Sean Tucker's Fuel Exhaustion Adventure

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As I was listening to this week's podcast with Sean Tucker describing his fuel exhaustion incident in California, I got a mild case of the chills when he said "no one is immune." You can say that again, brother, this coming from a fellow member of the fuel exhaustion club. More on my dumbass experience in a minute, but first, a theory.

I actually think that some people are immune from at least fuel exhaustion incidents, if not other incidents. I have researched the subject and written about it frequently and my theory is that only a tiny fraction of the pilot community is remotely susceptible to fuel exhaustion. Call the number 2 percent or 4 percent. The other 96 percent are just too sensitized to running out and will always have more than enough gas. An airplane partner of mine used to constantly annoy me by insisting on topping at every stop, even if we had burned only 10 gallons out of a 70-gallon capacity. He'll never run out of gas. But I did.

Within that group of people who have run the tanks dry are two types: First, the clueless ones who say, "but I thought I had enough gas." Second—and there's no delicate way to say this—are the wise guys who reason that just because it worked out the last time, it will this time, too. I'm in the second group and I'm not flattering myself by saying Tucker would probably agree he's part of that group, too.

I won't bore you with the details, but my flight involved a longish leg from Georgia to Florida. I didn't top because I was in a hurry, the airplane had an (accurate) fuel totalizer and, hey, I always do it this way. I could claim extenuating circumstance because there was a headwind and a major line of summer thunderstorms blocking the route. But I knew all that before I departed and, after all, wringing one's hands about fuel exhaustion is for the little people. I would always have the means and skill to avoid such an embarrassment. I could always run a little leaner or slower or...whatever.

The end game: I made the airport. Just. I won't reveal how much gas was left aboard, but let's just say it wouldn't take that many Starbuck's Ventis to carry it. I was functionally out of gas and although the fuel totalizer was slightly optimistic due to faulty data entry--me again--that wasn't the problem.

What I learned from this is that there's no changing that overconfident attitude. For those who have it, it's encoded into the DNA. When I see Myth Busters solemnly warning not to try this at home, my reaction is always the same. Screw that. Where can I get my hands on five pounds of potassium nitrate? And what kind of hydrogen pressure do you need to blow the Pringles can apart without knocking down the pile of chips?

So the warm fuzzy takeaway when a guy like Sean Tucker fesses up is that certain of us take notice. I don't think the clueless guys who run out of gas can be helped because they are, well, clueless. But the wise guys—mea culpa—need occasional reminding that self confidence won't support internal combustion. You can't do much with the underlying attitude. But if you can at least illuminate how easily it can lead to really dumb decisions, you've made progress. I know I have.

Comments (68)

I used to have the thought - running out of fuel - how stupid. I'd never do that! It happens that invulnerability is part of the FAA's list of hazardous attitudes. I once put 22 gallons of fuel into a Cessna 150 (22.5 gallon tanks - it is a long but typical story, airplane had a new engine, ATC vectors around airspace, etc) I now treat my fuel situation with the same care as a loaded gun - knowing that a little inattention or carelessness may result in disaster. I think that seeing this happen to Sean Tucker should make us all feel more vulnerable - and maybe cautious. The antidote to invulnerability is - hey it could happen to me!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | May 9, 2009 7:26 AM    Report this comment

Forty years ago while in Florida earning a Commercial rating, I took a C-150 from the old Tamiami airport to Craig Field in Jacksonville, about 330 miles. I diligently studied the C-150 handbook performance tables, the flight was to be 3 hours and 30 minutes, and duration according to the performance tables was to be 4 hours and 30 minutes. As I progressed along the route, the fuel gauges were lower than I liked, but still not alarming. As I got near Jacksonville, I was alarmed, and flew as if I might have to glide to a landing. I landed, refueled, and the fueler says "kind of low on fuel, weren't you?" He put in 21.8 gallons, and the airplane has only 22.5 useable. That did it for me - the flight home included a stop in Melbourne. I almost learned the hard way that performance tables are not generated on an airplane with hundreds of hours on its airframe and engine, flown by low time pilots, figures are not Gospel, and the motto for the rest of my flying career became "No Fuel, No Options". The day one arrives with minimum fuel and the airport suddenly closes, or the gear does not come down, that's the day of reckoning. How foolish not to have enough fuel for that when nothing but your own poor planning prevented it.

Stuart B. Harnden

Posted by: Stuart Harnden | May 11, 2009 6:35 AM    Report this comment

I once bucked into a headwind in a Cub, and basically ran out of gas -although the aircraft miraculously continued to fly on fumes. The landing was short (I "parked it" on the button) and ever since then have been scared silly about not having enough fuel, or finding adverse headwinds aloft. The fear of fuel starvation is a beginning for aeronautical wisdom. "No Wisdom, Perhaps There Will Be Death". At the very least there will be penalties.

Posted by: Charles Elliot | May 11, 2009 9:19 AM    Report this comment

I frequently fly a plane that has a large thirst, small tanks and crappy guages. Proper fuel planning and discipline are a must. Several times I have made fuel stops when my destination was almost within sight. Fuel is time, not distance. Never believe a fuel guage unless it says there is less fuel than you think there is.

Posted by: Richard Montague | May 11, 2009 9:20 AM    Report this comment

I fly with a fellow who has about a 5 hour range. I havent been on a flight longer than 2 hours with him before we have to stop to refuel. No matter the weather is dominant high pressure over the entire northern hemisphere. No matter that our destination is only another hour away. No matter that we have to get somewhere (thats whey we flew right?). I cannot explain in words the frustration this causes me. Certainly its less than the frustration of a forced landing.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | May 11, 2009 10:03 AM    Report this comment

When I learned to fly I was told that one reason a Cessa is superior to a Cherokee is the "Both" position on the fuel selector - no chance of forgetting to switch tanks.

As fate would have it I ended up owning a Cherokee and one day I ran a tank dry due to headwinds and a long weather diversion. But guess what? I still had enough fuel in the other tank to divert to an alternate airport -- not a lot, but enough.

So now I know why Cherokees are superior to Cessnas! But I also agree completely with the comment that "Fuel is time, not distance".

Posted by: JAMES GRANT | May 11, 2009 10:06 AM    Report this comment

I've sure done some dumb and dangerous things with a plane, particularly when I was young (I got my license at 21), but getting close to running out of fuel isn't one of them. And I don't top off every hour. I just have a rule that I will land with a minimum of one hour fuel considering all reasonably foreseeable circumstances. For example, that meant landing at Montrose, Colorado, instead of going on to my destination at Gunnison which would have been accomplished with one hour remaining but thunderstorms were starting to pop and I didn't know whether one would be over Gunnison and prevent landing there.

Posted by: Malcolm Ruthven | May 11, 2009 10:06 AM    Report this comment

I was a 16 year old student in 1954 when I ran low on fuel while on my student X-country. Since then I've become one of those annoying types that always keep 50% of my fuel as a reserve. I cannot forget the feeling of watching that fuel guage with the big E while looking for a place I could land.
Paul Anton

Posted by: Paul Anton | May 11, 2009 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Reminds me of a slightly different story about the comments of a flight instructor (and flight safety officer) during my AvCad days in the early 1960's at Bartow AB in Florida. He always lectured during our cross-country briefings "Don't be embarrassed to call for a steer, because any instructor pilot here who says he's never been lost is either a liar of has never been out of the gd local area."
We were flying Cessna T-37's which had very limited tankage and were fuel hogs to boot, hence we had quite of few close calls fuel wise but fortunatly never had any accidents during my time there.

Posted by: Dennis McNish | May 11, 2009 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Flying down to Baja in a 1948 Stinson 108-3, mostly small dirt strips, included searching for gas. 80M has an auto gas STC but one small town we landed in was out of gas - really. The boat bringing it was delayed a week due to high seas. We were stuck there a couple of days waiting for fuel. Later on in the trip (with plenty of fuel), while landing in a ripping crosswind, in a major slip, the engine stopped at about 20 feet AGL due to fuel starvation due to the roll angle from the slip. We landed OK - there wasn't time to panic and we were over the runway - and it turns out the tanks on that plane have this possibility unless they are more than about half full. So there's one more reason (on aircraft like this one) to carry more fuel than you thought you needed. And it just goes to show that even when you think you have all the bases covered you can still have something new bite you!

Posted by: Unknown | May 11, 2009 11:08 AM    Report this comment

Been there, done that, will try to avoid that in the future.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | May 11, 2009 11:28 AM    Report this comment

I would like to retort as kindly as possible Paul that having spent most of my working years in the other side of the brain generally from flying, working in counseling for crisis, grievance and anger resolution to say to you to take heart - with the desire for greater awareness, behavior can be easily and permanently changed -if you want it to be. Self confidence need not go to over; free will can trump DNA; and humility can replace warm and fuzzy with unknown strength and greater awareness.
Being caught in one of life's hiccups like running out of fuel for whatever reason has nothing to do with our egos - only our ability to see beyond them.
Safe flying to all.
Dave Miller

Posted by: David Miller | May 11, 2009 12:31 PM    Report this comment

>>desire for greater awareness

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 11, 2009 12:44 PM    Report this comment

Fuel is a guarantee of neither time nor distance. It is a resource to be managed, just like any other asset. A partner and I were both annoying types that always keep 50% of full fuel as a reserve. Still, departing solo with 6 hours of fuel on board, he ran out of fuel only 175 minutes later, just five minutes from his three hour fuel stop. Oops.

The fuel caps were improperly seated. The other three hours' fuel had been siphoned away into the airstream, thus demonstrating both the Bernoulli principle and Murphy's law.

The fuel gauges had just been calibrated 7 days earlier, and yet they each read 1/8 tank when the engine stopped.

There is a reason to keep the fuel gauges in the visual scan. I now stop for fuel whenever the clock on the dash indicates half-fuel OR whenever the gauges read below half, no matter how little time has elapsed since departure.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | May 11, 2009 1:39 PM    Report this comment

In 1970 I put 35.5 gallons of fuel into a standard PA-18-150 Super Cub after landing at Lake Hood Seaplane base (Anchorage). I always flight plan a 1 hour minimum additional supply. In this case I needed it, all of it because of weather. I sat out 24 hours on a lake 90 miles South West of Anchorage until the Weather cleared. I knew I had 1 hours fuel aboard and with a 92 MPH cruise just enough fuel to reach Lake Hood or Kenai. I was over mud flats or close to shore and calm water going to ANC, Kenai was entirely over open water but 5 minutes closer.

The question is did I learn something from the experience?

Yes! During the last 39 years and 2,500 hours I have landed with less than 1 hour fuel remaining exactly ZERO times.

Posted by: Donald Moore | May 11, 2009 2:01 PM    Report this comment

What Sean should be embarrased about is the fact that he lied intially about the problem and the fact is out side of all his BS is that he RAN out of gas !!! He must have spent 5 minutes talking about a bunch of munbo jumbo trying to hide the fact that he had more ego than fuel.......... So much for the "Living Legend" of aviation... LOL ..."I may have been able to make the airport" to heck with that, you RAN out of fuel !!!!!!!

Posted by: Alan Thompson | May 11, 2009 2:02 PM    Report this comment

In my youth I once flew a Cessna 170 from San Diego's Montgomery Field to Phoenix Sky Harbor and landed with less probably less than 5 minutes of fuel! I was sharing the use of a friend's plane with about 5 other pilots, and our main rule was always to leave the plane with full tanks. I took off just after dawn and did not make a visual check of the tank levels. In the nose high position on the ground, the tanks indicated full, but on takeoff to level flight, the tank gauges fell to 3/4. Turned out the previous pilot had returned late the night before after the fuel pumps closed, so he went out early the next morning to fill up just in time to see me take off. You know the rest: a strong head wind, few options to land in the desert enroute once I realized how low I was, the eternal (and sometimes misplaced) optimism of the young, both tanks reading empty entering the pattern at Sky Harbor, number seven to land, crossing the threshold and heaving a big sigh of relief, the wide eyes of the fuel truck driver when he saw how much fuel I was taking, etc. That was fifty years ago, and I have never flown since without religiously making a visual check of the tank levels, nor departing x-country on less than full tanks.

Posted by: Harry Mathis | May 11, 2009 2:10 PM    Report this comment

My father flew jets for a charter airline (now defunct), retired on the DC-10. Having been a chief pilot on prop planes and the fact that his new airline desperately needed captains, he literally flew ONE trip (four legs) as a co-pilot on a DC-8 before transitioning to captain.

The final leg was from Honolulu back to Oakland. Having done the fuel calculation (jets are flown by fuel weight not gallonage or volume), the captain overruled him (long before the days of cockpit management resource training when "The captain was always right") and said he was using the wrong weight for the fuel (there are small differences between the weights of various jet fuels). These small errors add up to big ones when long distances are involved. When they landed they barely had enough fuel to taxi to the ramp…

Even the big-iron drivers aren't immune and this captain was almost "dead right"

Posted by: Daniel Hawley | May 11, 2009 5:02 PM    Report this comment

>>I always flight plan a 1 hour minimum additional supply. In this case I needed it, all of it because of weather.

Posted by: Alan Colon | May 11, 2009 5:21 PM    Report this comment

Of course he was embarassed, the guy is an icon! I'd cut him a little slack. After all, he may not have dipped the tanks, but he did verify his fuel quantity before departing, using a system that had worked reliably for him for years. Unfortunately an "improvement" to the fuel system negated his previously proven method for checking fuel quantity before flight.

I subscribe to the theory that fuel equals time rather than distance. Unfortunately, as with so many things in aviation, there can always be a gotcha like the case of the leaking caps. You can worry about stuff like this to the point of giving up flying, or you can plan on ways to deal with it and move on.

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this previously, but I might recommend some glider lessons to anyone who is abnormally afraid of an off airport landing. I'd estimate that when flying my glider about 30% of my landings are not made at airports. When flying my airplane I dont plan to land off airport, but I dont worry excessively about it either.

Posted by: Mike Wills | May 11, 2009 5:56 PM    Report this comment

>When flying my airplane I dont plan to land off airport, but I dont worry excessively about it either.<

I have a glider rating too, but I've flown a lot over plenty of places I wouldn't want to have the engine fail (very rugged mountains, very rugged coastline, large urban areas, etc.). I also stopped flying at night a long time ago because of the engine-out issue.

Posted by: Malcolm Ruthven | May 11, 2009 6:18 PM    Report this comment

My bladder has a shorter range than my tanks.

Posted by: Randy Coller | May 11, 2009 9:09 PM    Report this comment

My favorite cross country plane was a Comanche 250 with tip tanks. 15 gal in each tip and 30 on each side in the mains, a conservative plan of 15 gph. You have to take off on the mains, but can then switch to tips as soon as a safe altitude is reached. So the tips alone would take you 2 hours, and you run them dry so you have a exact gph check on every flight. Then switch to the mains and still have a very safe 2 hours, with a 2 hour reserve. I was always ready to stop for a break before 4 hours had passed anyway. There was one winter flight where I took on ice, at night, IFR over mountains, and elected to divert to an airport part way to the destination. There was no fuel available there but I had almost full mains when landing, and more than enough gas to make it the rest of the way the next day when wx improved. Some users (it was a club plane) didn't like the fuel management of four tanks but I loved the extra range.

Posted by: bboyes | May 11, 2009 9:27 PM    Report this comment

I don't think he checked his fuel before leaving. He more than likely expected one of his people to do it like usual, struted out to his plane jumped in and took-off. When the engine quit and he landed on the highway and the cops are there, they get the truth,"I ran out of fuel" Having time to think later realises, oops better make up a story about fuel computers, special tanks, air bubbles, fill limits, level lines, blah, blah blah.... Truth is, his ego almost wrote off a third challenger... How many living legends have crashed 3 of the same plane???? Maybe thats how he got into the hall of fame, or should it be the Hall of Shame....

Posted by: Alan Thompson | May 11, 2009 9:36 PM    Report this comment

"I once put 22 gallons of fuel into a Cessna 150 (22.5 gallon tanks "

Josh, I once put 23.1 gallons in a Cessna 150...figure that out!
My jaw must have been on the ground watching the pump going...and about a wake up call!

Posted by: Douglas Cooke | May 11, 2009 10:53 PM    Report this comment

It's also time to get the pumps re calibrated!

Posted by: Donald Moore | May 12, 2009 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Doug, The 150 supposedly will hold 24 gallons of fuel, but 22.5 gallons usable (in most models) I guess more than 22.5 was usable for you! I don't think I'll try that one! I knew a guy (not me!) that brought his airplane (also a 150) back for maintenance, claiming that it died when he rotated, but was able to restart it when he landed. The a&p checked the tanks and they were dry!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | May 12, 2009 10:03 AM    Report this comment

I had another thought - has anyone ever seen an early 172 with the usable fuel values on the fuel selector changed. These aircraft used to state 19.5 gallons usable per tank - the FAA found that apparently due to manufacturing tolerances - not all 172's held the advertised 19.5 gallons per tank. AD 71-18-01 was issued that reduced the usable fuel to 18 gallons per tank on these models. How low do you want to go?! (on fuel that is)

Posted by: Josh Johnson | May 12, 2009 10:15 AM    Report this comment

While I was in the Army the instructors made us start a fuel burn check within 10 minutes of take off on every flight. Its become a habit even now. But, I have had to resort to the prayer method a few times.

Posted by: ANTHONY RENNER | May 12, 2009 10:38 AM    Report this comment

The 150 holds 26 gallons, supposedly 22.5 usable.

Posted by: Douglas Cooke | May 12, 2009 11:11 AM    Report this comment

>I don't think he checked his fuel before leaving. He more than likely expected one of his people to do it like usual, struted out to his plane jumped in and took-off.<

Yeah, just like any professional airshow act he doesnt walk out to the plane immediately before his show and do a standard preflight. Never seen an airshow performer who does. But I guarantee you that airplane gets fully checked out before it flies at a show. I dont know what his SOP is for non-show ops, but he flew a photo op out of my home airfield a couple of months ago and the preflight looked to be pretty comprehensive from where I sat. And without the pressure of a show, he was a real normal, nice guy.

As for how he got into the Hall of Fame? Maybe because he's currently one of the best, if not the best act in the business. How did he break 3 airplanes? When you push the envelope, stuff happens. This current issue just proves he's human. And by pulling off a safe landing on a highway instead of trying to stretch it to the airport I think he showed pretty good judgement too.

How bout giving the guy a break? He screwed up. He recovered from the screw up, nobody died, nothing got bent or broken. He was embarassed by the whole thing and now he's come clean and proven that even a great pilot can screw up and learn from his mistakes.

Posted by: Mike Wills | May 12, 2009 11:51 AM    Report this comment

I've been in both camps; the clueless and the wise guy. For some reason it didn't soak in as a student that fuel is time and scared myself as a result. Learning to fly at sea level and instructors who rarely mentioned leaning may have had something to do with that too. Shortly after landing a Skyhawk with 2 gallons remaining came the request to run a set of new engines on a C-310 hard and cool, so high RPM and richer mixtures ran a side dry when I wasn’t expecting it. A leaking fuel boost pump may have been a contributing factor.

When I bought a plane I was so paranoid that I drained both tanks and calibrated a dipstick so I knew what each side actually held. Then I installed a JPI EDM-800, which includes a fuel computer which makes it easy to track options. I set it using the dipstick, so unless I lose fuel it works well as a belt and suspenders fuel management system.

Then there’s greed: Can I make it to a cheaper fuel stop? A cure for that is to compute the cost savings of pressing on vs paying a higher price. The delta is rarely a big number.

Years ago someone (AOPA?) did a study of accident free airline pilots and most agreed that the schedule is the most dangerous part of flying. The schedule makes people do things they normally wouldn’t do, be it weather, fuel or human factors. A question I learned years ago was to ask: If I do such and such, will anyone care a year from now? If not, do it differently. So far that has worked well.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | May 12, 2009 6:40 PM    Report this comment

Since everyone is “fessing up”, I suppose it’s my turn. I was flying a C-172 back to Strathmore, CA (1Q1) from a nice weekend in Columbia, CA (O22). I had conducted the fuel calculations three times and had personally fueled the plane prior to departure. According to the math, I had a bit more than 30 min. reserve.

Upon departure for the return trip, I selected the right tank which showed precisely the amount of gas I had calculated. The left tank was just about on “E” but I thought little about it since I had “plenty of fuel” in the right tank as was indicated by the fuel gauge and my arrogance meter.

About 70 SM short of the home base, the engine stopped and the plane became a glider. I instantly switching the fuel selector valve back to the other tank. This was quite interesting since the exhausted tank was reading about 1/3 full. Obviously, the fuel gauge was faulty. Thankfully, the engine restarted.

I called Fresno Approach and declared “minimum fuel”. They vectored me into 29R where, less than ten minutes later, I made an uneventful landing. It taught me a huge lesson and you can bet that it won’t happen again. I also found out later that the only time a fuel gauge is required to be accurate is when it’s on “Empty”.

The obvious lesson was that I should have simply fueled the plane prior to departure and not solely relied upon “calculations”. Enter the human ego which is part of what this confessional is all about, eh?

Posted by: Randy Minnick | May 13, 2009 1:26 AM    Report this comment

Back in 1981, flying a C-550 Citation from Hobby (Houston) to Santa Monica, we had terrible head winds. SoCal ATC said that up to 45 minutes traffic delays should be expected approaching L.A. As usual the passengers were in a rush. They kept asking what time we would be landing in Santa Monica. We landed at Palm Springs for fuel much to the dislike of our pac's. I quietly explained that we are refueling so that they could enjoy their Pacific Ocean sunset tonight. I was not going to spoil my day by a possibility of running out of fuel. I suppose my point is not to allow passengers (part 91 or 135...or may I add, the BOSS))to influence your good judgment. Early in my career I did allow a passenger to effect my judgment. That's why it never has happened again.

Posted by: Bob Leonard | May 13, 2009 2:27 AM    Report this comment

I'm probably lucky. Although the aircraft might have tanks that will hold 5 plus hours of fuel, my bladder is good for three max. My cross countries are 3 hour hops to empty the bladder and fill the tanks. For me running out of fuel while in the air should never be a factor.

Posted by: MELVIN EATON | May 13, 2009 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Lindbergh was my hero. Science was my copilot. Delano, California was the origin, the KCAB Citabria was taking me home from an aerobatic contest. Typically, one would land at Yuma for gas and make the flight two legs. There was something of a tailwind and I had read about how if you get high and lean out the engine you get long range.

I wanted to be a real pilot, one who can get the maximum out of his plane and the situation. Somehow it had slipped past me that Lindbergh landed in Paris with enough fuel remaining to make it to Berlin.

The numbers worked for a non-stop, so I crammed every last drop of fuel into the two wing tanks and launched into aeronautical history.

Cruising over Yuma at 11,500 the gathering dusk turned the sky ahead into a featureless, horizonless blur. for a while I was more worried about keeping the airplane upright than running out of gas. Eventually the sky darkened and the diamond dust of the valley gave me a reference.

The last half hour spent staring at the dwindling fuel indications and the city lights below taught me the lesson. I made it to Falcon Field with the motor still running, but only just.

The escapade was based on the attitude problem Paul Bertorelli described. I was young, smart, daring and knew I could push things to the limit with little margin for error. I did that a lot in those days.

I got away with it.

The lesson learned was not so much that I did and could, but that I hadn't ought to again.

Posted by: Larry Lowe | May 13, 2009 11:47 AM    Report this comment

In my younger, "foolisher" days, I had two incidents of near fuel exhaustion. In a 182 in the wee hours over Nebraska, enroute from Logansport to Laramie, I planned a fuel stop in Lincoln. Lincoln's FBO was closed, so we flew on to Grand Island, open 24 hours. The 78 gallon tanks (74 usable as I recall) took 77.5 gallons.

In a T210 from Detroit to Denver, I planned to run one tank dry with enough to finish the trip plus a 30 minute reserve in the other. I was surprised when the engine wind-milled prematurely, when the first tank went dry--and how long it took to restart on the other tank. Fortunately the headwind had become an east wind, and we landed with 30 minutes remaining in the "fuller" tank.

Today, much older, wiser, more conservative, I fly a modified P172D with 52 gallon tanks, with only 42 gallons useable because of potential unporting in uncoordinated flight. The 180hp Lyc burns at a consistent 9.8 gph, according to my accurate fuel flow meter. Although I flight plan for no more than 3 hours, there have been times (headwinds, circumnavigating storms, etc.) in which I have flown well into the next hour. So far, the most I've had to top off is 37.3 gallons--and that was beginning to feel pretty uncomfortable, even with airports within gliding distance.

With experience comes wisdom, one hopes. None of us are infallible, and sloppy planning and get-homitis can strike anyone. I'm glad Sean Tucker made a safe, but ignominious, landing.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | May 13, 2009 1:17 PM    Report this comment

Concur with Mike Wills.

While Sean's "mea culpa" was an upstanding gesture, his situation was truly based an "honest oversight", as opposed to the clueless/wise guy "I can make it" Pollyanna foolishness many fuel-exhaustion cases are based on (including yours).

Getting the most out of GA aircraft usually entails flying to the limits of fuel, and small operational changes (like stronger winds), can obliterate the validity of those calculations in short order.

The "trick" is to be HONEST with oneself regarding fuel consumption and time remaining, and then be being willing to make "conservative" decisions to ensure fuel remains in the tanks so long as the engines are turning

Posted by: Avi Weiss | May 13, 2009 1:23 PM    Report this comment

If I can touch the fuel in my tank, I wil go, otherwise, it gets topped off. guages lie.....

Posted by: john mcenaney | May 14, 2009 7:58 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: john mcenaney | May 14, 2009 7:59 AM    Report this comment

Back in the seventies (no Debit or Credit Cards) when I was 17 was building time for my commercial and took some friends on a big cross country into the interior of BC. I had to divert around some weather and landed at an airport. I checked my fuel and knew the last leg would be "close". If you can believe it, the reason I didn't buy fuel was I had precious little money and I didn't understand how I would be reimbursed by the flying school! What an idiot. After dealing with more diversions I landed back at home with what I knew to be precious little fuel. I filled out the paperwork and headed to my motorcycle wanting to just get away from my stupidity. My instructor of the day (an experienced bush pilot)came out and dragged me back by the ear. He had topped off the plane and noted I was into unuseable fuel. After a good dressing down, I recognized my flying carreer could have ended a few miles short of the runway at CYPK. Having learned the importance of fuel management early, I am happy to report that thirty three years later I still enjoy one of the best jobs on the planet. I have told this story a billion times when talking about "fuel in the truck" being of no value. I couldn't buy that instructor enough beer.

Posted by: John Morris | May 14, 2009 10:08 AM    Report this comment

I can go six to eight hours on empty, Oh wait, I'm a glider pilot, sorry. : )

Posted by: Mark Coats | May 14, 2009 11:58 AM    Report this comment

I fly a Jabiru that has the fuel tank behind the seats, it is translucent so I can _see_ the fuel remaining. NOTHING beats lo-tech when it comes to fundamentals. I am going to miss that if and when I upgrade to an aircraft with (bigger) wet wing tanks.

Posted by: Grant Roberts | May 14, 2009 3:59 PM    Report this comment

If the incident happened as he said then "dipping the tanks" would have had no positive effect. Mouthing platitudes like "I will always dip the tanks" exposes a dangerous mode of thought popular amongst aviators: the religious mode. Too many pilots unthinkingly adhere to dogma. There is a reason humans have large brains. You need to THINK when you fly.

Posted by: ROBERT WITHROW | May 15, 2009 7:04 AM    Report this comment

Years ago, my instructor taught me that there are 3 types of spaces that are of no use to you as a pilot; the runway space behind you, the airspace above you and the space in top of your fuel tank. That comment really stuck with me. I flew a 150, 172 now fly a chrokee and never put "just enough" fuel in it to get there. I always either top it off for a long leg or fill to the tabs for local boring holes in the sky. I know several who have run out, and one crashed and destroyed the aircraft, with minor injuries luckily, those kind reminders tend to make you more diligent when it comes to fuel management.

Posted by: Greg Hart | May 15, 2009 7:59 AM    Report this comment

Just listened to Russ Niles' interview with Tucker and, although Tucker started out a bit defensively...noting the recent change in how his header tank and fuel gauge were set up, he sounded sincerely and thoroughly chagrined by the end. Does it matter whether he sounds contrite? Not really. What's interesting is how the course of that interview mirrors our own thought process when we do something dumb: stumbling around with words couched in denial then, if you're among the good pilots, coming flat out and saying you messed up. Safety is integrity. Tucker's got it. We all should have it. And his last routine at this year's Sun N Fun was breathtaking. But, hey, if the man wasn't an amazing aviator we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Posted by: Jonathan Baron | May 15, 2009 2:45 PM    Report this comment

his situation was truly based an "honest oversight"

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 16, 2009 5:32 AM    Report this comment

his situation was truly based an "honest oversight"

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 16, 2009 5:32 AM    Report this comment

I have not seen Sean in several years, used to see him @ Sussex NJ airshows. Quite a guy, honest 'oversight' I'll leave it at that. Back in the early '70s my instructer asked me if I thought I could fly nonstop from what was Caldwell Wright Airport, now Essex Co , to Albany NY, my answer was no ! Why ? A student of his whom I did NOT know, ran out of fuel ( C150 ? Manual said it would fly so long, but he did NOT fly that far. He had to put it down on the NY Thruway, then the fine was $500.00, I was given the sectional & told to plot the trip, did so and he said THANKS, ! I had NEVER ever seen so STEAMED before, as it had just happened that day. as for me unless I was just in a practice area, my tanks were ALWAYS full, the other thing was ample OIL in the engine Nuff said

Posted by: Leighton Samms | May 16, 2009 5:46 PM    Report this comment

If that's true, all fuel exhaustion events are honest oversight.

Posted by: Mike Wills | May 18, 2009 10:32 AM    Report this comment

I guess I'm not seeing the distinction here. I didn't set out to run our of gas or to land with fumes. I calculated I had enough gas to make the trip with sufficient reserves--and hour give or take--*just as I always had.*

Wasn't that an honest mistake? In Tucker's case, in his own words, he did the same. Some extenuating circumstances related to the new tank, but--in his own words--he wasn't using that as an excuse. In other words, he knew of the mechanical change and didn't allow for it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 18, 2009 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Nope. Not even close. I fly single-engine, and I EXPECT bad weather and headwinds, no matter what the weather briefing says. So I NEVER take off cross-country without 101% full tanks. I don't care about "tankering" excess fuel- the jet-set can worry about that loss of efficiency. To me, fuel is GOLD! I learned to fly at the same time I learned to drive- (age 17), and have NEVER even run a CAR out of gas on the road. My flight training stuck with me... I say there's NO SUCH THING as "too much fuel" -in MY airplane. No such thing as "too much runway", either! ;-)

Posted by: Jack Aubrey | May 18, 2009 4:16 PM    Report this comment


Sorry for delayed response. Though Mike Wills said it absolutely perfectly, I will add my own words for completeness.

"Honest Mistake" was vague and imprecise wording. Let's call it "non-willful miscalculation".

I don't believe Sean's "situation" is of the same nature as it was a result of "non-willful" action, where many of those that occur ARE willful, in the sense such actions are taken KNOWING that the "margin of error" of the calculation's exceeds the precision being used, and FAILING to monitor the accuracy of the calculation.

Sean had specific empirical data that stated how long he can be in the air, and he planned and WAS in the air less than that time. What he didn't realize is that his empirical data was erroneous, and while the same outcome resulted (low fuel), it's more of the "attitude" that makes it significantly different than the others.

Concur with you and Mike that fame should have no bearing on the analysis and treatment of an airman and his actions (on non-actions). As I tell my students, airplanes don't respect money or fame, only your "A" game.

Posted by: Avi Weiss | May 18, 2009 4:46 PM    Report this comment

I used to "commute" frequently from Manassas, VA to West Palm Beach, FL, (about 750 nm)in a Bellanca Viking with 5 tanks (92 gal). I would take off on one main and climb to altitude, then switch to one aux. I would time down to the second and switch as the engine would start to stumble. That gave me a good burn rate for that day and altitude and I could decide if I could make it on the remaining full tanks. When I went back to the main that I took off with, it was to be in the pattern to land, hopefully at my destination, but at a fuel stop in any event.

Posted by: Michael Hoover | May 21, 2009 1:40 PM    Report this comment

We had a Hoffmann Dimona MkII, an 80hp powered motorglider, in our club in the late eighties. Several times pilots came in, low on fuel or gliding and stopping without power on the main runway of the airport.

This happened to pilots too who were very serious about fuel management.

The reason? A fuel tank in the hull which was shaped as a drum in the upper half and (not visible) as a weird funnel in the lower half. Even when a dipstick was used, and it showed half full, it was much less than a third in reality.
It took a comfortably long time to fly it down to half on the fuel gauge, but after that the needle went down to empty like a gopher headed home, accelerating more and more as fuel dropped down to the narrower part of the funnel. Very scary.

We tried different calibrations of the fuel gauge, dipsticks that were marked and tied close to the filler cap, so as not to lose them and exchange them with another aircraft. It did not work. Not for our club. The principle of operation of this weird shaped fuel tank could not be grasped by some people.

We sold this aircraft some 15 years ago and did not have any problems like these with the other club aircraft since.

But still: learn your aircraft!

Posted by: Thomas Hoffmann | May 22, 2009 6:56 AM    Report this comment

Many aircraft have non symmetrical fuel tanks. You make a calibrated fuel stick by starting with an empty tank (yes, you have to drain it), add a measured volume, mark the stick, add another measured volume, mark the stick, repeat until the tank is filled. Most people are surprised to find toe marks are not evenly spaced.

Posted by: Donald Moore | May 22, 2009 10:41 AM    Report this comment

Many aircraft have non symmetrical fuel tanks. You make a calibrated fuel stick by starting with an empty tank (yes, you have to drain it), add a measured volume, mark the stick, add another measured volume, mark the stick, repeat until the tank is filled. Most people are surprised to find toe marks are not evenly spaced.

Posted by: Donald Moore | May 22, 2009 10:41 AM    Report this comment

Don Black, ex-B17 navigator and pilot extraordinaire, once told me "The best fuel gauge you have you wear on your wrist - it's called a watch"

Posted by: Al Secen | May 26, 2009 11:28 AM    Report this comment

Owning a fancy watch is only part of the answer to fuel management. If you start with other than a known quantity of fuel or burn it at other than the expected rate then you are guessing. Landing frequently to refuel is a good idea For that kind of pilot. But it’s not efficient. I might add that pilots of multi-crew cockpits benefit from more than one brain, one of which belonged to the flight engineer who was responsible for fuel load, power settings and burn rates. Another was the Navigator, whose job was not only figuring out where they were but how long it would take to get there, and an FO to compute if they had enough fuel to go the distance. So all the AC had to do was grunt, wind his Rolex and re-trim.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | May 28, 2009 2:14 AM    Report this comment

Contrast that with single pilot operations where one person is expected to do it all, and some are ill equipped to do so. My observation is that there are a number of pilots who take great pride in not getting their hands dirty and gratefully accept the line guy’s word that he fueled the right aircraft with the right stuff. Or the incurious who accept as gospel the flight instructor's admonition never to touch the red knob below some altitude, then cruise balls to the wall at some lesser altitude. The good news is that there isn’t much of a fuel fire if there’s no fuel. Today, an engine monitor, fuel flow computer and GPS make a pretty good substitute for the crowd on the big flight decks. But ya have to learn how to use it, and ya still have to know how much fuel you started with.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | May 28, 2009 2:14 AM    Report this comment

My old friend, Timmy, said it best when he went dry.
"It was contamination in the tank, too much air"

Posted by: Bob Sudderth | June 1, 2009 11:21 AM    Report this comment

Chiming in a litle late in the thread, here, but I'm confused.

Sure there many ways to run low on fuel - push too far, fail to verify initial quantity, burn more than expected, vent fuel overboard - OR A SYSTEMS PROBLEM.

I emphasis "systems problem" because it seems that is what happened to Sean. He fueled using what sounds like some sort of a sight gauge to judge when the tank was full. A problem in the plumbing meant that the system held less fuel than he expected.

What is confusing me is Sean's preventative actions in this particular case. He fueled until the tank appeared to be full. His description makes it sound like the tank was up to the top with fuel but that there was a gap somewhere in the plumbing (new header tank).

How is dipping the tanks, sticking a finger in the tank and visually checking the tanks going to prevent that type of problem in the future?

I'm not saying that multiple checks that the fuel is at the top is a bad thing. I'm just wondering how that's going to detect a "bubble" in the system.

He talks about having a fuel computer but the way he says it makes it sound kind of tongue in cheek.

When I add fuel, I verify it against what I expected based on the gauges and fuel computer. That is confirmation that I am putting back in what I have burned off. It also verifies that the measured flow rate matches reality.

Posted by: Travis Marlatte | June 2, 2009 12:16 AM    Report this comment

I fly a cessna 185 doing low level game surveys. I have a fuel computer that is very accurate [within one gal on a 95 gal fuel burn]. The aircraft quit when I was 2.5 miles from the airport at 125' agl. That is the height of our survey transects. There was no damage to anything but when the aircraft was refilled it took 9 gal less than it should of. When the mechanic checked things out he found 3 of the bladder snaps unattached. When he replaced the snaps I was able to fill tanks to the proper amount.

Posted by: James Hamilton | June 18, 2009 11:28 AM    Report this comment

. Hamilton is spot-on WRT knowing how much a tank can really hold. We TRUST that a tank can hold the rated capacity, but there’s no way to know how much fuel is usable without running it dry in flight and measuring how much it takes to refill. A tank’s volume can change if snaps come loose, tanks and bladders are replaced or bulkheads repaired. A different fuel pickup can change the amount of usable fuel. A vented fuel cap where it should be non-vented can result in bladders being pulled up against fuel level senders so they read high. Some tanks are long and skinny, so refueling on a slope can have a significant effect on how much fuel they will hold. I’ve had fuel mysteriously disappear overnight: There was no evidence of a leak or venting, so I suspect a late-night hose-wielding visitor.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | June 18, 2009 1:40 PM    Report this comment

I now drain my tanks in all my aircraft at least once a year to determine how much will go back in. I put them in flying attitude with my overhead hoist and then drain until I don't get a full stream from the gascolator.

Posted by: James Hamilton | June 18, 2009 2:31 PM    Report this comment

An aircraft is like a fishing boat in the Everglades, the ony time you can have too much fuel is when it is burning.
That is a true story.

Posted by: Bob Sudderth | June 18, 2009 4:21 PM    Report this comment

Sean Tucker....Legend in his own mind...

Posted by: Alan Thompson | January 17, 2010 7:02 AM    Report this comment

The KEY point is that Sean Tucker lied about what happened, and then when confronted with no way out he fessed up. He does not set a good example at all. He LIED ! Someone who is a good example would know that there is no wrong to admitting to an error, as it benefits everyone else. Sean was looking out for himself with no regard to others, that's not a good example for anyone.

Posted by: Alan Thompson | January 12, 2011 8:19 AM    Report this comment

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