Ahh sugar! We’re running on empty

Dale Nielsen


We all know the engine doesn’t run well without fuel. Yet some of us still don’t spend enough time planning a flight, or monitoring the fuel during flight. Here are some of the 16 low or out of fuel incidents for 2010.

A private Cessna 185 was en route to Medicine Hat from Jenner, Alberta when the pilot called FSS to advise that he was out of fuel and would be landing in a field just south of Suffield. He phoned FSS about 10 minutes later to advise that he was down safely in a field on the north side of the Trans Canada highway with no damage to the aircraft.

A private Rockwell 112 was on a VFR flight from Mabel Lake, B.C. to Airdrie, Alberta when the pilot made a forced landing in a field along Highway 1, near the Kananaskis Casino. Edmonton FIC reported that the aircraft experienced fuel exhaustion. There was no apparent damage to the aircraft.

A private Piper PA-28 landed on Runway 32 at Brandon after a flight from Medicine Hat and during the roll out, the pilot advised FSS that the aircraft was out of fuel. The active was switched to Runway 08 until the aircraft could be removed from Runway 32 about an hour later.

A private Piper PA-22 was inbound to Saskatoon when the aircraft ran out of fuel and the pilot landed on a road one mile northwest of the Saskatoon Airport.There was no damage or injuries.The pilot refueled the aircraft, departed and landed at Saskatoon about 45 minutes later.

A privately registered single-engine Cessna on a local VFR flight at Pitt Meadows, B.C., ran out of fuel on final for Runway 08L and landed just short of the runway.

A Cessna 152 aircraft was en route from Wawa, Ontario to Sioux Lookout, Ontario when Sioux Lookout FSS staff received a call from the pilot reporting that the aircraft was out of fuel. The pilot conducted a forced landing into a tilled field six nm east of Sioux Lookout Airport where the aircraft impacted the ground at a high angle and low velocity.The aircraft was substantially damaged and the pilot was seriously injured.Overflying aircraft reported a continuous and strong ELT signal and the flight crews of the overflying aircraft provided the co-ordinates of the site and directed emergency personnel to the crash site.The pilot was extricated from the wreckage and transported to hospital.

A Cessna 172G floatplane ran out of fuel just before arrival at its destination Nanaimo Harbour B.C. The aircraft landed on the water without power and without further incident. Fuel was brought to the aircraft by boat. The pilot reported that the fuel gauges indicated the tanks were half full when departing from Squamish Harbour.The pilot normally dipped the tanks to verify the quantity; however he did not dip them on this occasion.

A C152 crashed shortly after departure from Kelowna,B. C. in a field adjacent to Beaver Lake Road in nearby Winfield, B.C. as a direct result of fuel starvation. The aircraft came to rest on its back and is considered a write-off. The pilot was not seriously injured. The fuel tanks were inspected and confirmed empty. The aircraft had undergone a scheduled inspection the previous evening and the fuel tanks were drained to comply with a fuel quantity check and calibration procedure.

A Cessna 177B aircraft was on a VFR flight to Stanhope Municipal Airport (Ontario). The pilot of the aircraft called on approach to a NOTAM’d closed runway, which was unpaved and had vehicles on it. The Stanhope airport manager asked the pilot if he was declaring an emergency and the pilot stated that the aircraft was low on fuel. The runway was cleared of vehicles for the landing.The airport manager later refueled the 44 gallon tank with 38 gallons of fuel.

We don’t know exactly why most of these incidents occurred, but we can guess that there was some complacency involved. The pilots didn’t check their fuel quantity before flight and/or they didn’t monitor the fuel consumption during the flight. We do know that two of the pilots did not dip their fuel tanks and likely did not check their fuel gauges before flight.

Planning for any flight should include some contingency planning for the unexpected, including diversions for sightseeing. Fuel tanks should be dipped, or the fuel receipts checked, to be certain the correct fuel load is on board.

Cessna gauges are notoriously unreliable. Other aircraft types may have better fuel gauges, but they should never be relied on completely.The mixture should be leaned correctly to produce the expected fuel flow.

The aircraft fuel consumption should be checked periodically to be certain the aircraft is using fuel at the expected rate either by checking the fuel quantity indicator or the fuel flow gauges. A ground speed check should be performed early in the flight, and again later if it is suspected the winds have changed, to confirm the expected ground speed and enroute flight time hasn’t changed.

Complacency or a fixation on getting the job done or on getting to the destination got all of the pilots in the incident reports above into trouble. It can happen to you.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.