Lyle S. Powell, Jr.
There are essentially three
types of fuel system emergencies. The first and most important are those
occurring on take-off or initial climb, when there is insufficient time,
however well managed, to correct the situation. The second can best be called
running out of fuel. Some of these are also system-invited by such things as
having tanks whose capacity varies with the attitude of the airplane when
fuelled, or gauging systems of poor accuracy. The third major type are those
that occur on approaches and go-arounds. Most of these are definitely system
On take-off and initial climb, sudden engine stopping or serious power loss
occurs more frequently in homebuilt than factory airplanes. This is probably a
reflection of repeated experience and standardization by the factory airplane
builders. However, some of these employ antiquated systems and non-ergonomic
practices, fuel selector valves being the most prominent. It is absolutely
amazing how often fuel selector valves are mismanaged under stress by even the
most experienced pilots. Another frequent one is the vapour-lock incident or
accident. Almost all of these are system related. One of the many causes is
the engine driven fuel pump which is such a good 'teapot" for boiling fuel.
When the boost pump is plumbed in series, rather than parallel, and when the
engine (and pump) is hot from waiting for take-off, or from lean cruise
followed by descent many "carburettor ice" accidents occur, both on approach
or go-around, and on lift-off. The only reliable thing that carries the
calories out of that hot fuel pump on the engine is the flow of fuel itself.
When the throttle is at idle (for descent or waiting for takeoff) there is
precious little flow, so bubbles form and have a hard time getting through the
small openings into the carburettor needle valve orifice or fuel injection
When power loss occurs on go around or take-off, even it proper and immediate
valve switching is done (if that is what is needed), the time required for
reestablishment of sufficient flow into carburettor or servo unit is often too
long. Part of the problem is due to the tremendous demand of the engine for
fuel at full throttle . . . it's usually 2-1/2 to 4 times the usually
thought-of cruise flow, and catch-up in this circumstance is hard to
accomplish. Also, this is a time when boost pumps cavitate from air inhalation
from an empty or near-empty tank.
Homebuilt airplanes have a tendency to have fuel system accidents early in
their careers, during the learning and sorting-out phase of the pilot/builder
as well as the airplane. Fuel system accidents include not only outright
failures of devices in the system, but things we rarely think about, such as:
Not knowing how much fuel you can put into a tank because of attitude
sensitivity or venting.
Small vent tubes easily obstructed by a single drop of water or an insect.
High pressure boost pumps cavitating with interruption or surge in flow.
uel selector valves sticking or not having clearly defined detent positions.
A leaking gascolator gasket admitting air bubbles into the system, yet leaks
little or no fuel.
Vibration-induced cracking and leakage of spare fuel tanks.
Split flares in metal tubes producing leaks, or inlet of air into system.
Inadvertent flap valves in fuel hoses produced by improper insertion of
Foreign bodies in the tank jamming boost pump piston or breaking carbon vanes
of high pressure pumps.
Inadequate sized elbows or other fittings in the system producing bubbles in
the flow of fuel.
Foreign bodies obstructing finger screens, gascolator screens or filters that
are too small.
Leaky carburettor floats.
Leaky fuel injector servo diaphragm (beware of the shelf life).
Leaks in diaphragms and edges of diaphragm in engine driven pumps.
An unsupported vibrating fuel hose that partially obstructs flow.
Worn or grooved connector fittings that leak air or fuel.
High pressure systems (fuel
injection) are considerably more critical with respect to leaks and
obstructions than low pressure systems, for obvious reasons, and experience
bears this out. Also fire hazards are greater with high pressure systems due
not only to the higher pressure but because of the increased footage of
plumbing and larger number of connections in the engine compartment. Boost
pump failures and pump priming failures are also more prevalent here.
Gravity fuel systems, while seemingly simple and reliable, are plagued by very
small supply pressures and ease of interruption. For instance, the minimum
pressure required by most current carburettors is 1/2 lb./sq. in. This
requires a gravity column of 18 inches -not counting any losses for tubes,
filters, valves, elbows, connectors, etc. - or the occasional sticking of a
float needle valve. For small engine applications only, where small flow
Air being sucked into the flow of fuel can be as obstructive as vapour lock
bubbles. This is another reason to have little or no suction component to the
fuel system. Fuel leaks are much easier to find than air leaks because air
leaks don't always leak fuel.
This is only a partial list of potential problems, but it is a sufficient list
to illustrate the character and magnitude of the problem. Often the
homebuilder (and the homebuilt designer) gives the fuel system inadequate
consideration, or simply follows one of several standard production examples.
Too often they don't realize the pitfalls of small variations from specific
applications, or lack an overall understanding of the problems, and/or the
shortcuts that homebuilders are likely to take for their own convenience. I
believe that the underestimation of the critical nature of the fuel system is
the largest single source of poorly designed or fabricated fuel systems.
Following is an outline-type summary of fuel system items to observe when
designing or building your fuel system.
Into which a known amount of fuel can be put each and every time (not
attitude, tilt or vent sensitive). Of reliable mechanical construction,
unlikely to develop leaks with time and vibration and unlikely to present an
unusual hazard in a crash landing. This requires substantial resistance to
rupture on impact or deformation. Must not have low spots behind baffles and
in comers for collection of water. Vibration is worse in 4-cylinder airplanes
than others, and must receive generous respect as a destroyer of structures
and producer of leaks.
Fuel Tank Caps
Must not leak fuel, air or water. Expensive, but available and necessary. Look
at those caps - take them apart and examine them. Small details are important
Adequate depth and size, with screen and drain valve as necessary. Do not
tolerate a main tank without a real sump. Auxiliary tanks, with good low point
drains and a "no take-off" restriction 0. K. without sump.
Prevention of fuel being thrown away from sump outlet by uncoordinated flight
or turn just before take off, by use of slosh gates or check valves and
baffles in tank. Necessary.
3/8" tubes or larger to prevent a frozen drop of water from obstructing. As
short a run as possible, especially if horizontal (because of water droplet
precipitation), with non-icing opening (any one of several types). Backup
second vent highly desirable.
As simple a system as possible with all on or off if possible. An amazing
number of accidents occur from pilot misplacement of valve handle or valve
sticking, even from handles breaking off. Also even when properly changed, a
long interval is required before engine starts. Selector valves are inherently
dangerous and should be recognized as such. One alternative is a separate
ball-type valve for each tank, arranged so that the handle position is
obvious. Also these valves are more reliable and don't stick.
Must be inside sump or have short gravity-fed inlet, otherwise very often will
not re-prime if run dry, especially fuel injection boost pumps. Do not try to
suck fuel uphill or forward. It pulls bubbles into the fuel inviting
cavitation. Acceleration occurs forward and upward on take-off and climb for a
sustained period of time and fuel moves backward and down, and that's where
the inlet of the boost pump should be if it is not in the sump. Protect inlet
of pump with screen or filter adequate to protect the pump from jamming due to
foreign body. Such filter must be inspectable and cleanable. These are often
provided in the pump body by the manufacturer.
Should be direct from boost pump through filter to carburettor or fuel
injector servo. Have engine driven pump plumbed in parallel, not series, so
that possible vapour lock in engine driven pump will be bypassed. A check
valve may be necessary, depending on pump type.
Engine Driven Pump
Requires shroud for positive-pressure ventilation to cool it, thus minimize
fuel boiling (due to accessory case and oil temperatures which heat it).
Fuel Lines and Devices
Should not be exposed to heat anywhere, for two reasons:
To prevent vapour lock (bubbles whose surface tension make them resistant to
going through small holes).
To prevent fire in case of accident, or fuel leak in flight
Particularly avoid proximity of fuel lines or carburettors to exhaust pipes
radiated heat is more intense than most people imagine. This heat acts as an
ignition source in case of accident, or a fuel leak, or a crack in an exhaust
pipe in flight. Metal heat shields are often necessary because most heat
transfer in cowling is by radiation, not convection or conduction. Examples
are the metal shields between an exhaust pipe and adjacent hoses or wires seen
in many factory airplanes.
Should be of well engineered type and size and protected by fire-sleeve in
Gascolators are not sacred devices, not even very efficient ones. They were
really designed for use with fuel tanks without sumps or sump drains. With
sump drains they become unnecessary, or at best supplementary. Often they are
sources of fuel leaks and air leaks into fuel systems. Also they are sometimes
vulnerable to rupture in case of accident. Where tank sump drains are
provided, good fuel filters of several types are better than gascolators and
are safer, less prone to leaks and damage. Must be of adequate size and
accessible to inspection, draining, cleaning or replacement. Beware of very
small automotive filters which could obstruct in flight from a slug of dirt in
the fuel. I am using a FRAM HPG-1 fuel filter in my Glasair. It is commonly
used in racing cars and boats, has an excellent service experience. It has a
13 ounce capacity, a steel case into which you can put a drain valve.
Expensive and bulky, but a good example of what is needed.
Two brands are currently available (Wag-Aero; A.I.R. Corp., Oakland). A very
good idea - either in sump or filter can.
Reliable, backup simple mechanical type gauge or sight-tube gauge advisable
for last few gallons in addition to standard gauges. Float switch with warning
light is another good alternative (Aircraft Spruce). Fuel gauges are
justifiably mistrusted, but they are also usually of low quality. Reliable
separate gauging of the last 1/10 or so of fuel can be very accurate. Flow
meters and totalizers are not a substitute for fuel gauging because they are
so dependent on accurate knowledge of how much you start with. Be sure to have
some back-up gauging or warning system beyond standard gauge system, or a
reliable spare tank.
Spare fuel Tanks, Header Tanks, Etc
All have definite problems, including selector valve hazard, but they are a
reasonable alternative it designed well. Using a vibrating firewall as one
wall of header tank is a questionable practice unless it is specially
reinforced and stiffened. (Touch that firewall in flight sometime.) Again
think of a survivable crash landing or an in-flight fire. A VW-like standpipe
in the main tank is one alternative to a spare fuel tank - or a separate tank
within the main tank that fills automatically -or a spare tank that transfers
into the main tank. Outer wing panels are the best location for spare tanks,
for structural as well as safety reasons.
Air Inlet System To Carburettor or Fuel Injector Servo
Must be of adequate size and especially not obstructed by a too-small air
filter. Better no filter than an obstructive one, because the obstructive one
can seriously disturb fuel mixture and produce erratic throttle-mixture
correspondence. Air filters are highly desirable but must receive the same
design consideration as any other system and not simply yield to what is
convenient (frequently seen in homebuilts). Be sure filter will also act as
flame arrestor in case of start-up backfire - it can save your whole airplane.
This is done by containing the filter in a blow-out and suck-in proof
container. A curved elbow type of air entry into a carburettor is poor
practice because of inertial lamination of airflow into the carburettor. A
plenum, horn or diffuser entry is much better, and removes those dead spots at
some throttle settings also higher power.
From engine pump, inlet spider, inlet plenum boxes as well as drains from
filters and gascolators, must be overboarded in a safe place away from
exhaust. A manifold collector and single drain often useful here.
Carburettor Heat Source
Standard and necessary. Can be easily combined with cabin heat. Pulling carb
heat cable turns off cabin heat with two-way flap valve. Be sure to overboard
any unused carb or cabin heat so there's a constant airflow over shrouded
exhaust pipe. Otherwise that segment of pipe will bum through and become an
early carbon monoxide and/or fire hazard.
In case of gear-up landing, or gearcollapse accident in fixed gear aircraft.
Any exposed or vulnerable fuel-containing structures such as sump, filters,
drains, gascolators, etc., should have mechanical protection. No drain valve
or such structure should project where it can be easily broken off in a belly
landing. Longeron-like braces in belly pan is an example of a mechanical
protective structure. A strong belly plate under this area is another.
Putting fuel into aircraft tanks deserves some thought. The flow of fuel
through a hose and nozzle creates static electricity, and a discharge arc
sometimes occurs to the filler neck of the airplane - explosion. So, in
fiberglass or other composite airplanes, it is desirable to ground the metal
fuel filler cap ring. This is true because any mass of metal plus adjacent
semi-conductor fluid (gasoline with some moisture in it) has some capacitance.
As such, it becomes the target for a static electric arc from the fuel hose
nozzle (which may or may not be grounded) or the pouring spout of a jerry can.
This filler-neck grounding should be done with a wire (18 gauge or so is
enough) attached with a good AN plated bolt and washer through the, aluminium
ring to a good plated crimpon fitting. These details are to minimize
dielectric corrosion of the dissimilar metals. Aluminium bolt or rivet and
wire could also be used. However, the experience with aluminium wires and
connectors in the presence of moisture is poor. The wire should be
mechanically supported properly into the cabin area where it is attached to
the ground buss through a resistor (approx. 1 meg OHM 1 watt). This resistor
limits the power of any static discharge. What it actually does is spread out
the time of the discharge from instantaneous to several micro seconds. This
then replaces the arc with a corona-like discharge which is probably below
ignition temperature for gas fumes. In any case, when fuelling, it is good
practice to keep the nozzle in contact with the filler neck. If both the
filler neck and the nozzle are grounded, there should be no problem. But you
can't be too sure about some gas hoses and nozzles or ground connectors to
airplane from the truck or pump. Finger screen in sump should be grounded - by
grounding aluminium line or connector.
Fuelling from plastic (polyethylene) cans should never be done because these
materials have a very high static electric generation potential when gasoline
flows over its surface, or it is rubbed against another material. Metal cans
are much safer.
The preflight ceremony of draining sumps and other fuel devices should be
taken seriously because it is here that you can best prevent the most
terrifying of aircraft accidents - the engine stopping on take-off or initial
climb. Water is the chief enemy, foreign bodies of all kinds, second. Always
use a cup or container to drain fuel, so that you can am any water or debris
that you drain. If you can't see it, you don't ever know how much to drain,
and every once in a while it takes a lot. Fuelling from some places can
produce very large amounts of water and debris - much more than a cupful -
even gallons. Old buried tanks with doubtful maintenance are guilty here, even
some trucks have pro: produced such events. I know first-hand of several such
Cessna's experience in rocking wings and tail to dislodge water from wrinkled
bladder tanks should be remembered - it was successful. This applies to other
airplanes, too, such as taildraggers where low spots due to attitude become
pockets for water -or nose draggers with multiple baffles. Water droplets on
the floor of a gas tank seem reluctant to move toward the low spot (sump)
unless agitated, especially with minimal dihedral wing tanks, apparently due
to surface tension.
Water is soluble in gasoline to a limited extent, and this is particularly
important in winter. As fuel cools in the tanks overnight, some water
precipitates out as droplets. This accounts for some of the .moisture of
condensation' even when the tanks are full. Also if it is cold enough, these
droplets can form ice crystals or slush, which can obstruct fuel outlet
screens, even to the point of collapsing them in flight In the cold winter
areas this can be important not only as a pre-flight consideration, but on
long flights at altitude, where the fuel has time to become cold. Jet-powered
aircraft use fuel heaters or water-dissolving additives in their fuel for this
reason. However, their fuel has a greater solubility for water, and their
flight altitudes are higher - but the problem is essentially the same.