Fueling Your Own Aircraft
As an airport manager, I get the opportunity to see all kinds of odd and interesting things on a daily basis. One thing that I find particularly interesting though is the sheer number of pilots & aircraft owners that have never fueled their own aircraft before. Some folks have absolutely no clue where to even start! With the ever-increasing number of self-service fueling terminals at airports, if this is you, it would be helpful for you to go through the process at least once. That way, if you find yourself at one of these airports after the attendants have gone home, you won’t be stuck.
First things first. Let’s talk about safety around the pumps where you’ll be dispensing flammable gasoline into your expensive (probably) aircraft. I have three simple rules. All of these should go without saying, but I’ve seen each of them happen more than once.
Shut your aircraft down – This may seem obvious, but twice in the last year I have seen pilots pull up to the pump and exit their aircraft with the intent of fueling it, all while the propeller was still spinning with power. Not only does a spinning propeller create static electricity which could potentially cause a spark, but there is a rapidly spinning blade of death that you are now going to have to work around. Seriously, there is absolutely no reason for this, especially if you were the only person in the aircraft. Don’t be that guy/girl.
Turn your battery and magnetos off – As pilots, we have checklists for a reason. If you are required to make an unplanned fuel stop mid-trip, you might be in a hurry to get back into the air and forget a few steps. Failure to turn off the battery or switch the magnetos off could cause an unplanned spark from a light or potentially the prop to start spinning again if you have to manipulate it while fueling.
No smoking – I really shouldn’t have to say this, but here I am. Having an open flame next to gasoline vapors is an extreme recipe for disaster. Do not, DO NOT, DO NOT smoke around the fuel farm or a fueling activity taking place around an aircraft. I don’t know what else to say about this one.
Now that you’ve properly secured your aircraft near the fuel farm, let’s take a look at the actual fueling process. We can’t just jump right into pumping fuel just yet though. We’ll first need to bond the aircraft with a cable, position any required materials around the aircraft, and authorize our credit card at the self-service terminal.
Many people ask why is it so important to use a bonding cable when fueling their aircraft. If you’ve ever drug your feet across the carpet while wearing socks, you know that static electricity can build up and give you quite the shock when you touch something. Airplanes are very similar in that they are moving through the air, building up a static charge, and once on the ground, this charge can cause a spark when touching it, either with your body or the fueling nozzle. As you can imagine, a spark and flammable gasoline do not mix very well. Similarly, fuel flowing quickly through its hose can also build up a charge. The idea of bonding the aircraft is to allow these charges to equalize, decreasing the potential for a spark to happen during the fueling process. As added protection, you should always touch the metal nozzle to the fueling neck of the tank before starting the pumping process to further equalize the electrical potential.
Much like anything else in life, it is good to be prepared before starting an event. You certainly wouldn’t conduct a cross country flight before preparing by checking the weather and NOTAMs along your route of flight. Pumping fuel is no different. You don’t want to be scrambling around trying to find items you’ll need to fuel your aircraft. Go ahead and pull the hose out to your furthest tank to ensure that your aircraft is close enough to reach all the way around. If you need to pump a certain amount of fuel, make sure the aircraft is positioned so that you can see the meter. If you have a high-wing aircraft, you might need a ladder. If so, position it prior to starting the pump. Many self-service terminals have a timed feature to where if so much time elapses without fuel flowing, the terminal will shut itself off. If you haven’t completed your fueling fully, you may have to start over. Fuel pumps can be busy places, so do the right thing and don’t keep other folks waiting.
Lastly, before we can start pumping fuel, we’ll need to navigate the self-service fueling terminal. There are only a few major types of these terminals out there, and the good news is that they all use prompts to guide you through using them. The process typically includes swiping your credit card, selecting how much fuel you’d like, and confirming your selections. People often ask me why they are also asked to input their tail number, many thinking that it is an intrusive piece of information. Don’t worry, we aren’t collecting data to send you advertisements later on. We collect this data in the off chance that there is an issue discovered later on down the road with the fuel. Think about it this way. If it were discovered that the fuel was off-spec a couple of hours after you just topped your aircraft off, wouldn’t you want to be informed about it? That’s why.
It is also important to keep in mind that every airplane is different when fueling. Because of the shape of fuel tanks, you may need to figure out which way to position the nozzle to keep it from spraying back on you. If you have bladder tanks, you need to remember not to jam the nozzle deep inside. This will prevent ripping the material, causing a nasty leak. Lastly, if you’re filling the tank up, it’s important to have some idea of where to fill it to. Fuel in storage typically will be cooler than ambient temperature. If you fill your aircraft too full, the fuel will start to heat up, expand, and go out of your vent right onto the ramp. Once you have the fuel you need, remember to secure the filler caps. You don’t want to lose all of the precious fuel you just pumped!
Now that we’ve completed the pumping process, all we have left is to clean up after ourselves. Roll the fuel hose back up, either through a powered or manual reel. The bonding cable will need to be rolled back up as well. Often these reels are spring loaded. Please don’t just unload the spring and let the cable go. This can cause lots of damage, and is inconsiderate of anyone fueling behind you. Be sure to walk it back all the way. Also remember to put ladders away if you got any out. Lastly, you may want to do a quick walk-around of your aircraft to see if there was anything you missed.
Collect your receipt and you’ve finished fueling your own aircraft! There really isn’t anything to it at all; however, if you are unsure, I’ve found that most airport attendants are happy to assist you the first time around.
Knowing this simple procedure can not only get you out of an airfield late at night, but can also save you money since self-service fueling is typically cheaper than full-service when you travel around.