Low fuel

August 31, 2010 by Tim McAdams

I have studied and written about helicopter accidents for most of my career. I believe many accidents contain valuable lessons that can help all of us be safer pilots. However, one kind of accident that I find hard to believe–because it defies common sens–involves fuel exhaustion. Not a situation where something prevents fuel from getting to the engine, but rather when a pilot knows he is low on fuel, keeps flying anyway, and then experiences an in-flight engine shut down.

A helicopter pilot who allows his fuel to get too low has many more landing options than an airplane pilot. Maybe that contributes to a complacent mindset when in a low-fuel situation. I am sure it’s embarrassing, or maybe even places ones job in jeopardy, to land in a field low on fuel, but to me it sure beats the alternative. Moreover, some of the reasons pilots give for not stopping for fuel seem bizarre.

Case in point, according to the NSTB on October 15, 2002, a CFI was providing night VFR cross-country instruction to a student in a Schweizer 269C helicopter. They had discussed their low-fuel situation, but elected not to stop and refuel because neither had a credit card. On the last leg of their flight, the low-fuel light illuminated, followed a few minutes later by complete loss of engine power. During the autorotation the helicopter was substantially damaged when it struck trees and the tail boom separated from the airframe. Miraculously, neither pilot was injured.

This is not the first accident of this kind and, unfortunately, probably will not be the last.


  • Alex Kovnat

    Thanks for the above. Every now and then aircraft pilots (fixed wing and rotary) need to be reminded to watch their fuel.

    Elsewhere on the http://www.aopa.org site, we learn that in Beverly Massachussets a flight instructor was struck down and killed by the propeller on his Piper Warrior. The rotary wing community should take note of this tragedy and remember that tail rotors are, unfortunately, as effective as people-choppers as are propellers.

  • http://thehood.livejournal.net Ehud Gavron

    There is an excellent book http://www.amazon.com/Fatal-Traps-Helicopter-Pilots-Whyte/dp/0071488308 which I highly recommend. My first CFI Laura suggested it. The book takes real life NTSB and other agency reports, analyzes what went wrong, what could be done differently and gives lessons from it.

    I personally do read the NTSB reports… but they are sometimes dry and don’t contain the extra analysis that would help make the lesson very very clear.


  • Avi Weiss


    This is also a “flight-planning” issue as well. I had a recent experience where the CFI in question pushed back on “student” who wanted to take more fuel for a particular flight. The CFI felt that the amount of fuel in the tank and the amount of potential flight time didn’t warrant the “extra effort” to get the fuel keys, and add extra fuel.

    Sure enough, events conspired such that when the aircraft was touching down on ramp, low fuel light went on. Student proceeded to let CFI have it with all barrels, indicating that the CFIs expediency in “getting going” and misguided estimate about available flight time, and actual flight time flown were grossly inadequate and unacceptable.

    Sadly, I think it takes some form of “personal experience” to reach some of those who have become complacent towards fuel planning, and thus accidents will continue to happen

  • http://thehood.livejournal.net Ehud Gavron

    When I was doing my Stage 3 check (pre checkride checkride with different instructor)… we spoke the previous night, exchanged weights, and he told me where our “cross-country” would be.

    The morning of he asked me to file a flight plan. While I’d never done this I knew how… so I did. He had called for a one-way trip of about 30 minutes… so I told flightwatch 45 minutes.

    When the first checkpoint occurred where I had it on my flight plan, he got on the radio and told TRACON (We’re in Class C) that we were not going to do the trip… and instead would be at the practice area.

    I said “I would like to call FlightWatch and close the flight plan.” He said “Plenty of time.”

    We did another 45 minutes of maneuvers, EPs, etc. and came in to land at the airport. He wanted to debrief so we turned the radio off.

    By this time FlightWatch had called my cellphone about 10 times. When I saw the call-log later I turned white. They called the flight school too… but my instructor was with me on a weekend and nobody was in the office.

    They ended up calling the Tower, which tried to reach us, but our radio was turned off.

    FORTUNATELY other company traffic was setting up for a flight, heard the call, and let Tower know we were safely on the ground. (Keep in mind, this is Class C, so we **HAD** asked Tower for permission to come in… they just didn’t remember it).

    The instructor apologized profusely. This was the first time he’d selected a “cross-country destination” so close… and hadn’t realized that I would file it correctly … He admitted that he should not have stopped me from doing the right thing.

    MORAL #1: Trust your judgment. Err on the side of caution. Stop for fuel. Cancel flight plan. Keep ATC apprised of issues.

    MORAL #2. Instructors have a lot of training, but when it comes to ADM, the PIC is the final word.

    Did I screw up? Yes. See #2.
    Did the instructor screw up? Yes. See #1.
    No lives were risked here, just some certificates. The morals apply…


  • http://www.AOPA.org David Jack Kenny

    As a student pilot, I once remarked to our chief flight instructor that I was having a hard time thinking of any good reason for a pilot to run out of fuel in flight. He snapped back, “That’s because there isn’t any!”

    The AOPA Air Safety Institute has been keeping a close eye on fuel-management accidents for years now. While we’ve seen considerable improvement over the past decade, we’re still averaging six or seven a month — and that’s just those that cause enough damage or injury to rise to the Part 830 definition of “accident”. Some unknown number of additional aircraft land with so little fuel in reserve that their avoidance of an accident was a matter of luck rather than planning.

    Year after year, about seventy percent of all GA accidents are due to factors within the pilot’s control. Fuel-management accidents are surely among the most preventable of all.

  • http://samdawsoncfi.com Sam Dawson

    I actually almost had such an incident happen. The mission was a NVG (night) cross country from Atlanta to the Florida pan handle in a UH-60. I was the instructor conducting an evaluation and training on a new pilot in cross country navigation. A combination of higher than forecast winds and the copilots reliance on what was a malfunctioning GPS put us way off course in a remote area. When I realized how off course and how far from our refuel site we were I took over the navigation and also announced that when we reached a certain fuel state we were going to set the helicopter down in a field no matter what. We reached that fuel state about 10 miles from the airport and landed in a farmer’s field. The airport was so close we could taste it… but I knew what the result would be if we did not make it.
    As luck would have it the farmer in whose field we landed was the brother of the refueler on duty that night. He actually called his brother while we were shutting down as he figured we probably needed gas. An hour later we were back on our way.

  • Eric Miller

    Another “Old Guy” story…
    After being in Vietnam flying helicopters for about 6 months, President Nixon decided it was time to start troop withdrawls (early 1970). My unit was chosen,we were all elated to be going home early. Unfortunately I was told I was 5 days short of enough time “in country” to get credit for the tour—Sooo everyone else went home early, I got to go to another unit to continue my combat tour. I had already been Aircraft Commander for several months, so all I needed was an area of operations (AO) checkout at the new unit. Upon arriving at the new unit I was slated for a combination AO orientation and unit level checkride. My new unit commanding officer was a veteran of two tours with that unit in the same AO and in the same aircraft so he was very comfortable in the UH-1D/H in general and that specific aircraft in particular. The early morning checkride was through and quickly accomplished with no problems by the unit SIP. I then proceeded to the hot refueling area to top off the fuel as I waited for the pilot that was going to do the AO orientation. Soon the unit commander arrived and announced he would be doing the AO orientation in conjunction with a mission to adjust artillery of units in NDP’s (night defensive positions) before nightfall. The Captain (I’ll just call him Floyd–to protect the innocent) boarded and off we went. The artillery adjustment was a long boring afternoon and the C.O. was trying to stretch each fuel load as much as possible to get all the artillery registrations complete before night fall. He was my commanding officer, the mission commander and someone new to me, but I was getting uncomfortable with the amount of time he was flying into each fuel load and our reserves. After mentioning this to him several times and hearing about how many hours he had in country and in this particular aircraft etc. etc. I mentioned that I also had my fair share of combat time and time in country and said I felt it was an unneccessary risk to be “cutting into our reserves” without a combat emergency situation in effect. About that time the 20 minute fuel remaining light illuminated, and as usual, I started the elapsed time clock. He said he had flown 17 or 18 minutes into the 20 minute reserve many times and done so in this very aircraft also. I said OK let’s compromise lets say we fly 5 minutes into our reserves max or just head back now for some fuel–he said allright, OK, but you need to learn more about the huey and how “we” fly here. I said fine let’s just head back–this is dumb..so after a sharp look he turned the controls over to me and said fine have it your way. I was sure I’d started off the rest of my tour in a lousy way and I would regret pushing the point. I went straight back to the refueling point and did an abreviated pattern, as I was hovering over and settling down on the fueling pad– the engine flamed out. The elapsed time showed 9 minutes…I turned to look at Floyd and he mentioned that it was so strange that engine flamed out only 9 minutes into the reserve. I said Floyd, you were betting the aircraft and the lives of ALL the crew on a system that had NO BACKUP with no valid reason to do so. He thought for a few moments and told me to refuel and re-position the aircraft to the revetments and he’s see me in operations later. About 30 minutes later I arrived at operations fully expecting to get yelled at, or reduced to co-pilot etc. but as I entered the clerk handed me unit orders validateing my Aircraft Commander position and flights assigned to me for early the next morning……..Floyd never mentioned that flight again and bought his share of brews over the next year or so—that was decades ago, many thousands of hours and dozens of aircraft types ago–but to this day, I still NEVER push a fuel or maintenance situation… Floyd was a definite “good stick” and an excellent unit commander, but we always have to look out for getting “too comfortable” pushing the edge of safe flying………..we don’t get paid to kill ourselves.

  • Jean Schwarzkopf

    I know that Floyd. He is still around.

  • John Worsley

    I had a close call with fuel management when I was a student pilot. I was landing my instructor’s Cherokee, and had gotten behind the plane, but made what I thought was a good landing. As we taxied toward the hangar, my instructor asked me if I had missed anything on that approach. I thought hard but couldn’t think of anything. He told me to go around and look in the left fuel tank. I did, and was looking at metal. Having gotten behind the plane in the pattern, I had skipped the checklist item about selecting the fullest tank. That won’t happen again. Nor will I crash due to running out of fuel.

  • Nam Cho

    What’s the standard “punishment” for landing due to low fuel? Does the FAA automatically take your pilots certificate? (if they find out) Perhaps pilots push things so often because of the inherent desire to “not get in trouble” when confronted with a low-fuel situation. Anyone know?

    Could this be a condition where high standards (make sure you have enough fuel to reach alternate +20min. “there’s no reason to run out of fuel” etc.) and the threat of enforcement minimize unwanted low-fuel situations, but, once it happens, exacerbate the situation by turning a mostly manageable condition into a dangerous emergency?

  • http://aopa.org Jim Borger

    A number of years ago a friend of mine encountered much stronger winds than forecast and upon arrival advised the tower that he wasn’t declaring an emergency but couldn’t accept any undue delays. The tower chief filed a report with the FAA saying the pilot didn’t land with the required fuel reserve, which wasn’t true. The pilot got a letter from the FAA asking him to contact the safety guy at the local FSDO for his home area. First he called AOPA because he was a member of their Legal Services plan. Thry told him not to fight it because all that would happen was that the FAA would put a letter in his file and, if there were no further occurances, it would be removed after a couple of years. The pilot convinced the FAA that he didn’t do anything wrong so no further action was taken

    A letter in your file, if you get one, isn’t enough to take the risk of pushing your fuel.

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