Unless you’re soaring peacefully alongside the eagles in your glider, the one thing that’s guaranteed to ruin your day in the air is when you run out of noise. Despite our growing expectations from noise-cancelling headsets, we all secretly learn to love that familiar humming of the aircraft engine as the miles stretch out behind us, flight after flight.
To keep the song alive, an aircraft’s basic requirements are oil and fuel - enough of it, the right type, and accessible. So it’s a little disturbing that so many reported accidents are due to pilot error in the vein of fuel mismanagement. Each year, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau receives a concerning number of reports of incidents and accidents that have resulted from fuel exhaustion or starvation. Many of these accidents are avoidable; that’s the frustrating fact. All you need to do is apply good fuel management practices and follow established procedures.
The two main reasons fuel stops going to the engine of an aircraft are fuel exhaustion and fuel starvation. Fuel exhaustion occurs when there is no useable fuel to supply the engine; fuel starvation happens when the fuel supply to the engine is interrupted despite there being sufficient fuel on board to continue the flight.
Poor fuel management has been attributed particularly to private and charter operations and is a problem which every pilot can help eliminate by maintaining high personal standards of safety in this part of his or her planning. For it is in the fuel planning that the scene is set for either a comfortable, worry-free flight or a nail-biting, stressful wait for that yellow fuel light to come on. Seriously, who needs this added distraction and worry added to your task sheet as pilot in command?
A charter operator who insists on carrying minimum fuel in favour of a profitable payload immediately puts pressure on the exacting fuel management skills required of the pilot. Where margins are compromised, risk is heightened, and it is the responsibility of every pilot to at least question any procedures he or she deems unsafe.
Before moving on to addressing the key issue of quantity, you must be sure the aircraft is carrying the correct grade of fuel and that it is free of impurities. Approved fuels will be listed in the Flight Manual and Pilot’s Operating Handbook.
Be familiar with, and follow, the procedures recommended in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook. It’s really important to understand the fuel system on your aircraft. Does it have a fuel-injected system or a carburettor? Where should you leave your fuel selector valve when parked? On ‘Both’? On the left or right tank? In the ‘Off’ position? If your aircraft is fitted with a fuel pump, are you confident of when it’s required to be switched on?
To ensure there is enough fuel on board to safely complete your flight with reserves intact, there are some considerations that must be factored in, which could potentially add flight time and precious litres to your fuel calculations. Here’s just a few from a long list:
- Diversions due weather
- ATC re-routing
- Heavily loaded aircraft
CASA Airworthiness Bulletin 28-003 summarises the major regulations governing aircraft refuelling, so check it out and know your responsibilities.
- ATSB Safety Awareness report “Starved and exhausted: Fuel management aviation accidents”.
- CASA website: Advisory Circular AC 91-15 Guidelines for aircraft fuel requirements
- CASA DVD “Safety on the Ground”, covering safe practices for drum and bowser refuelling
- CASA’s Flight Planning Kit includes a “Time in your Tanks” model, and a pad of tear-off Nav/Comm logs and fuel log tables.
- CASA's YouTube safety videos Drum Refuelling & Bowser Refuelling