FAA Concerned (Again) With Cherokee Fuel Selectors

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The FAA has published an Airworthiness Concern Sheet for early Piper Cherokee and Arrow aircraft. According to the FAA, the Pipers’ fuel selector arrangement, which has no provision to keep the pilot from inadvertently selecting either of the two OFF positions, remains a safety issue.

The FAA had previously issued warnings in 2014 to pilots that it was possible to switch to OFF when intending to choose either left or right tanks, but has yet to issue the Airworthiness Directive for replacement that Piper has requested. According to the FAA, “On July 11, 2019, Piper sent the FAA a Preliminary Risk Assessment regarding the first generation of fuel selectors installed on the PA-28 (first introduced in 1961) and recommended the FAA issued an AD to remove and replace the fuel selectors.”

The FAA notes that Piper itself updated the fuel selector over time, resulting in the current configuration that requires extra effort to select OFF. Also, according to the FAA, it “released AD 71-21-08 to mandate the upgrade from generation 2 fuel selectors to the generation 3 fuel selectors; however, there is no AD to mandate the upgrade from the generation 1 round, flat plate fuel selector to the generation 3 fuel selector … Due to a recent reported concern, the FAA is once again looking into the possibility of an unsafe condition involving the generation 1 fuel selector and whether an AD is warranted.”

Piper’s current-generation fuel selector.

In order to determine if the issue continues to be isolated or widespread, the agency is seeking information from pilots and owners of Cherokees and Arrows with the original fuel selector if they have recently meant to select a tank and inadvertently selected the OFF position. Or if they have “specific concerns related to a possible FAA action to issue an AD mandating the removing of the Generation 1 fuel selector…” Contact information is contained in the FAA’s document linked above.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Been there done that. Flying at 5k in 7324J over Ozark mountains and forests in early 70’s out of old Columbia MO airport. Switched the lever about every hour to balance tanks. Switched it and engine sputtered and coughed. Looked down nothing but trees. Not good. Pulled anti ice. Full throttle. Nothing worked. Thought time to hit the trees but I did go to switch lever back. Noticed it was off. Never did that again. Heard a few years later that someone had hit the trees with this little yellow bird. Always wondered if that pilot did the same thing but lower altitude.

    • Maybe but loved to fly the PA28-140. No electronic gizmos or whiz bangs to assume control etc.in those days. Just pure joy of flying a basic aircraft. 800 hours in them and my best memories. Too old now so memories are important.

  2. In 2014, I wrote a SCATHING email to the engineer at the ATL FSDO telling them they were trying to make thousands of PA28 owners pay something like $750 per airplane because ONE knothead fresh Cessna pilot hosed up the fuel control management after a one hour checkout in a PA28. I checked and found that only 35 parts were available to retrofit the affected airplanes yet the FAA guy tried to tell me that “Piper will catch up.” Yeah … right. I actually called the guy and told him that if they made an AD, I was going to sue them … I was that mad. I recommended that an SAIB be published and — in the end — that’s exactly what they did. Good choice.

    Now comes some airplane mechanic with another singular bitch and some new guy at the ATL FSDO is off and running to the races again. There’s two bigger issues with these fuel controls. Many of the first generation selector valves are made of brass and wind up galling with time and are hard to turn. THAT is a larger issue. Secondly, if it’s hard to turn the fuel selector to off, what do you do when the airplane is on fire? I guess you just burn up.

    I wish the FAA and the lawyers at Piper Aircraft would just leave things alone. I see another issue … the checklist for the PA28 says to turn the fuel selector to the fullest tank for landing. Why would anyone in their right mind touch a fuel selector close to the ground as long as there’s enough fuel to run the engine?

    This is a pilot training issue, not a parts replacement issue! Period ! And I wish the manager of the ATL FSDO would get control of his minions, as well.

    Anyone who owns a PA28 better put a negative comment into the Federal Register before it’s too late !!

    • Anyone who switches fuel tanks immediately before takeoff or landing is a fool. Sadly, a checklist-compliant fool.

      Long ago, I modified all of the checklists in our little fleet. The many mods included:
      ENGINE START: Tank that will NOT be used for TAKEOFF.
      PRE-TAXI – Fuel Selector: Tank that WILL be used for TAKEOFF.
      PRE-DESCENT – Tank that will be used for LANDING.

      Those plus an emphasis of the necessity to turn the electric fuel pump OFF after starting the engine – LOTS of pilots (and instructors) miss that one.

      • That’s EXACTLY it, Yars. This isn’t a parts defect issue, it’s a pilot training and competency issue. Don’t just reach down and start turning the damn fuel selector blindly … STARE at it and decide what is the correct course of action.

        THIS is why I HATE the FAA. They could screw up boiling water. And the ATL FSDO seems to be the worst. It seems — to me — as if engineers down there have to somehow satiate their bosses by writing useless yet costly (and grounding for the fleet), AD’s. STOP IT !!!

        I DEMAND that the FAA reveal exactly how many PA28 airplanes have crashed because someone switched the fuel selector to “OFF” and the wasn’t savvy enough to turn it back on. Maybe those people oughta find a new hobby?

        The FAA — and Piper — ought to be changing the checklists for these airplanes, not forcing people to pay ~$750 per airplane for a part they don’t need and will likely kill them if they DO crash and a fire ensues.

  3. Sorry guys, but the original design of the fuel selector was poorly engineered. Changing the checklist may help, but it can’t make up for a bad design. However, I can’t say that version 3 is any better. The thing that bugs me about the FAA’s AD process is that the manufacturers get off scot free for poor design and the aircraft owner winds up paying for the manufacturers’ mistakes. Piper is all too anxious for the FAA to issue an AD requiring owners to switch to the new design since they can sell the parts and not have any financial repercussions for the mess. If your car gets a recall notice, the manufacturer pays to install the new parts and you pay nothing. Aircraft builders whine that a similar system would bankrupt them. IMHO, they should at least be required to offer the parts at cost and pay for some of the mechanic’s time to install them. Cessna did that for the mechanism to prevent the pilot’s seat from slipping. Maybe not the best example, but a step in the right direction.

    To your point, Larry S., the FAA is waaay to trigger happy on AD’s. For example, the cylinder AD mess that put a good after market cylinder manufacturer out of business. The FAA had almost no statistical data to indicate an AD was warranted, but they ignored the howls of protest from the public and issued it anyway.

  4. A pilot that owns the plane should have long since understood the operation of the fuel selector, and nothing but total carelessness and complacency should get it in the off position . And a new checkout, just emphasize “Don’t Turn It Off”. Situation solved as if after almost 60 years of using this fuel selector there actually is a situation. And yes, “select fullest tank just before landing” , not hardly. If my motor is running close to the ground, I won’t be touching it.

    • When I was in the USAF at Edwards AFB and working part-time as an A&P at the Base Aero Club, a TEST PILOT / SR-71 pilot came in to fly the Club’s T-34A one night. He refueled the airplane, took off and headed for George AFB (a no-no according to Club night flight rules … even for test pilots!) and crashed.

      Subsequent investigation revealed that he failed to properly replace the fuel cap on the R wing (you have to start out using the L tank because the engine has a pressure carb and excess fuel is only returned to the L tank). After an hour, he decides there was a fuel imbalance so he switched tanks WITHOUT looking at the fuel gauges first. Well … he didn’t notice the fuel was disappearing from the R tank, switched to it and the airplane flamed out. Then, after switching to a tank and having the engine stop, he decides he’s had an engine failure but doesn’t try going back to the tank that was working. He then ignores the emergency checklist and puts the gear down for a night landing in the desert. Scratch one T-34A. We had to go retrieve it using an Army Chinook to pick the wreck up and bring it back to base. If anyone has watched “The Right Stuff,” there’s about a 5 second snippet of this airplane sitting against a hangar early in that movie. And this guy was zooming around in an SR-71 !!! We nicknamed him “Terrible Tommy” after that.

      So even experienced USAF pilots screw up. What would the FAA do about this? I can imagine the draconian AD they’d come up with. At some point, STUFF HAPPENS! If you do something and don’t get the expected result … GO BACK TO WHAT WAS WORKING !!

      I’ve owned a PA28-180 and a PA28-140 with first generation fuel selectors for more than 20 years and never ever switched the fuel selector to ‘off’ OR moved it any time I was in the pattern or low to the ground. Maybe the FAA needs to give a 703 ride to anyone who does this instead of requiring thousands of PA28 owners to buy new excutcheon plates that don’t yet exist in the Piper supply system. Say … maybe this is a conspiracy to sell over priced pieces of plastic?

      I say again … PA28 owners … make a comment on the Federal Register before it’s too late !

    • Roger, I know three pilots who owned retractable gear airplanes. All three had several hundred hours in those planes, but all three managed to put them on the ground with the gear up. In two of the cases, the gear warning horn was sounding the alert as they settled to earth. How could they be so stupid? All three said that something had happened to distract them during the approach, and they simply forgot to put the gear down. A distracted pilot could just as easily move the fuel selector to the wrong position, especially if he/she was familiar enough with the location of the valve that they reach for it without actually looking for it. It is often not the young pilot new to the plane that makes the mistake, but rather the guy with lots of time that thinks he is the master of the machine. Don’t let familiarity lull you into complacency thinking you are too experienced to screw up.

  5. After nearly 40 years as a safety engineer studying human response to unusual situations, I can attest that humans do not handle upset situations very well, especially when distracted. Unless you practice the scenario on a frequent basis, making the correct response is difficult. Checklists are helpful, but only to instill the right muscle memory for a procedure. In a true emergency, few people have the time to read and follow the checklist. That’s why the Apollo astronauts spent hundreds of hours practicing routine and emergency procedures before going out on the real thing.

  6. About the above article – Muscle memory? Our muscles have brains in them? Humm
    Emergency – checklists? You are flying along on a boring flight & decide
    to switch tanks for the usual reasons. Checklist for that?
    Emergency? Maybe it would apply if you ALLOWED a tank to run dry when you are 400’AGL on a minimum vis ILS approach! ughhh

  7. Bob, muscle memory refers to the interconnect between the portion of the brain that commands the action and the muscle that actually performs the task. There is a feedback loop between the two that tells the brain what the muscle is doing. So, yes, in a sense your muscles do have brains in them. Practice refines the action so that the feedback loop tells the brain if the muscle is performing the task correctly. Pilots rarely switch tanks incorrectly when that is the only action being performed. It happens when there is a distraction, or other tasks demand attention at the same time. Yars is correct that using a checklist to put things in the proper position well in advance will almost always guarantee that the fuel selector is in the correct position. It’s those last minute distractions that will get you.