Sean Tucker’s Fuel Exhaustion Adventure


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.