Friday Foibles: It’s The Fuel Stupid


Ed. Note: Each Friday we will be offering glimpses from the training world. CFIs are welcome to add their stories to the never-ending lexicon of student miscues. Send to

Mismanaging fuel—as in managing to miss fueling—is a perennial favorite as pilots try to go the extra mile without the extra juice. Consider a California pilot who stretched the first mile with the left tank showing 1/4 full (3/4 empty?) and nothing—zero, zed, nada—in the right tank. He started, taxied and did the runup on the least empty tank before switching to the other tank for takeoff. For those taking notes, that would be the air-filled right tank. He survived the unplanned glider practice.

Not to be outdone, an Alaska pilot launched in a Maule but, skipping the checklist, didn’t set the fuel selector to the Oscar-November mode. Without fuel being ON, the engine transitioned to OFF shortly after rotation, bringing the Maule DOWN, damaging both fuel-filled wings. Inside a darkened NTSB confessional the pilot later opined that this “could have been prevented if he had used a preflight checklist.” Ya think?

Luckily a fuel-challenged pilot in a Beech Skipper in South Dakota had a non-pilot passenger who could interpret a low-fuel warning light. Averting a post-crash fire, the pilot circled the airport until every milliliter of usable fuel was gone. The NTSB got statements from the passenger plus a witness on the ground, but the pilot declined to file a report, perhaps assuming the passenger would handle that, too.

It’s a grand feeling to take delivery of a brand new King Air C90GTx at the factory in Wichita and fly it to the Caribbean. Even grander with enough fuel for the trip, which the pilots—yes, there were two—did. Almost. Stopping in Fort Lauderdale they headed for a night in a hotel after giving their fuel order to the FBO. As dawn broke over the misty Florida fjords, the two pilots returned. They split their duties, with one filing IFR while the other performed the preflight inspection.

Apparently it’s OK not to look into the fuel tanks if you have a fuel receipt. So off they flew, enjoying that new airplane smell. Leveling at FL270, someone noticed that the brand new fuel gauges read low. A quick check of the fuel receipt confirmed 134, which was plenty for the flight. This must’ve been vexing to the pilots as both engines quit for reasons unknown. The brand new King Air glided to a safe ditching, where it and its resale value sank into the tropical waters.

But they had 134 gallons. Upon closer inspection, the receipt showed that they requested only the nacelle tanks be topped off, which took just 25 gallons. The mysterious 134 turned out to be the fueler’s employee number, and, as we know, fuelers are servants blindly complying with customer requests.

Further north, a Wisconsin pilot made certain he was tanked up for an early morning departure in a Cessna 150. He’d wisely landed after cockpit lighting failed near sunset and chose to await dawn while refueling himself with a 12-pack of beer. This being Wisconsin that wasn’t a flag as a witness verified: “The pilot explained that he was going to drink beer and sleep until morning in the airplane.” Even a dozen beers only goes so far coaxing sleep inside a Cessna 150, so the pilot departed before dawn, unconcerned about the lack of cockpit or cerebral illumination. Neither improved, and the Cessna crashed to no one’s surprise.