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Training Tip: Calling a fuel-emergency holiday

Is a month too long? You or I would never run out of gas, but we surely know someone who’d benefit from higher-octane proficiency with fuel systems.

Regulations, performance charts, conservative planning, and an aversion to making the local TV news mostly keep pilots from flying on empty. But it’s a stubborn fact that private pilots flying fixed-wing single-engine airplanes own the majority of fuel management mishaps, according to the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Joseph T. Nall Report.

A moratorium wouldn’t be the first time avgas accelerated a media movement to mitigate pilot behavior. When an FBO in San Marcos, Texas, cut its fuel price to $1 from about $5.90 for a short time in 2013 to incentivize pilots to fly more, the line crew pumped 90,000 gallons in 15 days as demand spiked; the “average upload” of avgas more than doubled before the overwhelmed FBO called it off.

Think of all those full fuel tanks! Even that savings is paltry compared to avoiding the costs, financial and otherwise, of repercussions of trying to stay high on an exhausted fuel supply. Mishaps persist, however, with flight planning or fuel system-operating lapses usually implicated.

A pilot’s vulnerability to fuel system mismanagement may trace back to primary training and how much focus was placed on building safety margins beyond the mandatory into published fuel-burn data. Leaning, tracking winds aloft and groundspeed changes, and comparing an aircraft’s actual fuel burn to flight planned estimates all lower risk. The fuel-mindedness you develop in training will shape your skills for managing the more workload-intensive fuel systems (compared to most trainers) you encounter later.

Distraction elevates any flight risk: After a Piper PA–28-181 single-engine airplane flying on a night instrument instructional flight lost power and crashed in Boynton Beach, Florida, in October 2007, a surviving occupant reported that “both pilots were concentrating on finding a suitable landing spot” but not troubleshooting the fuel system, said the NTSB accident report.

The fuel selector was set to the empty right tank; evidence suggested that the breached left tank had contained a considerable quantity of fuel. “The pilot operating handbook states that any time fuel starvation is suspected during flight, the fuel selector should immediately be positioned to the other tank and the electric fuel pump switched to the ‘on’ position,” the report said.

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