Pilot’s Inadequate Fuel Planning And Fuel Management, Which Resulted In A Loss Of Engine Power…

Location: Walterboro, South Carolina Accident Number: ERA22FA026
Date & Time: October 22, 2021, 15:57 Local Registration: N1652H
Aircraft: Piper PA-32R-300 Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Defining Event: Fuel starvation Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Serious
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General aviation – Personal

Analysis: The airplane departed from its home airport for an airport about 802 nautical miles away with the airplane’s fuel tanks filled to their total fuel capacity of 98 gallons. The pilot planned for the flight to only be a single leg, but about 1.5 hours into the flight he decided to land for fuel due to the 20-knot headwind, which he had not accounted for during his flight planning. About 2 hours and 53 minutes into the flight, the pilot advised air traffic control (ATC) that he wanted to divert for fuel and then resume his instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan to his destination. 

The air traffic controller cleared the pilot to fly direct to a diversion airport. When the airplane was approximately nine miles north of the diversion airport, at an assigned altitude of 1,600 feet msl, the pilot declared “Mayday” and reported a “lagging engine.” The pilot described that, when he reached 1,600 feet, he pushed the throttle forward to level off from the preceding descent, but the engine did not respond. The engine then surged (went up and back down), but it would not respond to his throttle inputs. The airplane subsequently impacted trees short of the diversion airport. During the impact sequence, the pilot was seriously injured and the passenger was fatally injured.

The pilot had flown for about 3 hours, and 351 miles of the 802-mile flight, at the time of the accident. Fuel consumption calculations indicated that, depending on the power setting, more than half of the fuel load of 94 gallons of usable fuel would have been consumed before the accident (about 47.7 to 56.7 gallons, depending on power setting). This was greater than the usable fuel amount in each wing (47 gallons per side). While the pilot stated that he checked the fuel gauges every 15 minutes and would continue flying on the fuel tank that had the higher fuel indication, the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) for the airplane, advised that to keep the airplane in best lateral trim during cruise flight, the fuel should be used alternately from each tank at one-hour intervals. The POH also stated, “Always remember that the electric fuel pump should be turned “ON” before switching tanks and should be left on for a short period thereafter. To preclude making a hasty selection, and to provide continuity of flow, the selector should be changed to another tank before fuel is exhausted from the tank in use. If signs of fuel starvation should occur at any time during flight, fuel exhaustion should be suspected, at which time the fuel selector should be immediately positioned to a full tank and the electric fuel pump switched to the “ON” position.”

Postaccident examination of the airplane at the accident site revealed the postimpact fire had a burn pattern that appeared to initiate from the area of the right wing. Residual fuel was found in the right outboard fuel tank, and fuel staining was also present around the fuel filler port for the right wing. However, minimal thermal damage was present on the inboard leading edge of the left wing, and residual fuel and fuel staining were not evident. This physical evidence suggests that little or no fuel was present in the left wing fuel tanks, and that the majority of the fuel onboard the airplane at the time of the accident was in the right wing tanks. The postaccident examination of the engine did not reveal evidence of any preimpact failures or malfunctions that would have precluded normal operation.

Based on this information, it is likely that the loss of power was due to the left wing having little or no usable fuel available, which subsequently introduced air into the fuel lines. Thus, after the loss of power, the fuel in the right wing would not have been a reliable source of fuel to quickly restore engine power. Based on the available evidence, the circumstances of the accident are consistent with fuel starvation resulting from the pilot’s mismanagement of the fuel system during the flight.

Probable Cause and Findings: The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be — The pilot’s inadequate fuel planning and fuel management, which resulted in a loss of engine power due to fuel starvation.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov