Fuel exhaustion

September 15, 2011 by Tim McAdams

I have always felt that pilots can learn a lot by reading and reviewing past accidents. One type of accident that seems to happen over and over is running a helicopter out of fuel. I just don’t understand this, especially in an aircraft that can just about land anywhere. The following accident happened almost nine years ago.

At night on October 15, 2002 a Schweizer 269C experienced an engine failure due to fuel exhaustion and was substantially damaged during the ensuing hard landing. The CFI pilot was providing night VFR cross-country instruction to a student. They had discussed the low fuel situation, but elected not to 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 struck trees and the tail boom separated from the airframe. Miraculously, neither pilot was injured.

Then, just a few weeks ago a Eurocopter AS-350-B2 helicopter sustained substantial damage when it impacted terrain during an autorotation following a loss of power. The pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and patient received fatal injuries.

The purpose of the flight was an inter-hospital transport.  At 1730, the pilot reported to the communication center that he departed the helicopter’s base with two hours of fuel and 3 persons onboard and was en route to the hospital. Approximately 28 minutes later the helicopter landed at the hospital helipad to pick up the patient. While the helicopter was shut down on the helipad, the pilot contacted the company’s communication center by telephone and notified them that about half way through the flight he realized that he did not have as much fuel onboard as he originally thought. After a discussion about possible fueling and re-routing options, the pilot elected to stop en route for fuel and then proceed to the hospital helipad to drop off the patient.

Shortly after departing from the hospital helipad the pilot contacted the company’s communication center and reported that he had 45 minutes of fuel and 4 persons onboard. Thirty minutes later the helicopter crashed in a farm field about 1.7 nm miles north-northeast of the intended fuel stop. There was no post impact fire.

These kinds of accidents are very frustrating because they are so preventable.

  • http://offtheshelfedge.wordpress.com/ offtheshelfedge

    Great article – thanks for sharing. Do you have links to the NTSB reports for these?

    In our flight school flying R22s and R44s, we had handy fuel sticks (homemade) that were much more accurate than the gauges. These are simple to make out of a 1/2 inch wood dowel, and fit right underneath the seat…

  • Mike

    Very interesting. I wonder if pilot fatigue or stress could have been involved in the EMS crash. He was not thinking clearly. The other guys definitely could have prevented it by calling someone or at the very least landing as soon as the low fuel light came on.

  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    There is no regulatory requirement for a fuel gauge to be accurate between full and empty. The only way you know exactly how much fuel you have is when it’s full except for some of the smaller helicopters that can be measured with a stick. You have to use time and a standard fuel burn for the aircraft you are flying and use a conservative reserve. Just because the regs say you can land with 20 minutes reserve doesn’t mean you should. If you fly the same aircraft regularly you can fine tune your fuel planning. Larger helicopter fuel gauges seem to be more accurate. Don’t push it. If you have to land short because of fuel people will soon forget but if you run out and crash they will always remember.

    I can’t tell you how many EMS pilots that I have talked to that told me they don’t have time to use a checklist. Everybody should use a checklist every time. The aircraft can be set up for a quick start and an abreviated check list used with one of the listed items being the fuel level.

  • Danny Wallace

    (The aircraft can be set up for a quick start and an abbreviated check list used with one of the listed items being the fuel level.)

    While in the military, this was a standard practice for our quick reaction forces. Cocked or pre-cocked we’d call it. If you are human, you will make a mistake. reduce the chances of that by having the aircraft set up at a certain point in the check list and go from there by the numbers when it’s time to go to work. The life you save could be your own.

  • Joe Bradley

    Although I agree with the basic premise of the article I wouldn’t say that two accidents 9 years apart is “over and over”. “Over and over” makes it sound like it is a monthly or even yearly event. The fact is running out of fuel in a helicopter is a pretty rare event.

  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    This blog cited just two cases of fuel exhaustion but it happens regularly. Most of the time it doesn’t result in an accident so it doesn’t make the news. It’s only been three weeks since the last one I’m familiar with.

  • http://Robinav.com Carl Schultz

    When I top off my R44, I reset the hands on the instrument panel clock to 12:00 to monitor time flown (or a 9:00 for time remaining @15 gal/hr burn rate).

  • Randy Coller

    Regarding the statement: “At night on October 15, 2002 a Schweizer 269C experienced an engine failure due to fuel exhaustion… ”
    Sorry, the engine didn’t fail. The pilot failed.

    If a person runs out of fuel, one of two things should happen,
    (1) they should voluntarily relinquish all pilot certificates because they are too stupid to be flying, or
    (2) the FAA should permanently revoke their certificates.

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