On 12 October 2015, the pilot of a PA-31-350 (Piper Chieftain) prepared the aircraft for a survey flight over the southern highlands area of New South Wales.

After departure, the pilot reported that both towering cumulus (TC) and cumulus (CU) clouds were beginning to form in the area, producing some light turbulence. The pilot remained concerned about Passenger 3, seated at the rear of the aircraft, who appeared to find the conditions difficult to tolerate.

The pilot’s workload remained high. Apart from flying to each of the pre-arranged waypoints, additional landmarks were being relayed to the pilot from the client’s operator on the ground.

The pilot kept a very detailed fuel log, and continually cross-checked the fuel in each of the four fuel tanks. The weather had deteriorated even further as the pilot prepared to fly to the last waypoint before a return to Bankstown. The pilot delayed a scheduled fuel tank change to maximise the fuel remaining in the main (inboard) tanks.

As the pilot was manoeuvring around large banks of cloud and thunderstorms, the left auxiliary (outboard) tank ran dry and the engine surged. The aircraft yawed. The pilot reacted immediately and changed the fuel selectors onto the main tanks. The engine responded and power was restored. The aircraft returned to Bankstown without incident.

In this incident, the pilot followed all the key suggestions in the ATSB’s Avoidable Accident Series No 5 – Starved and exhausted: Fuel management aviation accidents. These being

  • Knew exactly how much fuel was on board
  • Knew how much / what rate fuel was being consumed
  • Knew the aircraft fuel system and keep a detailed fuel log of the four tanks during flight

However a high workload, deteriorating weather, and untimely distractions led to a change of a planned procedure and an unplanned outcome of temporary fuel starvation of the left engine.

Another ATSB investigation involving fuel starvation resulted in a more serious outcome, with the aircraft substantially damaged.   In this accident, the pilot was also distracted from their scheduled fuel management due to weather; however in this event the aircraft was at significantly lower altitude. Due to the delayed engine response at low level, the pilot had to conduct a forced landing through fog. The investigation can be found on the ATSB website.


Aviation Short Investigations Bulletin Issue 46

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