Aviation comes with inherent risk. If you don’t understand that, you need to sit down with an instructor! Flying an airplane should never be approached carelessly. But having risk doesn’t mean aviation is unsafe – far from it. I try to emphasize in every Safety Gram that pilots have a disproportionate ability to control much of the risk. Even though risk can’t be completely eliminated, aviation safety means actively managing risk. One of the many risks that you can control is fuel planning and management.
As the old saying goes, fuel you don’t have in the airplane is useless. Fuel starvation and exhaustion are still causal factors in many GA accidents according to the FAA. We’ve had a couple close calls with Aero Club aircraft recently. Thankfully, no one’s been hurt…yet.
The first rule of flight planning is to mitigate risk; always have an out (Plan A…Plan B…Plan C…you may have heard me say this before.). With respect to fuel planning, that means planning the flight so I always meet my reserve. If I can’t do that in one leg, it means a fuel stop; never give in to the temptation to cut into the reserve! If I’m even close to reserve limits, I opt for a fuel stop anyway for the sake of safety, peace of mind, and my bladder – particularly if my experience in that aircraft is limited. That’s Plan A. Knowing your fuel burn rate, gallons on board, and a good watch should keep the engine running.
When you examine causes for fuel exhaustion/starvation, it becomes obvious pilots need to do some nitty-gritty fuel planning to make sure the airplane has enough fuel on board for the intended flight, feed from the correct tank, and lean properly. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to check your fuel on board during ALL phases of flight. Properly leaning the mixture and burning off the correct tank are also simple but important. There’s a link to an engineering dissertation on proper leaning below, but basic application makes a huge difference in keeping enough fuel in the tanks.
That sounds simple enough, but successful execution has several layers – and forgetting one of them can be a costly lesson. So here’s the next layer…all my fuel planning might be drastically off if Mother Nature doesn’t agree with the forecast. Winds, temperature and density altitude differences from forecast can have a huge effect on the validity of my plan. Deviations around weather in flight can impact the plan too. How often do I actually get the groundspeed I planned for? Did I climb out exactly on profile like the test pilots did? Have I got the engine leaned correctly? Exactly how many gallons of gas did I start with? Ever thought an airplane was full, then fit another five gallons in after the tank “burped”…so why ever intentionally cut it close?
That’s why verifying the plan during each phase of execution is crucial. Verify the fuel on board when you preflight the airplane; verify your fuel burn during and after flight. I fully appreciate how easy that sounds vs. how tough they are to do in reality. GA gas gauges are perpetual liars, only required by the regs to be truthful when empty. Most GA airplanes don’t give you accurate fuel flow information in flight either. So verification before and during flight can be tough…verification after the flight could be too late. That’s why Plan B & C are so important …always have a way out and be prepared to execute it!
If I’m half way through my flight and the gas gauge indicates half full, do I have enough gas to complete the flight? Maybe. Maybe not. I would argue probably not since you need a reserve, but that’s a tough argument to win on the ground with the gauge errors we tolerate every flight. The point is, you should be cross checking your fuel gauge in flight at certain points against what you planned. If you see less than expected, start thinking about a possible fuel stop. Further, if the gauge approaches empty (the only guaranteed accurate indication), don’t overfly a good fuel stop because your very detailed fuel planning said you didn’t need it. Finally, after you fuel the airplane, do a good comparison of how many gallons you expected to put in the tanks vs. what you actually did. If there’s a difference, figure out why and apply the knowledge to future legs/flights!
Pilots make their best decisions on the ground before flight. Sometimes psychological drivers make us want to stick to Plan A dogmatically. Knowing an unplanned fuel stop may cost me $2/gallon more for 100LL than my intended refueling point can be hard to swallow. And the extra time to stop, refuel, and refile is unappealing as well. Or if my destination is one of those high cost places, it doesn’t make sense to completely fill up unless I absolutely have to. The temptation is to just put in the bare minimum in the tanks, but remember the gauge error I mentioned earlier? How will you ever really know if you got what you need? Dipping the tanks if less than full is the only way to know how much you are starting with. Erring towards the conservative option is worth it though. Plan B & C can cost extra $$ or time, but that cost beats the heck out of a forced landing!
Running a good airplane out of fuel is just tough to explain…to the FAA…to your passengers …to the club…to future employers…to anyone. The AOPA “Never Again” link below is a great read along those lines. The pilot had good reason not to fill the tanks all the way (hot day, full payload), but failed to recognize his well thought out fuel plan was not matching reality.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think a recent FAA article summed up fuel planning nicely: “Know how much fuel you plan to burn and how much fuel you’re burning. If you don’t have on-board equipment to answer this question, calculate your fuel burn before each flight and confirm your calculations each time you refuel. Comparing your actual fuel burn to your calculated fuel burn will give you confidence in your fuel planning and you can often uncover fuel leaks or other small problems before they become big ones.”
Blue skies and fair winds (and plentiful cheap gas!).
“The Fuel Air Mixture”
AOPA “Never Again”
By Benét J. Wilson
The Edwards Aero Club, located at Edwards Air Force Base in California, was formed on Oct. 13, 1957, and is dedicated to safe, enjoyable flying for the base and surrounding community. The base serves as the home of the Air Force Test Center, the Air Force Materiel Command center of excellence for conducting and supporting flight research, and NASA’s Dryden Research Center.
The club started with three Air Force-owned Beech T-34 trainers, said club manager Connie Farmer. The club’s first aircraft, a 1943 Aeronca Model 0580B, was bought on Nov. 13, 1957, for $575. The rental rate wet was $3 per hour and instructor rate per hour was the same for the club’s 39 members, she said.
The Edwards Aero Club is a for-profit and non-appropriated funds organization, said Farmer. “This decision was made by the Air Force. The Aero Club is owned and operated by the Air Force, but is run for profit as any [fixed-base operator] would be.”
Edwards, along with all Air Force aero clubs, operate under supervision and guidance from the Air Force with regulations and standard operating procedures written specifically for clubs, said Farmer. “We have regular scheduled inspections just as any other organization in the Air Force,” she said. “The Air Force also provides the aero clubs with operations and safety advisors whom are very helpful in maintaining a safety aviation environment.”
The club is a Cessna affiliate and currently operates seven Cessna aircraft: three 2000 Cessna 172Ss; two 2007 and 2011 Cessna 172Ss with G1000 panels; and two 1977 and 1978 Cessna 182RGs. Prices per hour for the 172S is $131 per hour; the 172S G1000 is $133 per hour; and the R182 is $145 per hour. Members pay a $30 initiation fee to join, then monthly dues of $25 a month, along with attending a mandatory monthly safety meeting.
“Members can learn to fly, get advance ratings, fly for recreation or travel, use the aircraft for [temporary duty] assignments, maintain currency, and participate in social events,” said Farmer. “Our aircraft are also used by the Test Pilot School for their Airmanship Program and government contractors to maintain instrument currency.” Flight instructors charge $45 an hour.
The Edwards Aero Club is a Part 141 operations and a private pilot certificate will cost approximately $8,000, depending on the student, said Farmer. “We currently have two full-time and five part-time instructors, with 12 private, nine instrument and three commercial students,” she said.
The club keeps busy with a regular schedule of events. “Every month I email the membership a list of local aviation events. The Antelope Valley is a very active aviation community with regularly scheduled events such as Fox Field Open Hangar Day on the second Saturday, Plane Crazy at Mojave Sky Port on the third Saturday, Open House at Agua Dulce on the last Sunday with hamburgers on the lawn, January fly in with the Antelope Valley 99s (Ninety-Nines, International Women Pilots) to Death Valley and any other flying event that come up,” said Farmer.
It also offers seminars and classes on a regular basis to keep the membership interested in aviation and help the club grow, said Farmer. Courses include IFR Refresher, Flying Companion, Practical G1000, Airmanship for Contractors, and Flying the LA Basin.
“Many members use the club aircraft to participate in volunteer activities [including] EAA Young Eagles, CAP, and Angel Flight,” said Farmer. “Some members compete in the local 99 Poker Run, two flew to Oshkosh [Wis.] last year and two members are signed up the 2014 Air Race Classic.”
Farmer said that newer clubs should do their research, know the federal aviation regulationss, and have proper documentation, which are the keys to starting a club. “Having several people share the fun and expense is easier and rewarding. And marketing is the key to growing your club,” she added.
Even though winter doesn’t begin officially until December 21st, winter weather conditions are upon us. We might even get frost in Texas soon. I love flying in the winter, but there are a few extra things to think about. As temperatures drop, it’s time to review mitigation strategies for cold weather operations.
“Dress to Egress:”
Step one starts before you leave your home. Dress for the weather and the terrain you will be flying over. Even if you don’t wear it all, bring survival items like hats, gloves, and boots. I always try to wear clothes that I’ll be thankful for if the heater fails in flight (since I’ve had it happen). At home is also the time to ensure you have a fully charged cell phone, a working flashlight, a personal survival kit, and maybe even a PLB. Here are a few suggested essential items for a personal survival kit: a signaling mirror, space blankets, fire starter/tinder (water proof), a few non-perishable snacks, and basic first aid supplies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, but putting a little thought into a personal survival kit can pay huge dividends if you really need it. Besides, the thought of actually having to use a winter survival kit seems to help me gauge acceptable risk a little more clearly…
Speaking of aircraft heaters, they’re awesome on a cold winter flight. But always remember, carbon monoxide (CO) is deadly. Review heater operation and carbon monoxide poisoning signs/symptoms/treatment in advance. Visual (“black dot”) CO detectors are inexpensive (less than $10) and provide CO detection that’s priceless. I’ve seen folks that just wear one of these on a lanyard so it’s completely portable and easy for them to see.
Once you get to your airplane do a thorough preflight; check tire pressure and strut extension, preheat the engine(s) if temperatures dictate. If the aircraft is equipped with wheel pants check for and remove any frozen slush or ice (strongly consider removing wheel pants entirely for the winter season). Ensure ALL surface ice and snow is removed. We all know that ice, snow or frost accumulations increase drag and rob an aircraft of critical lift. According to ASI, accumulations not thicker or rougher than coarse sandpaper on the leading edge and upper surface of a wing can reduce lift by as much as 30% and increase drag by as much as 40%. A good preflight inspection is critical. Don’t attempt to take an aircraft that has ANY ice, snow or frost covering it into the air. The windows need to be clear as well (so you can see!), but remember that Plexiglas will scratch badly if you attempt to use an automotive ice scraper meant for regular glass. Also double check places like the spinner, flaps, control surfaces, static ports, and wheels/brakes. Don’t forget about the hazards of frozen water in the fuel tanks! Further, you should always check any of the equipment you might need in flight (pitot heat for example – but be careful not to burn yourself!).
Starting the engine requires some extra care. Batteries don’t like the cold; minimize battery usage before start as much as possible. Be aware if you need to crank the engine more than once, you may not have the juice you normally have for subsequent attempts. Keep engine RPM down at the recommended idle after start because the oil is thick and won’t be lubricating correctly until it warms up. Finally, don’t take off until you get that oil temp in the green (checklists mandate this for a reason!).
While on the ground use extra caution – avoid snow mounds, puddles and slush. It’s not rocket science, but remember that ice is slippery; ice can rapidly cause loss of control! If you must taxi through any kind of water or slush use a slow speed and retract flaps on low-wing aircraft to ensure snow and slush don’t accumulate in the flap openings or cause damage to the flaps. Obviously, review and comply with your club’s established RCR criteria for winter ops. Finally, if the runway isn’t completely clear/dry, consider (in advance) exactly how that will affect your aircraft and take the appropriate mitigating actions.
Blue skies and fair winds!
AOPA Accident Case Study:
ASI Cold Weather Webinar: