Low on fuel: how I almost become that guy (or gal)!

I’ve been a voracious reader of accident reports over my 30+ years of flying. The one accident that I smugly assumed could never happen to me was fuel exhaustion—after all, is there any pilot error that is more avoidable? I always plan in excess of FAA minimums: 60 minutes of fuel upon landing in VMC and 80 minutes in IMC, even more if low IMC was forecast or my alternate was far away.

So how did I find myself surrounded by widespread IFR conditions as night was falling in the White Mountains, watching my fuel gauge fall below an hour when I was still 15 minutes from the nearest airport? I’d already had one missed approach and, while everything felt under control, my hands started to sweat as I realized that a miss at my alternate would leave me with 35 minutes of fuel and a very tough decision: try to shoot a second approach or use 15 minutes of that precious fuel just to reach another airport, one that was also sure to be IFR.

As with most accidents, it took multiple links to get me into this predicament. I had departed that August afternoon from Fryeburg, Maine, in my Piper Meridian on a round trip to take my daughter home to Philadelphia.

After landing at PHL, I did a fuel calculation and purchased just enough of the expensive, Class B Jet A to leave me with 90 minutes of fuel on the ground at Fryeburg. This was more than enough to get to my alternate of Auburn, Maine, with legal reserves but meant I’d be departing with tanks that could have held an additional hour of fuel (Link 1).

Meridian taxiing
One way to eat up your fuel reserve is to spend a lot of time on the ground talking to ATC.

On the Philly tarmac, I patted myself on the back for listening to the ATIS and getting my clearance before starting the engine. But after I started to taxi, ground control told me to pull into a hold area as ATC was reassigning me to a low-altitude route due to traffic saturation. By the time I sorted this out with clearance (with the engine running), I’d used 10 minutes of fuel reserves (Link 2).

On the way into Philly, we were able to fly directly to the field in spite of considerable build-up over the last 50 miles, and I assumed my departure would also be uneventful. But, due to the ground delay, the storm had time to both develop and move closer. This became apparent immediately after takeoff as ATC began to vector me in a big end-around to the southwest. By the time I was pointed back to the north, another 10 minutes of reserves were gone (Link 3). But the hits kept coming and the low-altitude route kept me stuck below 10,000 feet for the first half of the 400-mile trip. which cut my fuel efficiency 20%, chewing up 10 more minutes of reserves (Link 4).

However, the final link was one that was in my complete control—one that I could have broken any time before requesting the Fryeburg approach. I had been watching the Fryeburg weather on ADS-B for the entire trip and started checking the ASOS every few minutes once I got in range. The ceilings had been consistent at 600 broken and 1,100 overcast with 10 mile visibility and calm winds—easy-peazy for an approach with a 400 foot AGL decision height.

Thirty miles out, I listened to the ASOS again and made the decision to overfly Laconia, NH, (my last potential fuel stop) even though I would be landing with 60 minutes of fuel, 30 minutes less than planned. After all, I thought I still met FAA requirements so why waste time on a fuel stop. Plus, by going straight to Fryeburg, I would land before sunset, which I convinced myself would be safer (Link 5 and game over).

You can see where this is headed. I never broke out on the Fryeburg approach and found myself flying my first-ever missed in a non-training situation. While the approach vectors and full missed approach only consumed 10 minutes of fuel, I had already used up my entire margin-of-safety.

Although I made plenty of mistakes, I did do a few things right. The first started five years ago when I purchased my Meridian and began semi-annual two-day recurrent training. Although this was my first “live” missed approach, it was a procedure I had practiced dozens of times including actual IMC. And, as part of my Standard Operating Procedures, I had studied the missed well in advance of starting the approach and was fully prepared mentally. Second—as a result of this training—I did not hesitate for a millisecond upon reaching the DA. I toggled the go-around, applied power, started the climb and cleaned up the plane. I did not even contact ATC until after I had re-engaged the autopilot, gained sufficient altitude, and was on-track to the missed approach waypoint. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Route
Many links in the chain.

Third, in the climb-out, I briefly thought about why I had not been able to see the field and wondered if bad luck had me flying through the 600 foot broken layer at precisely the wrong time. But knowing my fuel situation (and remembering the accident reports where pilots got into trouble after trying multiple unsuccessful approaches), I never considered attempting a second approach at Fryeburg.

Fourth, I fully utilized my datalink weather on the trip into Fryeburg to monitor nearby airport conditions so I knew in advance that Laconia was reporting better weather than Auburn and had checked ForeFlight to confirm it had a precision, 200-foot-AGL-minimum approach. Because of this, I was able to immediately request and receive vectors to Laconia when I declared the missed.

Finally, enroute to Laconia, I let ATC know that I had a fuel situation and needed priority handling. I confirmed that I was the only plane on the instrument approach and let ATC know that I would declare an emergency if necessary to maintain my position. The approach turned out to be uneventful, the 1,200 foot ceiling and 10-mile visibility were as reported. I got the full top-off I should have taken in Philadelphia and set off for one additional try at Fryeburg, knowing that I now had enough fuel to get me anywhere in New England. Even if I didn’t make it into Fryeburg, at least for this flight, I was no longer at risk of being That Guy.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

28 Comments

  • This one really hits home …

    Back in the ’80’s I was flying a brand new, well equipped retractable C-182 out of TPA, traveling on business in the SE US. With appointments wrapped up in Columbus, GA and darkness approaching I had the fuel loaded to a specified volume (NOT full but appropriate for the IFR flight & conditions … or so I thought), reconfirmed weather & got underway.

    I had noticed earlier in the day some aches and seeming onset of fever but shrugged it off, only to notice the symptoms mounting after settling into the routine of attaining altitude & cruise. In line with forecast, the weather deteriorated as I proceeded South BUT the headwinds proved considerably stronger than forecast, slowing my progress AND featuring increasingly bad news from the fuel gauges. This – in combination with progressive ‘fogginess’ from the onset of (what proved to be) the onset of the flu – compelled me to commence alternate considerations.

    The obvious merits of GNV as a viable alternate were quickly rejected after hearing the missed approaches on the frequency, so onward to TPA, hoping the winds hadn’t yet shifted with the passing front, such a circumstance making things even worse with a lengthy approach procedure.

    As I neared my destination it became clear that the front had indeed passed and a straight-in ILS was off the table. Soon as I was handed off to approach, I advised a low fuel condition – not declaring an emergency BUT requesting an expedited ASR approach to 28 versus being sequenced way South to fall in line with the expected 1L ILS. Thankfully ATC accommodated, admonishing regarding the 850ish MDA. This being my home base, I was also duly intimidated by the tall light towers surrounding Tampa Stadium (squarely on my intended flight path), so there was no interest in attempting any craziness with the decent.

    After vectors that kept the approach as tight as possible (minutes seeming like hours!) I was turned to align with the runway. Never before or since have I been so grateful to see lights, picking up the glow of the REIL’s as I descended below 1,200 feet. Breaking out of my cold sweat on the roll-out, I was counting my blessings AND made the pledge to ALWAYS top the tanks when taking on fuel in the future.

    Regarding the cold sweat, I awoke the next morning with a temperature over 101 along with the usual complement of other symptoms associated with a full-on case of the flu. I wondered just how much fuel they loaded when they topped the tanks the following morning but never called to see … chalk it up to my having no desire to bring attention to such a bone-headed move!

    Two obvious lessons:
    1) The PIC has a duty to ASSURE maximum fuel on board for each and every flight/leg
    2) Honestly assess suitability to serve in the capacity of PIC and – if at all impaired – be prepared to stand down and make alternate plans

  • Once fuel/weather combos start getting sporty, an enroute landing for top-off, weather reassessment and a walk to loosen up can help put everything back in perspective. You get some time/space to think and full tanks for more options…one of which is to throw away the entire original plan.

  • Charlie: if we haven’t been there, we will be; it’s not a matter if “if”, but “when”.

    When my son started flying, I told him he was allowed to make every mistake in the book.

    Once.

    It could be life altering to consider repeating them…

    Full disclosure:

    I got myself into a pickle years ago in the military while investigating potential targets for a ‘recce’ competition – one target shy and with CAVU weather, I extended my mission and put myself into a low fuel situation. (I’d be landing without the required minimum)

    Which was OK, except that upon return to base, I only had 2 ‘greens’ when I selected gear down. I did a ‘touch and go’ with a bit of a bounce and the recalcitrant indicator clicked into the ‘down’ position.

    Lesson learned…

    • In this case a full top off would have broken the chain but plenty of planes run out of fuel after departing with full tanks so that alone does not eliminate the risk. I was trying to illustrate how I got lulled into a situation – glad to hear it has never happened to you. Safe flying.

  • I fly a Cessna 182 RG with the 80 gallon fuel tanks. I fly by the bladder method. 2-3 hours of flying, I need a bathroom stop. Great time to top off the fuel tanks as well. Never have run out of fuel. Although did come close to a mishap. Drank too much coffee at the last stop, and needed an airport bathroom a whole lot more than I needed the fuel.)

    • My approach as well, 2 1/2 to 3 hours and I’m making a stop for bathroom fuel and a stretch. And you get to meet new people in small town airports, that’s half the fun

  • Good job! Landing at Laconia and breaking what could be an accident chain was just plain smart. Advising ATC of a minimum fuel situation took courage. I hope I would exercise the same good judgement in a similar situation. Thanks for sharing!

  • This brings home to me the fact that book learning and even instructor learning is no substitute for real-life lessons that then stick with you forevermore. I had gotten my Instrument rating in February of 1989 and purchased a Cherokee 180 which was a good basic instrument plane to use as a beginner. I was based in BDR and had to fly to MDT. I started my flight late in the afternoon in June of 89 and there was no real weather but haze. Since I was already late I did not top off before leaving and arrived just at sunset with ~45 minutes of fuel remaining. I realized I didn’t have enough time to go to an alternate and the haze was widespread. This was my first solo IFR flight. I asked the tower to put the lights up bright as the haze was bad. they did and I saw the REIL and runway lights in time to make my “visual approach” and landing. After that sweat induced event, I never failed to top off after a flight and/or on any stop enroute.

    • From the comments here, it seems like some pilots have never make a mistake but most of us have those days where we truly absorb a lifelong lesson.

      • From the comments, it appears that there are at least a few pilots who have never made a mistake but most – like you & me – have those days where we truly absorb a lifelong lesson.

  • Charlie:
    A good story with a happy ending and one that could be used to refine your attitudes and procedures a bit. It also illustrates the flawed FAA approach to what is described as risk management, i.e., once a risk presents itself, what to do to escape its clutches.

    A better approach is to think in terms of risk mitigation ahead of time so as to avoid the risk altogether. In this instance, if you’re surrounded by widespread IFR conditions in the White Mountains as darkness approaches, the obvious risk of fuel exhaustion, however slight, could easily be mitigated (avoided) by topping the tanks prior to departure from PHL rather than buying just enough to get by with normal reserves. To avoid doing so because it’s more expensive begs the question of how much you’d be willing to pay for another hour of fuel after that first missed approach!

    I’m sure you realize that fuel exhaustion under any conditions represents one of those single point of failure risks that can and quite often does result in destroyed aircraft and dead pilots. When such a risk is present, mitigation rather than management is the preferred choice. You can also mitigate the high cost of one-time fuel purchases by finding low-cost purchases in the future and averaging them over a monthly, quarterly or annual period.

    Your decision to not descend below the published DA indicates you’ve established and respect certain hard and fast rules. Now, just add mitigation of the risk of fuel exhaustion to the list and you’ll have one less thing to worry about on those dark and stormy nights while shooting approaches to minimums!

    Gravity always wins!

  • Thank you for the great story and valuable lesson Mr Tillett! Your article is ringing like a bell through the ranks of your readers. Many of the replies are great stories in themselves and you have readers returning the “take home” messages as their own. Total success! I hope you realize you are also acting as mentor to many who will not post a reply, but will come away with another bit of permission to cultivate conservative planning into their flight routine. Wonderful!

    • Thank you so much. I have appreciated all the heartfelt comments although there are a few folks who sound like the old me – “How could you let that happen? I would certainly never be The Guy!”

  • Just a reminder, the three most useless things in aviation are; runway behind you, altitude above you and fuel in the gas truck.
    Having traveled to, and spent the night in, nearly every half decent sized town in this country, I know, that money solves nearly every problem. What is your life worth?
    Top the tanks when heading into questionable weather and know where the closest VFR is. If it’s in Canada, you are going to Canada!
    IFR ain’t VFR and reg minimums are “Minimums”!
    And yes, I have slept many nights with the seat as reclined as it will go. Bring a neck Pillow.

    • Tom: I totally get your point and in THIS case a full top off would have broken the chain. But plenty of airplanes run out of fuel after departing with full tanks so that alone does not eliminate the risk. I was trying to illustrate how I got lulled into a situation – glad to hear it has never happened to you. Safe flying.

  • Hi Charlie — Thanks for teaching and reinforcing the lesson of flight planning and preparation for the possibility of subsequent flight changes, in addition to the importance of training. Your skills as a pilot and mentor are greatly appreciated! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Charlie,
    Some very good points and lessons to be learned.

    First we all make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. However it’s better if we learn the simple ones from our own mistakes and the dangerous ones from others.

    The fuel requirements are a dispatch requirement and no guarantee that one will arrive with any when they land, so we need to adjust our plans accordingly.

    Yes, you made some mistakes and you had a lot of strikes against you. I applaud you for fessing up so we can all learn.

    I could argue that we set a limit… whatever it is and adjust as necessary as we travel to our destination. If the limit gets ONE cup of gas short, we do something right now. Also we need an alternate place to land no matter what. A second runway, or airport within out fuel parameters, IFR or VFR.

    So, it’s a constant monitoring.

    I’ve had times, when two extra hours wasn’t enough, and other times, my plan was to land with exactly minimum fuel.

    I could argue to set a min fuel limit and an emergency fuel limit. If you exceed either you declare min fuel NOW, or emergency fuel NOW. You were clearly in an emergency fuel situation. With the wx you had, the options were running out.

    Also, with a turbine, you have the disadvantage of poor fuel efficiency at lot altitudes that we piston guys don’t have. However, I had a few turbine experiences where not getting my efficient altitude would have dictated a diversion.

    I had another interesting time where any hiccup in the flight would be min fuel. With landing weight, zero fuel limits, alternate fuel, etc. I didn’t have the luxury of hold fuel at destination. Wx was crap and alternates were a long distance.

    Overall, I’ve been lucky, never declared a fuel emergency, but there’s been many min fuels, which worked quite well.

    Great learning experience! Thx for posting

  • Larry:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. You epitomize the fact that we should all all be learning all the time and all learning from each other.

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