Pilots attempt flight with low fuel

This April 2010 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.

Aircraft: Cessna 172. Injuries: 1 Fatal. 1 Serious. Location: West Milford, N.J. Aircraft damage: Destroyed.

What reportedly happened: The airplane was purchased by two people about four weeks before the accident. It had been parked outside and not flown for several years.

One co-owner held a private pilot certificate and had at least 1,221 hours, the student pilot had about 80 hours, most of which was in an Ercoupe. He had started flying in 1983, then given it up for several years. His last flight in a Cessna 172 was in 2009. Neither held an aircraft mechanic’s certificate.

According to FAA records, the airplane was manufactured in 1964, and was first registered to the previous owner in September 1987. A supplemental type certificate (STC) for the use of automotive gasoline was filed with the FAA in January 1987. According to the STC holder, there were no operational or performance changes when automotive gasoline was used, and the intermix of automotive and aviation gasoline was permitted. The STC holder also stated that a decal that permitted the use of automotive gasoline, and prohibited the use of fuel containing “alcohol,” was supposed to be affixed to each wing near the fuel filler port. The decals were not present on the airplane, but paint and corrosion patterns were consistent with the previous presence of the decals.

No FAA records of the purchase or registration of the airplane by either co-owner, or of its sale by the previous owner, were located. According to the previous owner, an aircraft broker doing business as “Rich Lucas Aircraft Sales” contacted him via the owner’s sale advertisement for the accident airplane which was posted on a public, internet-based forum. The previous owner stated that he relied on the aircraft broker to ensure that the appropriate documentation was correctly completed and filed with the FAA, and that he did not make or retain any copies of the lone form that he did recall signing. The previous owner stated that the aircraft broker told him that he had a buyer for the airplane who lived in Central America, and that he was not provided any additional information about the buyer, either before or after the sale of the airplane. The previous owner stated that he never met the new co-owners, and that he was not aware that they were the buyers until after the accident.

About two weeks after the purchase, the co-owners and a mechanic drove to the airport to examine the airplane, with the reported intent to fly it about 75 miles back to the home airport of the pilot-rated co-owner. The mechanic stated that the co-owners drained approximately 15 gallons of fuel from the two tanks, because water was detected when they sampled the fuel. The mechanic stated that some fuel remained in the airplane, because they did not have enough containers to capture all the fuel. He also stated that the spark plugs were removed, examined and re-installed, engine compression was checked, fuel drains were removed and reinstalled, bird nests were removed, and the nose gear strut was serviced. The mechanic did not know the final disposition of the captured fuel, but he stated that it was not put back into the airplane. The mechanic stated that fuel was purchased at MJX, and the pilot-rated co-owner flew the airplane in the traffic pattern there, but the mechanic did not specify whether it was before or after the fuel purchase.

After landing and shutdown, the engine could not be re-started, but after the engine had cooled, it was re-started successfully. Mechanical and weather difficulties prevented the relocation of the airplane that day. The mechanic stated that he never saw the maintenance records for the airplane, and that he did not perform any maintenance on, or make any maintenance entries regarding, the accident airplane. The mechanic also stated that he was aware that the airplane’s most recent annual inspection was expired, and that no one had obtained a ferry permit for the flight from the FAA.

The next week, the pilot flew the airplane to the student pilot’s home airport. The co-owners launched on another flight with the student pilot in the left seat. It could not be determined what roles or actions were conducted by either of the individuals during the flight. That flight ended several minutes later, when the airplane hit a wooded area in a residential neighborhood. Witnesses said the engine was not operating when the airplane hit the trees.

First responders noticed a slight odor of fuel; one fuel tank was breached and contained no fuel, and the other, intact tank contained only a trace amount of fuel. Examination of the wreckage revealed that the fuel strainer contained cloudy fuel contaminated by water and other unidentified contaminants and that the carburetor accelerator pump gasket was deformed.

The general overall appearance of the airplane was consistent with it not being well-maintained, but no evidence of any pre-impact airframe discrepancies that would have precluded normal flight was observed.

The only fuel purchase that could positively be associated with the airplane indicated that 17 gallons were added on the day of the test flight, two weeks before the accident. Calculations that used the manufacturer’s fuel consumption rates indicated that the total fuel consumption for the period between that last verified fueling and the accident flight ranged from a low of 13 gallons to a high of 32 gallons. The manufacturer specified a total usable fuel quantity of 39 gallons, but the total fuel on board after the last verified fueling could not be determined.

Probable cause: The complete loss of engine power due to fuel starvation.

For more information: NTSB.gov. NTSB Identification: ERA10FA202



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