Tempting Fate

Anyone who has ever caught themselves flying while getting uncomfortably close to the big “E” will appreciate the following irony, and its potential lesson: Just when you think you’ve got the advantage, when you’re holding all the cards, one could turn out to be a Joker.

Unlike airplane pilots, helicopter pilots have a reliable low fuel level indication — other than when they’ve run out of gas: the low fuel light. Do they abuse it? You bet! How does that apply to everyone else, rotary-wing and fixed wing alike? This is how…

In a Robinson R22 for example, there is a red “low fuel” warning light that is designed to illuminate when there is about one gallon of fuel left. That’s enough for a good five minutes of decision (read: flying time) at cruise power. That should be plenty of time to land somewhere, and then worry about taking on more fuel, after you’re safely on the ground. (Incidentally, the POH does say the light should not be used as a working indication of fuel quantity.) In just about any other helicopter, be it an MD500, a Bell UH-1 “Huey” or 206L LongRanger, or a Schweizer 300, or whatever, there is a low fuel light. Why is it there? It’s there to inform the pilot, of course. What is often the result? The result is that it allows extra information to lull us into thinking that we have more control of a situation than we might really have. The fact is that there are very few experienced helicopter pilots who have not known the feeling of sweating bullets while landing with a low fuel light on. There is a philosophical lesson in here…

Real World #1: A 206L pilot, on his way to pick up passengers and flying in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles south of the Louisiana border, called his fuel a bit too close. He got hemmed in by squall lines and (fortunately for him) had the option of inflating his floats (he didn’t actually do that until about 15 minutes after the low fuel light went on). That far from shore though, the adage about never having too much fuel “unless you’re on fire” is quite apropos.

Real World #2: In another case, in upstate New York, the pilot of a Schweizer 300 was doing a practice ILS and due to preoccupation, combined with glare from a setting sun, he simply didn’t notice the low fuel state. Over-flying one forced landing zone after another, he pressed on towards home. The motivation here, as in most cases, was pride and the thought of having to explain why you were late, and why you had to land short, as opposed to completing a flight as planned (or, one might argue, not planned).

Real World #3: During a military exercise in Washington state, an OH-58 pilot flew in to bring back the crew of another helicopter that had just made a precautionary landing (not fuel-related). Just after taking off on the return flight, he saw the low fuel light come on. Perhaps responding to that compelling inner drive to “complete the mission“, he continued on, passing by many convenient off-airport landing areas (one complete with access to a nearby road, which a fuel truck could have used). With mounting anxiety and poor judgement overpowering discretion, he pressed on. Fortunately — or unfortunately for the sake of learning — he landed uneventfully (at least to an outside observer), albeit on fumes.

Real World #4: This one involves the pilot of the ubiquitous R22 in the southwest, as well as his “copilot” (who happened to be a CFI). The pilot had a commercial certificate for both rotary and fixed-wing, and they were on a long cross-country flight from Las Vegas to LA. With about 10 gallons left, they did a little sightseeing and lost track of time … and the winds changed on them. With fuel now in the low single digits, the pilot said he wanted to land and refuel at Van Nuys, but his passenger (the CFI) complained that this would mean an extra half-hour. Within sight of home, the low fuel light came on, and then the tower requested that they hold because of heavy inbound traffic … and they did! Somehow, they made it back — further reinforcement of poor decision making.

Real World #5: A UH-1 with five pilots aboard took off from southern California, bound to a remote location. Passing over an airport (with fuel services), the pilot voiced concern about the fuel load, but the others insisted that they had enough for the round-trip flight. On the way back, the low fuel light came on. They too made it back to their home base … but they landed with the tanks so dry that they didn’t even have enough fuel to make it over to the fuel pit, and had to have fuel delivered.

Sure, we might have a fuel totalizer, or an idiot light that tells us when we have “X” minutes of powered flight left, but we must still draw that line in the sand. If you want to avoid white knuckles and white hair — even if your fuel gauges are precise more often than just when they’re reading empty — the best way to avoid situations like these in any type of aircraft (especially with fixed wing fuel systems) is to plan your flights with a healthy reserve, and then stick to that plan. And, if unforeseen factors conspire to alter the picture, get on the stick and change the plan. The truism that applies to more than just fuel. We’re all familiar with the story of the pilot who busts a Class B or worse, thinking that because a moving-map GPS was on board, the airplane’s position was never in question. Can we say “crutch“? The same thing can bite you, whether it’s your fuel gauge, your position, signal attenuation of on board radar and nearby thunderstorms, or anything else: knowledge and wisdom can be mutually exclusive.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Just because a helicopter can land “anywhere” doesn’t mean you’ll always want to, and in an airplane, that’s usually even more true. These were, for the most part, experienced helicopter pilots. Fortunately, all made it back in one piece. Perhaps these cases, which highlight the seeming disparity of brinkmanship in the face of wisdom, are just examples of the saying that good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgement. But surviving poor judgement is a dangerous thing. Just because it worked once does not mean it will ever work again.

Editor’s Note: Fuel starvation is an unfortunately popular and easily preventable disease. iPilot has addressed the issue from many different angles and in some detail. As always, we hope what you learn here will serve you well and that you too will pass these lessons along to other pilots. Our image depends on our safety.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Turner’s Resisting Temptation, George Wilhelmsen’s Fuelish Judgement — Every Last Cent’s Worth, or Paul Craig’s Any Wind is a Headwind. Quick use of iPilot’s Insider Series search engine will yield many more results.