When I heard about this story, I nearly fell out of my chair. A pilot and his passengers, with a flight plan on file but according to the NTSB’s preliminary report not activated, had to wait an hour before he was cleared into the Washington area ADIZ. By the time ATC cleared him in, the aircraft ran out of gas and the aircraft landed deadstick in a field and collided with trees…
- The 75-hour private pilot says he filed a flight plan;
- ATC couldn’t find it, and wouldn’t let him in;
- The pilot circled awaiting the clearance;
- Fuel is burning… and never stops burning when the engine is running…
Regardless of the TFR/ADIZ/paperwork madness surrounding this accident, there are clear steps that could have prevented it. The commercial air carriers and even the military have a way of dealing with this…
FIRST, they actively manage their fuel, and know how much they have on board at all times. This gives them the ability to make the right decision when it needs to be made, to avoid those embarrassing and entirely too exciting fuel exhaustion events.
SECOND, they make sure ATC knows what their situation is, to allow them to make the right decision at the right time.
In the Navy, when flying off an aircraft carrier, pilots also closely monitor their fuel situation. They have a level of fuel that they call their “Bingo” fuel level. This is the amount of fuel they need to make their alternate. Translation: this is the amount of fuel they need to make it to shore to land off-carrier in the event something goes wrong. When the plane’s fuel level drops to Bingo, the pilot announces his problem, and diverts to the nearest land base for refueling.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Oddly enough, we heard on the radio the same thing recently when a United flight got spun (i.e., put into a holding pattern while inbound to O’Hare Airport due to weather). “Chicago Approach, United, we’re approaching Bingo fuel here, so if we don’t get down in the next rotation, we’re going to have to divert to our alternate.” The plane was let down and landed uneventfully, which is how all landings should be…
BUT I DIGRESS. DO YOU KNOW YOUR PLANE’S BINGO FUEL LEVEL? The FARs have it listed –
91.151 Fuel requirements for flight in VFR conditions.
(a) No person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed —
(1) During the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; or
(2) At night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes.
(b) No person may begin a flight in a rotorcraft under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed, to fly after that for at least 20 minutes.
91.167 Fuel requirements for flight in IFR conditions.
(a) No person may operate a civil aircraft in IFR conditions unless it carries enough fuel (considering weather reports and forecasts and weather conditions) to —
(1) Complete the flight to the first airport of intended landing;
(2) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, fly from that airport to the alternate airport; and
(3) Fly after that for 45 minutes at normal cruising speed or, for helicopters, fly after that for 30 minutes at normal cruising speed.
(b) Paragraph (a)(2) of this section does not apply if:
(1) Part 97 of this chapter prescribes a standard instrument approach procedure to, or a special instrument approach procedure has been issued by the Administrator to the operator for, the first airport of intended landing; and
(2) Appropriate weather reports or weather forecasts, or a combination of them, indicate the following:
(i) For aircraft other than helicopters. For at least 1 hour before and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 2,000 feet above the airport elevation and the visibility will be at least 3 statute miles.
(ii) For helicopters. At the estimated time of arrival and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 1,000 feet above the airport elevation, or at least 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility will be at least 2 statute miles.
IN PLAIN ENGLISH…
VFR aircraft in daylight must carry 30 minutes more fuel than the aircraft is expected to burn in order to reach its primary destination and 45 minutes more fuel at night.
IFR aircraft must be able to fly to an alternate AND for 45 minutes afterward reaching that alternate.
WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FUEL MINIMUMS?
While the FARs provide the absolute minimums that you legally must carry, most pilots set personal minimums well above the regulations’. For example, for VFR flights, my personal minimum is 1 hour of fuel in the days, and 1.5 hours of fuel at night. For IFR conditions, it varies with how far my alternate is, but is usually more than 1.5 hours of fuel on board when I reach my destination. Some people might argue that this is too conservative, but I’ll argue that I’ve managed to avoid running out of fuel with this approach.
Do you fly along and watch your gauges, hoping for the best, or do you keep track of your time and fuel burn while you are in the air? Do you ever find yourself wondering if you have enough fuel to make it, or whether the headwinds are a bit too steep? If you have found yourself wondering whether you have enough fuel to make it, you need to change your flying habits and be more aware of your fuel!
REMEMBER: You are the pilot in command. You are ultimately responsible for the safety of your flight. You are the one who must make ATC aware of a dangerous fuel condition. “Unable to comply with your request due to inadequate fuel. I need to land or divert to my alternate.” If our pilot had monitored his fuel, followed the regulations, and exercised his responsibilities as Pilot in Command, this would have never been a news item.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Learn from the mistakes of others! Know the regulations regarding fuel burn, know and adhere to your own personal minimums, and more importantly, know how much fuel you have onboard. By knowing the regulations, sticking to your principals, and knowing when to call “Bingo fuel“, you will be able to avoid making the headlines for running out of gas … and making the rest of us look bad.
Read more on the subject of fuel exhaustion:
from iPilot’s George Wilhelmsen, Fuelish Judgement — Every Last Cent’s Worth
…or search iPilot’s extensive article archive.