Inaccurate fuel gauges contribute to crash

Aircraft: Fairchild M-62A-3. Injuries: 1 Minor. Location: Waukegan, Illinois. Aircraft damage:

What reportedly happened: The pilot checked the airplane’s fuel quantity using the fuel gauges but did not perform a visual inspection of the fuel tanks or top off the tanks.

He selected the right fuel tank because its gauge indicated that it was 3/4 full.

During the flight, the airplane experienced a total loss of engine power while on the downwind to base leg of the traffic pattern. The pilot turned toward the runway but realized that there was another airplane on short final, so he elected to perform an off-airport landing in a field.

Examination of the airplane revealed that there was no usable fuel aboard the airplane although the right fuel gauge indicated 3/4 full. The left fuel gauge indicated empty.

FAA safety guidance information states that fuel gauges are subject to malfunctions and errors, and certification regulations only require that a fuel gauge read “zero” during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply. Therefore, fuel gauges should not be depended upon for checking the fuel quantity in a tank, and pilots should either top off fuel tanks or perform a visual inspection of fuel tanks to verify fuel quantity.

Probable cause: The pilot’s inadequate preflight inspection of the airplane, which resulted in fuel exhaustion and a total loss of engine power. Contributing to the accident were a malfunctioning fuel gauge and air traffic that prevented an on-airport landing.

NTSB Identification: CEN11LA635

This September 2011 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it isintended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.


  1. Snorre says

    I know according to FAA the level indicator does only need to be accurate when showing “empty”. The problem with this are two; one—when does the indicator show empty (right, left or right on the “zero line”), two— how do I incorporate this “knowledge” into my flying decisions. Am I supposed to “fly till empty” and then look for a place to land? The only logical interpretation of this “regulation” is that the pilot assumes he is to “estimate” how much time is left. And as a result we get “estimates” as 15 minutes of fuel left—an application for which the level indicator is apparently not designed. But I would not blame the “novice” in the air—he is using his “common sense” in the interpretation of FAA regulations. I am quite sure we can get some “fancy “equipment for the “business” pilot with plenty of resources. However, if we are serious about the startup phase of General Aviation and it’s long term survival we should look into some “simple solution” for the “weekend pilot” with a thirty year old Cessna or Piper. Believe me, technically this is not a difficult thing to resolve if the incentive exists.

  2. Rich says

    Even a fuel totalizer would not have helped this guy.
    Only believe the gages when they say empty.
    How many times does this have to be said.

    I know a helicopter pilot that had to autorotate into a field because he ran out of gas on the way from his house to the airport.
    When asked , he said he should have had 15 minutes of fuel left and the airport was ONLY ten minutes away!!

    This guy was a doctor. A surgeon type doctor.

  3. Tom says

    Very simple – 6 rules:

    1. KNOW how many gallons of fuel the engine burns per hour (be conservative).
    2. KNOW how many gallons of usable fuel that the aircraft holds (read the POH).
    2. KNOW how many hours the aircraft has been flown since all tanks were full (if you don’t know exactly then either measure the fuel with a stick gauge or —-> TOP OFF THE TANKS).
    4. KNOW how to do 5th grade arithmetic, how to read a clock, and how to land the aircraft with a minimum of 30 minutes of fuel left in the tanks.
    5. KNOW that fuel gauges are notoriously unreliable, subject to failure, & are only a back-up to rules 1 through 4 above & might be usefull in case someone shoots a hole in the tank.
    6. KNOW that if you can’t follow rules 1 through 5 – TURN IN YOUR PILOT”S LICENSE.

  4. says

    Know your plane’s fuel consumption, and fuel it accordingly, period!

    During the upgrades of my Colt, I changed the fuel senders and the gages at a great expense, and they are absolutely useless. Because I noticed that my tanks are slightly different, I also made a very accurate dipstick for both tanks. I also have a fuel flow gage by EI, which is phenomenal.

    Before each flight it is the “stick” routine, and I mean before each flight. I also record the fuel status in the aircraft journey book. Stick measured quantity before the flight, and remaining quantity based on the EI gage after the flight; however, even with all the book records available, I still “stick” the tanks before each flight, even though my plane lives in a locked hangar, and I am the only person flying it.

    Some of you may think this may be a bit excessive. Well, I have a metalized, read not fabric covered Colt, about 100 pounds heavier that the stock aircraft. Combine that with its short wing, and you have what I affectionately call a “flying brick.” I like to know that I have enough fuel to get where I am going, and then some. Oh yes, I devote at least an hour of flying each month to those Navy, “put it on that deck” approaches. Yes, they can be harder than my usual arrivals, but they are always on the numbers. I do this just in case my well looked after O235 decides to challenge me one day – I hope it never will.

  5. Jeff says

    There are other better fuel senders, check out WEMA type senders for one. Unfortunately the cost associated with certification once again preclude upgrading our old planes. Regardless the pilot should have visually checked his tanks.
    These are just a couple of common ones there are also some extremely accurate ones available.
    Since the FAA says the gauge only has to be accurate with no fuel in the tank, what use are senders? Absolutely undependable.
    I would be willing to bet that if senders were dependable and accurate we would have much less incidents of exhausted fuel. Let the NTSB also blame the FAA for archaic rules.

  6. Snorre says

    The whole issue of keeping track of the fuel in a small airplane with a simple level indicator is a somewhat almost bizarre issue. I have been flying small single engine planes for more than forty years. One on the first problems I was introduced to back in the early seventies was that the simple fuel tank level indicator on most planes was absolutely not to be trusted. During the years I have continuously read stories about problems with these indicators. Time after time you read “different problem stories” but nobody seems to come up with a “final solution”. The strange thing is that we are dealing with a technically simple issue. However, we do not even seem to come up with a standard level measurement system that can be compared to what we all have had reliably operating in our cars for years. Accordingly, I decided early on that the only way to avoid running out of gas was to know what your plane is using—based on personally collected data over hours of operation—and then “stick the tank” before every flight and then let the level indicator just “participate in the ride”. Yes I know—if you rent a plane this information is not available. You “avionic guys” why can’t you once and for all solve this problem

    • Edd Weninger says

      They have! Years of experience with a Shadin fuel totalizer in one plane and JPI in my twin have shown me they can be very accurate.

    • Joseph N. Greulich says

      My first thought also was using the radio for help with the aircraft landing, he did have an emergency and should have announced it , I bet the other aircraft would immediately aborted . The can always be a cow on the runway !

        • Greg W says

          Number one, Check The Tanks, after that maybe an emergency call would have cleared the runway,but with not much time it may have cased two aircraft to tangle. A “more accurate” gauge could cause even more problems by reliance on the gauge. How many times have you been in someones car when the “low fuel” light is on and they tell you it will go “X” miles on the remaining gas? The problem is the car goes by miles the airplane by minutes, the distance to the gas station will not change for the car but the wind, and so the speed,
          may, for the plane. Bottom line Know the fuel quantity, the consumption rate and the endurance. The FAR’s don’t require 30 min. of gas on the ground at destination, they require it in the planning because conditions change ,count on that, always plan on being a little slower than you are.

          • Tom says

            I respectfully disagree concerning your statement that the FAR’s “don’t require 30 min. of gas on the ground…”. FAR 91.151(a)(1) During the day it is REQUIRED that there is enough fuel to fly another 30 minutes “considering the wind AND forecast weather conditions”. The key words are “considering the wind”. If you land with less than 30 minutes of fuel then you didn’t “consider the wind” (or the forecast weather conditions) and thereby a prima facie case of not meeting the “requirements”. If while flying it is noticed that the wind has somehow slowed the aircraft then PLAN to go to a closer alternate. You can’t use the excuse that you planned the flight and then the wind slowed you down so it isn’t your fault that you didn’t meet the 30 minute “requirement”. You may have “planned” the flight but you didn’t FLY that exact plan so you should have CHANGED the plan while enroute. With GPS you should know shortly after take off and continuously during the flight whether or not you are going to have 30 minutes of fuel remaining. There ISN”T any excuse here. Yes you DO BUST THE REGULATIONS if you don’t have the 30 minutes of fuel remaining when you land.

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