Causes and prevention
ALL TOO OFTEN THE news media reports, “A small plane ran out of fuel and crash-landed today…” The general public, as well as many pilots, wonder how anyone can
possibly run out of fuel. Although fuel starvation is sometimes the result of an
unforeseeable mechanical component malfunction, contamination, or improper
maintenance, the vast majority of instances are the result of pilot error. An important part of preflight is fuel management, which includes complete familiarization
with the pilot operating handbook (POH) fuel system requirements and procedures.
There have been 177 fuel starvation–related general-aviation accidents
reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) since January 2005.
Of those, 75 percent of the NTSB findings cited “Pilot in command” (pilot error) as
the cause. Not included in that 75 percent were many other NTSB reports that
listed causes that were obviously pilot error but were not specifically stated as
such. One example is “Improper pre-flight,” which included lack of familiarity
with the aircraft’s POH regarding its fuel system. Several engine failures resulted
soon after takeoff because the pilot selected the wrong fuel tank or the fuel level
was lower than the POH advised. Another “Improper pre-flight” example resulting in engine failures leading to crashes was not knowing the proper in-flight
engine restart procedures, also included in the POH.
The most frequent pilot error cited was “Fuel tank selector position—
Improper.” Even when flying one of the more simple aircraft with two fuel tanks, a
pilot can be interrupted during a preflight or distracted in flight and forget to
select the appropriate tank. On complex aircraft with more than two fuel tanks,
Fuel Starvation: 165
Improper Fuel Tank Sele
Based on 177 NTSB accident reports.
The total causes add up to more
than 177 because more than one
cause was listed as a contributing
factor in many of the accidents.
SOURCE: NTSB Fuel Starvation Accident
Reports, January 20, 2005, to June 14, 2010
the pilot must be familiar with proper tank selection
sequence, the fuel pump, and related procedures.
Most of the fuel starvation accident reports that attributed improper maintenance or design flaws as the cause
were for amateur-built aircraft. In most cases the builder/
owner inadvertently chafed or crimped a line, used the
wrong fuel line material, or improperly vented or routed a
fuel line. Other fuel starvation accidents attributed to
improper maintenance included newly installed components not being torqued, or contamination or worn/
broken fuel selector valves being missed during regular
aircraft maintenance and scheduled annual inspections.
Of the 177 NTSB accident reports, 163 aircraft suffered substantial damage and 14 were destroyed. Nearly
80 percent of the reports indicated minor or no injuries,
compared to 31 instances of serious injuries involving 38
individuals. Sadly, the 17 fatal accidents resulted in 27
crew and passenger deaths, as well as some major and
Interestingly, the range of the FAA pilot certificates
held by the pilot in command (PIC) in the NTSB accident
reports ranged from private to airline transport pilot and
everything in between, including flight instructors.
Overall, the pilots were very experienced, averaging a
total of 3,018 hours, with 414 hours as PIC of the make
and model, and 94 hours flown during the past 90 days
prior to the accident.
All but three of the 177 flights in this data were conducted in visual flight rules conditions. Nearly 80 percent
of the flights were for personal enjoyment and travel,
compared to 13 percent for business, 6 percent for
instructional, and 1 percent for test flights. The 6 percent
categorized as instructional flights listed a certificated
flight instructor as PIC, once again proving accidents can
happen to anyone who becomes distracted.
Because the vast majority of fuel starvation accidents
are attributed to pilot error, they are preventable. It begins
with knowing and understanding the fuel system of any
aircraft we are going to fly.
In those instances when fuel starvation results in
engine failure that cannot be restarted, we need to
remember the importance of flying the plane and executing the procedures for a safe landing, off airport if
necessary, that we were taught during our primary
Robert O’Quinn, EAA 742434, is a part-time certificated flight instructor
who focuses on tailwheel training.