Many have said there are three useless things in aviation. One is the altitude above you, the next is a runway behind you, and the third is the air in your fuel tanks. I am one to believe a pilot can never have too much fuel. How does a pilot come to feel strongly about this topic? Well, the short answer is you come too close running out of gas a couple of times in your career, and then you feel pretty strongly about keeping enough gas.
As a civilian pilot, maintaining fuel levels is easier than in the military. When it comes to flying Cessnas and Pipers for fun, there is no excuse or reason to drive your fuel state down to an unsafe level. Sometimes, the tactical situation might drive a military pilot into cutting fuel margins too close. Another aspect about flying jets in the military is the horrendous fuel consumption of the jet engines. In an hour and a half, I could burn up enough fuel to drive my Camry over 45,000 miles.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), over the past 10 years 100 to 150 pilots somehow mismanaged their fuel to the point of engine failure. Section 91.151 of Part 91 is specific about the fuel reserves required for visual flight rules (VFR) operations. A pilot must be able to fly beyond the destination, “assuming normal cruising speed-(1) During the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; (2) At night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes.” Section 91.167 applies to instrument flights basically providing for fuel to the first intended destination, then to the alternate destination if required, and then 45 minutes beyond that.
For the new pilots out there, here is a heads up. Thirty minutes during the day and 45 minutes at night or for IFR operations is insane. Double those numbers! And that is at a minimum.
There are times when operational considerations may require you to carry more fuel than required by 91.151 or 91.167. Common sense must prevail. Sometimes an enroute delay, the weather, or an accident at the destination airfield may require every bit of your excess fuel.
Until you have been there, it is hard to imagine just how nervous the thought of running out of gas will make you. In civilian life, I once got close to empty by accident. As a military pilot, I once landed with about 10 minutes remaining.
I guarantee two things about that mission: first, it was not of my making and secondly, I nearly sucked up the seat cushion of the SJU-8 (ejection seat) on which I was sitting.
© 2010 J. Clark