Fuel Rules

January 30, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

gas pumpLast week we discussed how there is too much extraneous information in the FAR/AIM book, and many of you agreed. One area that is very straightforward pertains to how much fuel is required. The FARs are unambiguous for both VFR and IFR operations. Two recent accidents illustrate the wisdom of having enough gas to go the distance and then some.

In January, a relatively new instrument pilot crashed after his Piper Arrow ran out of fuel on approach to Dover AFB. This was after attempting approaches at four other airports in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The preliminary report did not show the forecast or how widespread the low IFR conditions were, but it reinforces the point that flying 50 or even 100 miles to an alternate may not get you to a place where you can get on the ground with certainty.

On one of my flights in a Cessna 182 into a low weather system, it was prudent to land short before even burning half a tank. Taking on additional fuel made it possible to fly back out of the entire system if needed. It also provided great peace of mind and steadied the hand when shooting a low approach.

Last week another flight involved a Cirrus SR-20 that came up short on a VFR flight. The CFI pulled the parachute. There were no injuries, although the aircraft was much the worse for wear. It was a familiarization flight and the aircraft was about three miles from the runway when the engine quit. Less than a quart of fuel remained on board. I spoke with Mary Grady on an AVweb podcast about this issue and these two accidents.

Some say parachutes are for sissies, but in this case perhaps three lives were saved, whereas in the Arrow the pilot died. With the Cirrus accident, there will be some explaining to do, but sacrificing the aircraft is always the correct choice.

I shamelessly promote two fuel management Pilot Safety Announcements which you may find amusing: Hybrid Power and Would You Fly This Airline? Better yet—pass them along to anyone who thinks fuel rules are foolish.

Lest you think that these are isolated incidents, take a look at our incident/accident map.

These Pilot Safety Announcements from the Air Safety Institute are just part of what the AOPA Foundation does to help general aviation improve its safety record. And your support keeps those efforts alive. Consider a donation today so that we may continue providing these free educational resources for pilots everywhere.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Gary Daniel

    My wife and I left Friday from Martin State for a long weekend in Charleston,SC. that same weekend. Knowing there was a warm front moving up the east coast I checked the TAF’s for MTN and nearby airports midday Saturday. The trend for Sunday was low IFR conditions so we packed up and returned Saturday afternoon. On the return flight we were on top of a low cloud deck from mid NC to Patuxent River that was reported tops at 1200. This area was obviously associated with the warm front that moved into the MD/DE area Sunday.
    It was chilling when I read about the accident knowing what conditions the pilot faced, especially being recently insturment quailified. Just makes one wonder what his prefligt planning and inflight updates intailed. From what I’ve read he was a very well respected doctor. Sad.

  • http://www.fuellevel.blogspot.com Scott Philiben

    Several comments – The technology for fuel level senders in legacy aircraft renders mid level fuel level difficult, (The reason to carry a stick) It can give good indication at the ends – this is a component of geometry. Knowing that there was some very insightful intelligence applied to the FARs and the prior CARS – I believe this is the background behind the regulation – the realization that mid level readings with the technology available were just not probable. – Part of this was the universal use of automotive senders senders that were made to measure 15 gallons applied to a shallower tank with more fuel.

    Mooney introduced the warning light –

    There is technology that provides good if not excellent readings in aircraft – and throughout throughout the full tank range – Go fly a brand new 2012 / 2013 Cirrus and let us know.

  • Robert Jans

    Yeah I had a few closer than comfort flights with regard to fuel. These were all over water flights: there is no alternative: you get there or … you don’t. I have about 10 non-stop 611 nm flights in my logbook with my C-172 with long range tanks, that is 54 glns, ~52 useable. What do you do when weather shows up plus headwinds well beyond the point of no return? I always made it, obviously, but sometimes you get that spooky thought “Will I make it?” It appeared that my planning was always right but sometimes more right than other.

  • Keith Wood

    The operative word is “MANAGEMENT.”

    I plan flights to put me on the ground with at least 1/3 fuel left in every tank. Yes, that means shorter legs and more time “wasted” in the pattern and refueling somewhere. Once in a while, it means RON somewhere like Tulelake, CA, when the FBO is closed on a Sunday afternoon.

    What is DOESN’T mean is having to explain myself to the Highway Patrol — or the ambulance attendants — because I believed faulty indicators, used more fuel than expected, or had a WX divert.

    So that means the time isn’t really wasted.

  • http://www.fuellevel.blogspot.com Scott Philiben

    @Kieth – I cal BS – filling full fuel and calling it “MANAGEMENT” is not a plan for mixed GA aircraft operation and cross country flying. In most cases it is fa recipe for flying “OVER -GROSS” to instill some level of fuel quantity confidence in a large disregard to the capability of the aircraft.

    You have reduced the equation to …. . I know the tank holds “X” gallons and the plane burns “Y” gallons. I doubt you take off with anything less than full fuel.

    A fuel totalizer provides you the same thing. . What you really want to know is what is still in your tank – and you don’t have a tool to do that in flight.

    What is needed is accurate fuel gauges in this the GA level of aircraft – the concept is not un-approachable or technologically unfeasible, it’s just not common.

  • Charlie Kemp

    I have been fly for 57 years and am still at it. There is no excuse for running out of fuel unless there is a unknown leak and it drained out. The old say “Leave yourself an out.” Is as true today as when it was first said. The problem is so many times pilots set a destination and refuse to stop until they get there. That is rigid thinking that will get you killed. If you know you are going to arrive at your destination with less that 45 minutes reserve in daylight and 1 hour at dark, then stop and get fuel. It will give you a break and not take that long to save your life. Look in the tanks , check the amount with your totalizer if you have one against the burn. When you refuel, check how much each tank takes vs the amount you thought the burn was. That way you will get a good picture if the totalizer is correct and the real burn of the engine. The same applies to bad weather. Is getting there worth getting killed.

  • Mike

    Bruce – I tried looking at the two pilot safety announcements you highlited on my iPad. They don’t work. Given the prevalence of iPads and iPhones, and the aviation a community’s embracing of them, why are ASI videos NOT encoded to work on Apple devices???

  • Bruce Landsberg


    When we started doing the PSAs the iPad was still a gleam in Steve Jobs eye. All new ASI content will be fully iPad/iPhone compatible. So we’re pedaling as fast as we can but funding and staffing realities make it impossible to change all of the great Flash content immediately.

    I should have mentioned that. Thanks for the reminder.