Small Spark, Big Kaboom

Every once in awhile, we make mistakes — then again, every so often we get treated to the experience of almost making a mistake. The trick is turning the scenario that could have had more serious consequences into something from which we learn. Usually they’re little things, but sometimes it reaches the impact level of a life-lesson.

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, every couple of months we’d go visit my Aunt Jeanette in the Bronx. She spoiled us rotten, and made the best New York egg cream sodas I’ve ever had. I have many memories of our visits there, but the one I’m recalling now happened in the fall and winter, when the air was drier. To zap my kid brother, all I had to do was walk across her living room. I don’t know what her carpet was made from, nor do I remember whether my klunky wingtip Oxfords were leather or DuPont’s approximation of leather, but I do remember that after walking just 12 feet, I could summon up a visible spark of seemingly Mephistophelian proportions from my outstretched fingertip.

Most of the places I fly, there’s usually a guy with a fuel truck, with all the proper OSHA-sanctioned equipment, I’m sure, who dispenses what we all know is a fiendishly flammable liquid at fire hose speeds into whatever I’ve been flying. (I usually fuel up after I get back, since our flying club’s wise policy is always to start out with full tanks.) But every once in awhile, I land somewhere where there’s just a pump-it-yourself operation. You taxi up to the pumps; you fill up, pay, and fly away home.

Not all fuel lines are created equal: We’ve all gassed up our cars at the filling station without too much thought about stray sparks… how hazardous could it be? We’ve probably all filled up a gas can for the lawnmower too. (I know I have.) Well, as a matter of fact, those rubber fuel hoses have metal or carbon/graphite lines for dissipation of static charges, which bleeds off that menacing static electricity.

Inside Information: It’s not just by rubbing wool against plastic that you might unwittingly play Thor on a tiny scale. Gasoline itself — even though a fluid — accumulates a static charge when it flows, and the faster it moves through the line, the more charge that can build up. Guess what? Aircraft fuel hoses are larger than their automotive counterparts, and (this one you knew) aircraft fuel tanks are bigger, too, and can therefore build up even more electrical charge… just like a giant capacitor.

Whether you’re gassing up the mower or the flying flivver, if you’re doing it with ‘jerry cans‘ sitting in the back of a pickup truck on a plastic bed liner, or a carpeted floor, you’re playing with fire. You’re insulating the static charge, which may ‘discharge‘ to the grounded nozzle. Non-grounded plastic and (worse) metal containers have both been involved in a number of very sudden and very horrific accidents. Incendiary engulfment, like Molotov cocktails and napalm, usually results in ghastly burns and often, a lingering death, usually from infection. (OK, are we motivated yet?) Commit this list to memory:

If you’re not fueling it yourself:

  • Make sure they’re using some means of grounding.
  • Do not remain in the airplane while it is being refueled!
  • Stay upwind of the refueling operation.

If you are doing it yourself:

  • If that do-it-yourself pump has a grounding wire, be sure to attach the grounding clip to your airplane, first. (The line guys at my airport use the exhaust stack.)
  • If you’re refilling portable containers, place them on the ground, and at a safe distance from your vehicle (aircraft or otherwise). Also, touch the container with the nozzle before removing the lid to fill it up. (This gives any charge harmless access to the ground.)
  • Keep the nozzle touching the opening while filling it (to dissipate static charges from flowing fuel).
  • Do NOT use a cell phone or radio while you’re fueling!
  • Don’t wear synthetic fabrics, they generate static. Worse yet, if you are in a fire, they’ll melt and stick to your skin.

And always:

  • Turn all aircraft electrical devices OFF.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher at the ready.
  • And for God’s sake, don’t smoke!

Some of these are obviously common sense and others may not have occurred to you. Here they are on ‘paper’ … what’s your excuse now?