Poor planning leads to off-airport landing

Aircraft: Piper Tomahawk. Injuries: None. Location: Centerburg, Ohio. Aircraft damage: Substantial.

What reportedly happened: The pilot visually checked the fuel level in the tanks. The left tank contained about six gallons and the right tank contained about 10 gallons.

Shortly after takeoff, he switched the fuel selector from the left tank, which was now indicating one to two gallons of fuel, to the right tank.

The flight continued for another 50 minutes but during the descent to the destination airport, the engine lost power. The right fuel quantity indicator was indicating five gallons at that point. The pilot switched the fuel selector back to the left tank in an attempt to restart the engine and the fuel indication in the right tank dropped to zero. The pilot made a force landing in a corn field. The nose-gear collapsed during the landing, which resulted in substantial damage to the firewall.

A post-accident inspection revealed that both fuel tanks were empty and a small amount of fuel remained in the gascolator. The reason for the discrepancy of the right fuel quantity indicator versus the amount of fuel in the right fuel tank was not determined.

Probable cause: The pilot’s improper pre-flight planning and failure to ensure that there was an adequate fuel supply on board to complete the flight, which resulted in fuel exhaustion. Contributing to the accident was the malfunction of the fuel quantity indicator.

NTSB Identification: CEN12LA007

This October 2011 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.


  1. Vaughn S. Price says

    C cluck needs a heads up reminder
    Sticking the tanks is number one item. I have over 15000 hrs general aviation. I stick the tanks with a plastic tube showing fuel level in tank period. Then I see if the gauge’s reflect actual levels. I also have extended my range 40/50 miles by Slipping slightly draining all gas out of one tank then slipping the other way to empty the other tank. Bottom line is total awareness of every factor in your flight. I find most accidents occur because the pilot is not alert to all possibility’s, and is suddenly confronted with a major problem that if he had been alert he would have handled with ease.
    P.S.I have had many emergency landings but never scratched an airplane

  2. matt says

    I thought it was best practice to fill your tanks after every flight to help keep water from building up in the tanks. Also, about is not an answer that I want to hear from any pilot. At my work, being unsure gets you fired. Reckless pilot and he was rewarded with a destroyed plane.

  3. Ted says

    The guy didn’t dip the tanks and he ran out of gas. He made an eyeball guestimate at best and it back fired on him. What more can we say? Oh yea!! Never trust the gas gauge on a GA aircraft. The FAA only requires them to be accurate when they are empty.

  4. C cluck says

    I don’t see where the pilot is at fault – he visually checked tanks, had 16 gallons for a 1 hour flight in a Tomahawk – maybe three times a reasonable estimated burn for the trip. Unless he had reason to expect this abysmal performance he shouldn’t be taking the blame for this one ….

    • BJS says

      The key factor here is “about” 6 and 10 gallons. It didn’t say he “stuck” the tanks. He visually checked the tanks, so how accurate is that? Also not taken into account is “usuable” fuel. If one considers “usuable” and “about” then counting run up and flight time prior to switching tanks, whatever that was, and continuing “for another 50 minutes of flight”, then it’s easy to see how this pilot ran out of fuel.

    • Greg W says

      I agree, at an average fuel burn of about six gallons/hour they should have had plenty of gas. Perhaps as BJS suggests the tanks were not dipped and so the estimate was way off. Barring that an open or badly leaking quick drain could do it but that should have been found in the investigation. All in all a good ending to a bad situation as they both walked away.

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