Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Flight Safety = Fuel Safety

Flight Safety (or Flying Safely) is something we read about continually, talk about often and spend a lot of print space discussing. Why? It IS the essence of flying.  Since pilots continue still make (often stupid) safety mistakes, there’s obviously a good reason to keep it talking about it. With almost 23,000 hours, I still have to remind myself that taking the time now to do it right, always results in saving time (and gray hairs) later.
During one of my flights from KSBA to KJAQ for some avionics tweaking, I got to thinking about the benefits of starting any flight with full tanks.  It’s like my friend and CFII Lee Hughes says: “Why not file IFR on every flight?  Using Foreflight (or another flight planning system) it’s simple, quick and if you need it for weather, you’re ready to go. If you don’t need the IFR flight plan, you can cancel or change it to VFR and there’s no need to give ATC all that info about type, color, equipment as they already have it. It’s kind of like money in the bank.
So I got to thinking, having full fuel tanks is kind of like following Lee’s Golden Rule (always file, regardless of weather) and it’s akin to starting the flight with one of the basic flight safety components completed, removing the need to wonder if I have enough fuel to get to my destination?  Fuel in your tanks means having options. Having options means you’ve thought about various factors that may affect your flight (fuel, weather, aircraft performance and pilot readiness) so you’re able to call the shots and be a proactive rather than a reactive pilot.  
We’ve all done it…not filling up when we had the chance, figuring we can “make it” and nothing’s going to come between me and my destination.  But what if it does?  And how will it sound at the NTSB Hearing?  Probably not very good, if you live to talk about it.  So I got to thinking about the things that I consider when I mull over the “to fuel, or not to fuel” question.  (Now that I write about them, some seem pretty darn trivial when it comes to what’s important in the big picture.)
The trip to KJAQ from KSBA takes me about 1:40 in my Baron, so the round trip should be about 3:20. My fuel range, if I started with full tanks and headed into the wild blue would be dry (by book calculations) at about 4:30. But flying for a straight 4+30 (and who’s got that kind of a bladder anyway?) isn’t what we tend to do. We figure 1 leg is about 1 hour, another :45 and then keep totaling them up, forgetting that an endurance table plans for only 1 takeoff and climb, not the several figured here in my hypothetical scenario.
So with those numbers in mind, I might think it was OK not to fuel up for my return trip from KJAQ and just head home when the maintenance mission is completed.  Or, I might plan to fuel up AFTER the maintenance work is completed, since that means 1 less hot start.  Or does it?  If I fuel at the end of the day I’ve got 2 starts and with dusk coming on, it’s likely I’ll be somewhat pushed to get moving.  All of these factors can lead me into the trap of cutting corners also known as Get-Home-It is.
So why was I spending so much time reviewing the pros and cons of fueling or not fueling?  KJAQ has a good self-fueling facility…why not use it when I first get there and avoid all the “late in the day” pressures and be ready to leave when the radio work is done?  For me, the hassle of self-fueling is mostly one of dragging heavy hoses, keeping hose rash off the leading edge and trying not to splash the fuel from the high pressure hose while holding tightly onto the fuel trigger lever, allowing flow fuel but not to splash out of the filler port. But all these issues will exist whether I fuel now or later.  
Hassle or not, I balance them with the “do I have enough fuel to get home” argument and the pressure to push on vs. the serenity and peace of mind that come with beginning every flight with full tanks.  So after another 20 minutes of talking to myself about the pros and cons of fueling or not fueling, I realize there’s no contest…get out your garden gloves to help you grasp the fuel hose firmly and avoid the smell of 100LL on your hands; pull up the ladder to give you a better angle as you grip on the heavy nozzle, and purchase that peace of mind that comes with having full fuel tanks.
Why do pilots stretch fuel?  Laziness, too cheap to buy it at places that cost more than home, or why bother, I’ve got plenty for my planned (key word: planned) flight?  Does it take too much time, too much hassle?  Obviously none of these reasons have any basis when you realize YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT…why would you do anything but play it safe and FILL UP?  
Unless you have a good reason (like weight and balance) to NOT fill your tank and have carefully planned your fuel stops to allow for the unforeseen, it pays to always have that ace in the hole (lots of fuel), ready just in case you encounter the unexpected.  Then you’ve bought yourself that most precious of all commodities…TIME.  Remember that’s all fuel really is…time.  The more, the better…unless, of course, you’re on fire…and how often is that really a concern? 
Most decisions that are made in haste are bad ones.  Having the luxury of time is the wise pilot’s friend.  Time to go around, time to find another airport when your destination has a broken airplane blocking the only runway, or the fog has moved in to cover the field.  Buy yourself some time and figure you’ve just added more frequent flyer miles for that trip to Hawaii.  You can then smile when you find don’t need it, but have acquired 1 less gray hair by not needing to sweat over it.  And the good news…that fuel will be there for the next flight, so nothing’s been wasted.
So after I’ve considered all these various scenarios, I come to the realization that having full tanks for every takeoff is the best of all worlds. Fuel in the tanks relieves a lot of anxiety and IS a major component of flight safety.

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