Pilots are actually quite good at “almost” not running of fuel during flight. Several years ago a study indicated that in 70% of the fuel exhaustion accidents, the pilot crashed within 10 miles of the destination airport. In 50% of all fuel exhaustion accidents, the pilot crashed within one mile of the airport. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Perhaps we can reduce fuel exhaustion accidents by 50% if pilots would simply pick an airport a mile short of their original destination. A jest, of course, but not a big one.
Here’s how to think about the statistics above. It’s a no-brainer that pilots will avoid flying airplanes beyond their fuel range when the trip distance is ridiculously large. After all, who would attempt to fly a normally-tanked Cessna 150 from California to Hawaii? The answer is, someone with no brain, of course. And why would anyone worry about flying for an hour in an airplane with five hours of fuel on board? That leaves those trips where there’s room for doubt as to whether there’s enough fuel on board to complete the flight safely. Here is where some pilots fail miserably at doubt management.
Doubt should be the motivator that compels pilots to carefully consider the ratio of risk to reward during flight—the risk of fuel exhaustion compared to the reward of avoiding an unplanned fuel stop. In these instances, pilots often mismanage their doubtful disposition by attempting to prove to themselves that they actually have enough fuel to make the destination airport. The problem with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t tell us the truth about our perception of reality (in other words, it’s anti-scientific). I believe Einstein once suggested that a thousand theories proving relativity correct are meaningless if even one theory proves it wrong (all that from an amazing guy who couldn’t manage his curling iron). The correct doubt management strategy here is to look for ways to prove yourself wrong, not prove yourself right. As the statistics suggest, the proof that pilots had enough fuel to land must have been compelling, at least compelling enough to get them within 10 miles of the destination airport in 70% of those accidents. Had any of the pilots above attempted to confirm their doubt—to prove themselves wrong—it’s likely that they would have found at least one compelling bit of evidence (if not a lot of evidence) to support making an intermediate fuel stop.
Another ineffective doubt management strategy occurs when pilots use superstitious behavior and magical thinking to avoid acknowledging their limited fuel levels. For instance, one form of superstitious behavior occurs when a pilot is low on fuel and begins “hoping” that he can make his destination. Of course, hoping has no influence whatsoever on fuel levels, but it certainly can make a pilot feel better. The sad thing is that feeling better is exactly the opposite of how the pilot should feel if he or she wants a better chance at avoiding fuel exhaustion. The only way hope could possible help a pilot is if he “hoped” into the radio, preferably on 121.5 MHz, where hope springs eternal. Clearly this is doubt management gone bad.
Other forms of superstitious behavior include, reworking in-flight fuel computations until we have a fuel quantity that pleases us as well as modifying our recollection of the amount of fuel we believed we had prior to departure. My all time favorite form of superstitious behavior occurs when pilots say, “I’ve heard pilots say that they’ve flown airplanes similar to this one for over five hours straight at this power setting without running out of gas.” Each of these forms of superstitious behavior (and the many, many others that I can’t possibly list here) are terribly ineffective strategies for managing the doubt we have about our in-flight fuel levels.
Magical thinking is also an ineffective doubt management strategy. A form of this behavior occurs when pilots find solace in the use of parallax to increase their apparent fuel levels. I’m speaking of pilots who look slightly to the left of the fuel gauge needle—a needle reading close to “E”—and feel better because this view shows a sudden increase in their fuel supply. Anyone turning a car that’s low on fuel and sees the gas needle suddenly (and temporarily) point to a higher quantity knows exactly what I mean. Drivers may actually feel a bit better as a result of the needle’s movement. Pilots low on fuel in turbulent air know this magical feeling, too. Turbulence may temporarily nudge those fuel gauge needles into the higher fuel quantity region, allowing pilots to feel some degree of relief, albeit temporarily. The fact that these types of superstitious and magical behaviors can make pilots feel better, is a sure sign that we need to be better doubt managers.
Given that pilots in these fuel exhaustion accidents managed to get so close to the destination airport, you have to wonder how many pilots actually land on fumes? Of course, this is something we don’t hear about, perhaps because there’s no such thing as an FAA “fumigator” stationed at the end of each runway. The scary thought here is that superstitious and magical behavior may actually be a strategy that appears to work for pilots, at least until the time that it doesn’t. It’s entirely possible that some pilots compensate for a lack of proper flight planning through the unwitting use of superstitious or magical behaviors. Either way, becoming a good doubt manager means reducing any reliance we have on these types of behaviors.
The takeaway point here is that it’s the doubt we have about our fuel situation that should signal us to change our thinking strategy. First, we need to become more aware of our natural tendency to engage in superstitious behavior and use magical thinking. The moment we find ourselves hoping, fudging fuel calculations, modifying our memories or enjoying the pleasures of parallax, we should (sorry Mr. T. Leary) turn off that thinking, tune out those strategies and drop in to a more rational frame of mind. Instead of trying to prove that we actually do have enough fuel to land at our intended destination, we’re often better off trying to prove that we don’t. If we can’t prove this, then there’s a good chance that we have sufficient fuel for a safe landing. So be it. If we can prove ourselves wrong, then the chances are that we are wrong. I have no doubt that this strategy brings us closer to knowing the truth about the actual amount of fuel we have on board our airplanes. Without a doubt, it make us better doubt managers.
If you’d like to learn more about how pilots think (or should think) in the cockpit, take a look at my book titled, “Rod Machado’s Plane Talk,” available for $19.95 as an ebook (instant download). This book is filled with chapters on effective cockpit thinking strategies, coping with in-flight anxiety, dealing with first time passengers, and many other useful tips to help pilots fly safer and wiser.