeling a bit achy as I did my preflight in Columbia, SC and more so as I proceeded to my final destination of Tampa, FL. Along the way, conditions declined as forecasted to solid IFR with drizzling rain and clear indications I was coming down with an acute case of the flu. Add to that, a headwind greater than forecasted and the here comes the perfect storm of physical fatigue, low fuel and declining options as I hear on the radio a litany of folks missing approaches at options along my route.

    Faced with the dire choice spending fuel on what could be a missed approach or pressing on to the destination with better weather, I opted for the latter, sheepishly requesting an expedited straight in when approach advertised a longer burn in the intitial contact.

    Thankfully I landed without incident, having learned a lesson that I share often …

  • Early in my flying life some 42 years ago, with a fairly new IR in my pocket and pretty good weather, we were returning from a family vacation in the Midwest, visiting relatives in Ohio and Indiana. As too often happens, the goodbyes took extra long, so that by the time we took off from Logansport, IN, it was well after dark. Our fuel stop was to be Lincoln, NE, roughly 4 hours no wind, well within the range of the Skylane with good reserves, even if a headwind developed. However, we did encounter a headwind, and as we neared Lincoln after being in the air for more than 4 hours, Approach advised us that the FBO was closed for the night.

    The family was asleep, so I decided to motor on to Grand Island, which I knew was a 24 hour FBO at the time, and with a 6 hour fuel capacity, it shouldn’t be a problem. We landed there uneventfully, but for that 45 minutes or so, it seemed as if I could hear the engine missing every so often. Was it my imagination or real? While the family went inside, I watched the rampy fuel those 78 gallon tanks with 76 gallons. How could that be? We’d been in the air only 5 1/4 hours, the airplane supposedly burned 13.5 gph; we should have plenty of gas. But then I did some actual calculating. Even if 78 gallons was all usable, which it wasn’t, that’s only 5 3/4 hours worth, not 6 hours. We had no EGT, so the leaning was by ear and probably not all that accurate. I hadn’t checked to see if the Logansport rampy had actually filled the tanks to the brim. All that meant we were close to running on fumes when we taxied in.

    Lots of lessons on that one, so I vowed never to cut it so close again.

    Some years later, now in a nearly new T210, #1 Son and I were flying from Ohio to Denver, with a stop along the way for fuel. I had carefully calculated the fuel burn, and this airplane had both an analyzer and a fuel flow gauge, making it much easier. Again there was more headwind than predicted, but with the DME counting down across eastern Colorado and the fuel flow meter telling me how much fuel remained, there should be no fuel problem to land with a 45 minute reserve. But realizing that by splitting the reserve between the two tanks, there’d only be 8 gallons in each, I decided instead to run one dry so that there’d be at least 16 gallons in the remaining tank.

    I told my son what I intended to do, so we were both ready for the engine to quit producing power. But I’d never run any tank dry in any airplane before, and I wasn’t really ready for what might happen, or when exactly it would do it. We were about 30 miles east of Denver when I noticed the fuel pressure gauge start to drop, so I immediately switched tanks and turned on the boost pump–and nothing happened. The engine wound down, and things got pretty quiet for a long enough time that my son asked, “Dad, is it going to start again?” Just about that time, the engine came to life, and we flew on to what was then Arapaho County Airport, now Centennial.

    We did indeed have plenty of reserves in the remaining tank, but those minutes of silence when the first tank ran dry caused enough of a pucker factor that I vowed never to run a tank dry again. In the 35 years since, I’ve never come close to doing so.

  • Don’t you hate those awful symptoms that accompany these events – the queasy, upset stomach, the dry mouth, the shaky knees, and others physiological responses too unpleasant to mention…? When all those variables coalesce to form what I call my pathetic, unsociable self I know for sure that I have screwed up big time.

  • I promised my wife I would never run out of fuel flying.

    I’m the PIC and I’m lucky enough to have three ME flight instructors on board, two of which are the owners of the twin Seneca we are flying. We were waiting our release and, of course, weren’t notified by ATC that Air Force One was landing at JFK. We’re grounded and much time has elapsed. En-route, we had to circumnavigated a group of level-5 embedded t-storm that weren’t forecast. And when we landed and topped off, we took 96 gallons. The Seneca has 100 gallons usable and burns 10.5 an hour. Minutes left.

    I darn near broke my promise.

  • Don’t you think you gotta have concrete numbers locked in before you take off? I mean, you say to yourself, “I started the engines at OO:OO; I must be on the ground in the chocks by XX:XX.” And then you stick to it – even if it means you’ll land at an airport other than your desired destination. That is precisely why the FAA requires us to have ‘ALTERNATIVE PLANS’ in place before we take off: CFR (FAR) 91.103 (a). We should all become acquainted with that old, wise adage: “If you have time to spare, go by air.”

    The fuel gauges on most light airplanes should be viewed by pilots, at best, as somewhat-adequate indicators of whether or not they have a fuel leak. ‘TIME IN OPERATION’ and knowledge of fuel on board at engine start – along with knowledge of burn rate – should be the primary factors when it comes to determining WHEN you need to be on the ground – not WHERE. DISTANCE TRAVELED (miles) means nothing. Only TIME is important.

    • 91.103 is there so you can fly to your destination and miss a couple of approaches before flying to your alternate that has a good forecast during the time you would expect to arrive. It has nothing at all to do with unforecasted headwinds.

      In this instance the crew was aware of all information available for the flight prior to departure.. unfortunately the winds were wrong. Even an hour after departure and a PIREP from the PIC flight service still reported winds at 6 knots… not the 40 knots we were actually seeing.

      We should have landed sooner. That was the whole point of the story. But even when we thought we had done everything to compensate, our math didn’t match reality. And we REALLY needed to make this meeting… as well as the meeting the evening before back if Florida. Not offering excuses for being stupid. I’m just pointing out how I described how we got into the position to start with. Without GA aircraft we would have not even been able to consider making both meetings.

      It’s easy, as I said in the first line, to judge a situation of which you were never part and decide the crew was careless. It’s not so easy to accept the fact you planned everything to the last decimal and your desire to be correct is obviously in conflict with reality. The burn rate on this airframe had been consistent over ever flight we had flown it… on this flight I can only assume we flew in such a drastically different manner that the burn rate was significantly higher. We also found a leaking fuel pump a month later that may or may not have been a factor. Either way we shouldn’t have put ourselves in a position where we would be pressed for time. We knew this taking off. But a familiar airframe on a very familiar route with a very good forecast and a good (planned) time cushion sure seemed like a safe bet. A bet which we lost.

  • It is interesting to illustrate GA fuel gauges when the author makes no reference to them in the story. While I agree with Dave Sandridges assessment above, and frankly GA pilots never asked for something better. Fuel quantity systems in GA consisted of a combination of tractor fuel sender parts and similarly agricultural gauges small and hidden from most pilot scans. So the fact that they aren’t trusted is consistent with their origins. It was done this way intentionally as there is no restriction on fuel gauge size so you can hide a complete lack of accuracy in a small gauge, fuel level was hard to measure. Beech took a different tack with a larger fuel gauge – but they were supposed to, Beech was better, at that time. It is obvious that this pilot story relied on calculation and planning and makes no reference to gauge readings what so ever, so sort of a misnomer to use them to illustrate the story – better to have used an E6B. Thankfully fuel quantity systems in new GA aircraft are completely different.

  • Two risk factors jump out…1) the requirement to be at the two meetings and 2) a desire to prove that GA (in the form of a club owned 210) can get it done. This is an enormous trap that all businessmen/pilots encounter. We all want to prove that our passion is a wonderful business tool. We want to say without my airplane my business wouldn’t be nearly as successful.

    However flying to a schedule changes everything. It amps up risk. You had a meeting the night before and were up in time for a 4am departure and 4 hour flight for a critical meeting and you decided to bring someone along who you admit influenced your decision making. Think about that. How well are you likely to perform at that meeting let alone as a pilot on the trip back? In a club airplane?

    You are correct to say that it is easy to sit back and take shots from the sofa. I get it. Difference is I have been there too. How I survived that period of my life is a mystery.

    This mission required different equipment (turbo prop or turbojet) for speed and comfort if nothing else and quite possibly a professional crew member. I know I know it is beyond your means economically. Trust me every one of us goes through that.

    Flights like these are basically running through a minefield. So many opportunities for bad decisions all because we are passionate about flying and business. The two can mix pretty well but there is a danger zone that exists. The flight you described is in the sweet spot of that danger zone. Learn to recognize it and avoid it. Either have the resources to do it correctly or don’t do it until you do. I would wager a significant sum that most entrepreneur flown business flights that end in a bad outcome were attempting to do exactly what you were trying to do. Prove to themselves that GA can make the difference. The problem is when you are wrong you usually end up being dead wrong.

  • Hugely helpful to me, this is the stuff I make every effort to soak up as a new pilot whenever possible. Comments also gave me even more to consider. Thanks!

  • A couple of lessons learned or relearned that I take away from Stephen’s story here:

    1) Airplanes all burn the same amount of fuel during the same amount of time at the same altitude with the engine(s) operated to standard specs, including proper leaning … that is, until they don’t.

    Fuel leaks happen …. problems with ignition happen … carburetors or fuel injectors don’t work normally … other internal engine issues can pop up like burned valves, internal structural failures, etc.

    So what do we do when “until they don’t” happens? Always be prepared to react by making an alternative airport fuel stop.

    Head winds are no excuse – when they pop up stronger than planned, and you might end up with less than 1 hour of fuel at your planned destination, then make an unplanned fuel stop. Easy peasy … just do it.

    Another lesson:

    2) Aviation weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable, yet because we pilots are taught and harangued constantly to become supremely and intimately familiar with how to read and interpret weather forecasts, we naturally tend to put way too much faith in the forecasts (otherwise, why bother with them?). The result too often is we neglect the fact of “GIGO” – garbage in equals garbage out. All too often the weather forecast turns out to be utterly garbage, so we should not expect anything less than a bad outcome unless we take steps to deal with the reality of the actual weather we’re in.

    The problem is, as in this story, if the weather forecast proves to be wrong, way too many of us stubbornly continue to bull our way through and fail to exercise our alternate plans. We foolishly tell ourselves that “just because the weather is a little uncooperative”, that absolves us of our responsibility to react accordingly.

    Lastly, Stephen and his copilot were obviously bitten hard by the “get-there-itis” bug. That was the fatal flaw to their entire travel plan.

    The obvious lesson there is, don’t ever allow get-there-itis to be a factor in planning any flight in a light aircraft.

    To borrow a line from the old Federal Express ads, “if it absolutely, positively has to be there …” then buy an airline ticket. DON’T fly a light aircraft.

  • Great article guys! Big learning done here. I am a new to flying pilot (pilot ha! (hours low 40)) but with an entire life growing up with a Father who is a pilot and engineer, (experience slightly higher than my 40 hrs). Luckily I learned this lesson, or had a taste of the associated stress in a car on the motorway travelling to Sydney Australia. Rental was doing way better on gas than expected so pushed on past a truck stop where I thought we would re fill. Well there was no stops for what seemed like for ever. Did I mention we were heading to SYD airport to catch our international flight to NZ!? We pulled into a garage after an eternity with the fuel light flashing. As we pulled in to the pump the car stopped… Father says “You know why most planes crash?, they run out of fuel”. Sweaty brow and palms as I was grilled by the old man. Not as bad as what some of you have experienced but hopefully with this and a bit of your teachings I have avoided it in the sky’s.

  • My Alaska bush flying experience (decades of it!) shows that this questionable activity frequently leaves the bush pilot with less than the FAA’s requirement. Often, a flight must be planned with less than a 30-minutes fuel reserve – – – or less! Many factors lead to this less-than-sensible-fuel planning. A good example is the short tale I wrote for Air Facts Journal, “Really Low on Fuel in a Thirsty Super Cub.” A series of events caused this particular situation, not the least of which was a mechanical failure that could hardly have been forecast. In the last analysis, a low fuel situation ranks just a short stretch behind fire in the air. Don’t let it happen to you . . .

    • Mort,

      Like most here I’ve enjoyed reading your stories of bush piloting in Alaska. Thanks for sharing several of them with us.

      Regarding flying over the Alaskan bush, or any other area where convenient fuel stops can be mighty scarce, it’s at least understandable why the limits sometimes get pushed. “Get-there-itis” also takes on a somewhat different meaning when not “getting there” may mean something more serious than missing a meeting time. But even in the bush, the same principles apply:

      Do your pre-flight risk management planning, assume that things are NOT going to go according to Plan A, and be well prepared to execute any of Plans B, C, or D in order to survive another day.

  • In light of the fuel related tragady / crime in South America it seems your article was quite timely. Too bad that pilot didn’t read it.

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