Fuel Starvation – What can we learn?

On March 18, 2016, just before 3:30 pm, two teens were returning from a Nashville, TN Spring Break trip, when their rental Mooney M20C Ranger experienced engine failure. The pilot crash landed near the 14th hole of Wichita’s Tallgrass Country Club Golf Course. Both the pilot and his girlfriend sustained minor injuries.

The 17 year old Private Pilot had two years of experience. He reported that he conducted a preflight inspection of the airplane and noted that both fuel tanks were “filled to the rim.” (The M20C holds 52 gallons of usable fuel, 26 in each tank). They departed Dickson, Tennessee (M02), and headed for the rental Mooney’s home, Wichita’s Col. James Jabara Airport (KAAO), This was at least a 481nm flight.


The pilot extended the downwind leg, due to inbound instrument flight rules (IFR) traffic. On that extended downwind, the engine suddenly lost power. The pilot reported that he used the ALARMS checklist, Airspeed, Landing site, Air restart, Radios, Mayday, Secure plane, as he prepared for an off field landing. The Mooney flew over the top of some houses lining the Tallgrass 14th hole, then clipped a tree before striking the ground.




















An examination of the wreckage revealed no preimpact mechanical anomalies. The fuel tank selector was positioned to the left fuel tank, and the electric fuel pump was in the “OFF” position.

No fuel was found in the left tank. There was no smell of fuel, no evidence of fuel spillage, and the fuel tank did not appear to have been breached.

Some fuel, about 2 to 3 inches deep, was found in the right fuel tank.

If the pilot had switched the fuel selector from the left to the right fuel tank and turned on the electric fuel pump, the engine would not have been starved of fuel.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

  • The total loss of engine power due to fuel starvation, which resulted from the pilot’s improper fuel management.



As they approached James Jabara, a simple GUMPS check might have saved them from this accident. First on this check is “Gas”.


Fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate. In fact, the FAA requires that fuel gauges only need to be accurate one time. Yup! They must read “zero” when the fuel remaining equals the unusable fuel. Every other indication is the fuel gauge’s best guess.


Because we can’t rely on our gauges, we really need to know our airplane and what’s happening in our fuel tanks. For instance, we should know how much fuel our aircraft burns the 1st hour, the 2nd hour, etc. With that knowledge, we can keep a good fuel record on our knee board. We’ll then know how much fuel is in each tank. If you’re keeping a good fuel record, you’ll know which tank has the most fuel for the approach and landing.

If you haven’t been keeping track of your tank quantities, then when an engine fails, the first thing to come into your mind should be, “Oh (insert your own choice word(s)! I let a tank run dry!”

THEN . . . Switch tanks. That’s the first item on most Engine Power Loss Checklists. The next steps are:

  • Mags – BOTH
  • Throttle, Prop and Mixture – FULL FORWARD
  • Boost Pump – ON

If those steps fail to restore power, you have no choice but to fly the aircraft all the way to the crash site.

Fly Safe, Jim



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