Many years ago, when I was a wee lad, my dad would sometimes allow me to tag along when he motored down to the gas station. Those were in the days of full-service gas stations, which may be why we didn’t call them gas stations. We called them service stations. Because they literally serviced every aspect of the automobile.
Our car announced our arrival as we pulled up to the pumps. It was automatic. A black pneumatic hose that stretched across the pump lanes reacted to the pressure of our tires rolling over it. Ding, ding went a bell inside the garage. The Francis brothers, twins who owned and operated the station we visited most often, would scurry out to the pumps to fuel the car. They checked the oil. They washed the windshield. They asked if there was anything else my dad needed. Tires? A front-end alignment? A tune-up maybe?
All those trips to the service station might have given a lad the impression they knew how those various services were performed. But that wasn’t true. Nope. It wasn’t true at all. Fueling a vehicle for the first time isn’t nearly as easy as it might appear.
In the old days it seems to have been something of a personal challenge for automotive designers to find ways to hide the fuel filler on the cars they dreamed up. It might be found behind a sleek coverplate on the fender, or it might be laying in wait behind the license plate. In a few cases you had to know the location of a secret button that would allow a tail-light to pivot out of position, revealing the filler cap. Or maybe you owned an early VW Bug. In those little beetles the fuel tank was in the trunk, and so was the opening to fill it.
And don’t even get me started on where to put the oil. As a mechanic I have seen the unfortunate results of owners who didn’t know the difference between motor oil, transmission fluid, and the light blue liquid used to wash the windshield. Yet even in the depths of their ignorance, they still persevered in putting whatever liquid they had access to into whichever opening seemed appropriate, to the desperate detriment of their car’s functionality.
I share this trip down memory lane with you because of a story my buddy Eric related the other day. Eric is a CFI. He’s a good CFI. I’ve enjoyed flying with him immensely. Yet for all his experience and talent, Eric related the tale of a younger version of himself stopping in at a new destination on a student pilot cross-country flight, and realizing he needed additional fuel to make the trip home.
If he was at a towered airport with an FBO or two on the field, that wouldn’t have been a problem. However, he wasn’t at a towered field with an FBO or two to choose from. He was at a non-towered field where his only option was a self-serve fuel farm. Having never pumped his own fuel before, this presented a bit of an issue. It’s a question many a flight student might find themselves asking — how do you fuel an airplane?
This is not an idle question. I learned to fly many years ago, but almost all my instruction took place at towered fields. This was well before the ubiquitous establishment of self-serve fueling stations at non-towered airports, as well as many towered airports.
The first time I landed at an unfamiliar field to discover my only fueling option involved the do-it-yourself method, I was as confused as Eric would be when his time came.
Confusion is not a good feeling. It’s especially troublesome when encountered in an aeronautical setting.
Today, in the calm of my little office, surrounded by a plethora of comforting knick-knacks and various collectables, I have the time and the curiosity to investigate how this lack of insight might come to pass with pilots like Eric and myself. So, I go to the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) which is arguably the most important publication any CFI or student pilot should count among their library of reference materials. It’s the book most flight training is tailored to.
For all its value, I think something is missing.
The ACS expects a pilot applicant to know about the fuel requirements for their aircraft, what the reserve fuel requirements are, and proper fuel planning for any flight. It wants the applicant to be able to recalculate fuel reserves on the fly should some unforeseen event require them to deviation to a new destination.
But the ACS doesn’t say a word about how you actually get fuel from the pump into the airplane. Also missing from the text is any reference as to how one might pay for that fuel purchase.
The lack of instruction on how to do something that is an absolute requirement for flight in powered aircraft is an oversight that should probably be addressed. Maybe not in the ACS, but certainly by every CFI working with any student, toward the acquisition of any certificate or rating.
Thankfully, the information Eric and I could have benefitted from is available in text and video format these days. Now, you don’t have to roll up all confused and looking idiotic like we did. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has an excellent primer on how to pump self-serve fuel, written by the late, immensely talented Mike Collins.
For those of a more video oriented bent, my buddy Paul Duty has created an outstanding video for Gleim Publications that walks the viewer through every aspect of the purchase and pumping process.
With all that said, allow me to add in one tip that might make your experience more pleasant. When you taxi up to the self-serve pumps, don’t pull nose in to the pumps. It’s far better to roll up alongside the pumps, with one wingtip or the other pointed at the fueling station. Trust me on this. Someday you’ll encounter someone who ignores this advice and it will become immediately apparent why it’s a move you want to avoid, always, everywhere.
Michael Bombinski says
Excellent visual. When I started in Environmental Health 30 years ago I knew nothing about septic tanks from all the college courses I had taken. On the job training.
Douglas Evans , CFI, II, MEI, ATP says
As a newly minted CFI in 1970 part of the preflight was to open the fuel cap and check the fuel in each tank. Also, when checking on water or sediment in the fuel being tested was also to note the color of the fuel. Even now, after 55 years of flying, most of it professionally, I still do that. Even when I first learned to fly and when I soloed I was, very much aware and the CFI who taught me to fly made sure I knew what to do to get fuel. Hey, it’s kind of critical to be able to fuel up, eh!a
Randy Coller says
Look over their fuel system….is it clean? Are the pipe rusty (if they are rusty on the outside, they are rusty on the inside). If you don’t like the appearance of their fueling system, don’t use it.
Do you know where the EMERGENCY SHUT OFF is? How does it operate. Where are the fire extinguishers? Be sure to sump your fuel afterwards. Is there a container to dump your sump sample? You’d be surprised at the number of fueling stations that don’t sump their fuel systems.
Is there a date on the filter?
There are operators who know nothing about operating a fuel system, usually at smaller airports.
Jerry King says
And don’t forget to check the important 710 FLUID level.
Excellent article on an overlooked issue. I’ve given Practical tests to applicants who did not know how to add oil……could check it just fine but had never seen or participated in pouring a quart into the filler. Same thing, really.
My time spent working as a line-person (notice how PC that was?) in my youth was time well spent, as it turns out.
Mike Hopkins says
I’ve been flying for 25 yrs and almost always do the self service thing. But I still find pumps that are almost impossible to figure out. Flip this switch, turn this valve, and by the way the credit card reader is in a shack on the other end of the ramp was the routine in one SW Oklahoma airport I stopped at last summer. Took the pilots of two airplanes working together to figure it out. Just another fun memory.
Tom Curran says
I love these Tactics, Techniques, and Procedure discussions: gets the blood pumping….!
My final “round”: Sorry; the arguments for Perpendicular are weak….
Perpendicular is more convenient? “Don’t have to push back as far”… right. Needs too much fuel hose, needs too much grounding cable….Blah blah blah…
It’s no harder to pull up parallel than it is perpendicular. On the other hand; if you parallel park, you only have to spin your head around 90 degrees to ‘monitor’ the pumps, vs. 180 degrees if you’re perpendicular…anyway…
It’s all about the risk mitigation factors. I guarantee that those who espouse perpendicular have never seen what can happen when a plane ‘accidentally’ gets too close to the pumps, especially with a spinning prop. Hard to replicate the same results with a wing tip.
Deborah King says
Out of curiosity, why is a static line used on an airplane, and not on a car? Both are metal, and both ride on rubber tires. What’s the difference?
JimH in CA says
Great question. I found this on auto tires;
” Static electricity can be a problem with tires. Static electricity and an inadequate electrical ground can be a real concern when you’re refueling, or when you’re sliding out of the car. Modern tire compounds feature less carbon black to cut rolling resistance and weight, but that also means a tire that’s less conductive for an electric ground between the vehicle and the road surface. The solution is an “antenna tread” in the tire’s surface – a thin, continuous strip of rubber that serves as an efficient conductor between the tire and pavement so the vehicle is always grounded.”
apparently , aircraft tires don’t have the grounding system.
Interesting–thank you, Jim!
Kat Schenato says
I agree completely.
I learned to fly at a flying club that had their own fuel pumps at a sometimes manned tower. Checking fuel for water and the level was part of the check. If the fuel was low, I fueled the plane. My instructor supervised the first few times but my dad had let me fuel before I interested in becoming a pilot so I was already assured of my skills!
I think education on refueling should be required!
Mark Buchner says
Except when there’s a line, I almost always drive straight in to the pump. Never had a problem.
But I do agree, instruction on refueling must be addressed. The first dual cross country would be the perfect time to accomplish this block of instruction.
Rob Hom says
This is unfortunately more common than you would think. The airport I used to work at was 251 miles from a major aviation university; a common destination for those students on their commercial cross countries. I received a call one Sunday afternoon from one of the students that they couldn’t get fuel. I got there in about 10 minutes to see what the problem was…there was none with the self-serve system. The problem was the student didn’t know how to get the gas caps off….
Just think about that…passed their private pilot ride, and are working on their commercial certificate and had never fueled their aircraft before. How do you perform a competent pre-flight without taking fuel caps off?
Tom Curran says
At least he wasn’t taught to “just pour it all over, maybe it’ll soak in somewhere”….
Al Gilson says
Perhaps part of this problem is that many, if not most, CFI’s have never owned, or taken care of, an airplane. My CFI was an aircraft owner and I did my primary training in his pristine Cessna 172. I learned how to fuel the aircraft, move it, and….how to clean the soft plastic windscreen without promoting crazing. (Up and down motion with the cloth baby diaper. Never in a swirling motion.)
Darrell Hay says
Jamie I ALWAYS pull up directly to the pump. ALWAYS. Been doing it for decades. Why? Less chance of smacking a wingtip, less chance of smoking the next airplane waiting in line with propwash after I PUSH the aircraft away from the pump because I dont need to push as far, less hose and grounding wire needed, ground wire won’t catch on the airplane and cause damage as it inevitably comes disconnected at the worst possible time, a level spot for fueling more likely, a direct view of the pump and meter, and finally the ladder (when fueling Cessna) is at a right angle to the force of the hose, making the ladder itself safer. I would like to point out that fuel trucks do it this way, not your way. Now I would like to hear your emphatically proclaimed but evidentially sparse reasoning for always being parallel. 😉
Tom Curran says
Maybe because the self serve fuel island has a yellow “taxi” line painted on the ground around it to indicate the flow “they” would like you to follow while approaching & exiting their pumps? Plus the sign that says “Einbahnstrasse”.
Jamie Beckett says
Einbahnstrasse ist der richtige Weg.
The real reason it’s a bad idea to pull straight into the pumps, is that a collision could occur (I’ve actually counseled a pilot at the request of the FAA. The pilot inadvertently rammed the pumps with a wing after pulling straight in.) The other reason to avoid the straight in method is that if there is a fire, it is harder to move the vehicle away from the pumps. Take note of the fuel trucks. They never pull straight in to the pumps. They always drive up across the front, because as you say, Tom, the self-serve fuel pump is beside the Einbahnstrasse.
Tom Curran says
What is the student going to do when he/she gets the certificate? Continue to get full serve fuel ad infinitum? Part of learning to fly is learning everything about how the aircraft operates, including how to get fuel.
Jim Macklin. ATP/CFII. says
Have a towel or seat cover you can put over your shoulder. The nozzle in front. Keep the hose over your shoulder to support the hose and nozzle. Don’t let the nozzle enter all the way in the tank unless you want to buy a new tank bladder.
Keep the nozzle in contact with the tantrum to keep it grounded. Don’t forget to attach the ground wire( s) before you begin fueling
Don’t fill the tanks unbalanced. If you have a BOTH fuel selector. fuel can transfer to the lower wing.
Secure fuel caps. Put the hose back. Lastly remove the ground wires.
CHECK THE FUEL CAPS ARE SECURE.
MOVE THE PLANE AWAY AND WAIT AWHILE ANF THEN SUMP THE TANKS.
Look at the fuel color and smell, not just for water.
Jim Macklin. ATP/CFII. says
Tank rim. Not tantrum
Thanks for clarifying.
I thought you were describing a reaction to the high price of fuel..:)
Kevin Garrison says
I have always said that in a service business like an FBO nothing shows you are totally not interested in serving your customers than a self-serve fuel pump that often does not work.
FBOs miss out on a very important customer contact and an opportunity to up sell a customer or to go the extra service step to make them a life-long customer. In my never to be humble opinion, self-serve should be shut down during business hours and every plane should be met with an eager line crew person. kg
Jamie Beckett says
I like the way you think, Kevin. I’ve often thought something similar. For a service business (any service business) to automate their processes serves to lower cost, but it also separates them from the customer. We will never develop a lasting friendship with a kiosk. We can develop a friendship and a sense of customer loyalty when dealing with actual human beings.
On the other hand, $15/hr to pump gas offers a compelling argument as to why an FBO might want self serve.
It’s a very good point that the official training references omit any mention about how to safely get fuel into the aircraft. This especially so since messing up here can result in new craters over there. It would be wise for the powers that be to address this in future additions.
However, I routinely violate your never violatable not nosing into the pumps rule. Why? Try it your way with a 58 foot wingspan motorglider! With a low viewing angle of the wingtip while seated and the tip being all of 32″ off the ground, taxiing parallel to the edge of the tarmac with all the usual junk that seems to accumulate there, to get edge on to the pump is quite hazardous. If I misjudge, I have to what? It doesn’t move sideways very well. So, add another 6-8 feet clearance to be conservative. Try pulling even 35′ of 2″ diameter fuel hose across the pavement, much less another 15′ to reach the other wing tank. Not possible for me to do in one go; pull out until the drag is too great, go back to the pump, grab another length, pull out again, then grab the nozzle end and pull some more. Takes a while.
Straight in, about a half wingspan away, it’s closer and the same length hose run for both tanks. Done, I spin the plane around with the tailwheel, adjusting the distance as needed when I can actually see the clearance enough to be close. Pointed to the best path out, my stupendous prop blast is directed off-apron and toward no other aircraft. All in all, a much better way to do it *for my situation*.
And thus the problem with “must be done my way” rules – situations vary.
Steve R says
Sadly, fueling an airplane is but the tip of the iceberg of what is not taught to students these days. These include:
Pull the airplane out form the parking spot before starting to avoid blasting aircraft behind you.
When parking, stop the airplane perpendicular to the parking row, again to avoid blasting other
aircraft, then get out and push it into the parking spot, come on, you know you need the exercise.
Not blocking the run up area (turn 90 degrees so there is room for others) or blasting other aircraft.
Exiting the run up box and lining up on the taxiway (and waiting your turn) once your run-up is
In general, being aware of where your tail (and thus prop wash) is pointed.
Looking before you pull onto the taxi way to see if someone is already on it, particularly in the
I suppose, if there is no place that such items are standardized, or on “the test”, they don’t seem to make the curriculum.
Greg Curtis says
All good points Steve and those of us teaching new pilots have had bad encounters with all of the items you list and we make it a point to teach those finer tips in the art of flying to our students so they hopefully will not repeat them. Caring instructors teach them to their students from the first flight and re-enforce them through out their training even after they acquire their Private Pilot Certificate.
Dale L. Weir says
Not much airport etiquette being taught these days….
My first aviation job was a Line Boy when I was a teenager.
That was when we not only fueled aircraft, but cleaned windows, washed and waxed aircraft and even hand-propped airplanes as well as cleaning the hangar and office.
Also drove the fuel truck and put seaplanes in and out of the water with a surplus Army 4×4. This was before I got my driver’s license.
I also spent a lot of time listening and observing pilots and mechanics. All in all it was a valuable experience.