Pilot refused credit to buy fuel died after plane's tank ran dry

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The Independent Online
A PILOT who was not allowed to use his credit card to pay for fuel for his light aircraft died when his tank ran dry and he crashed into the sea.

Fuel suppliers refused to accept the 49-year-old Austrian pilot's credit card so he asked them to put about pounds 250 of fuel into the aircraft's tanks and paid by cash. But he underestimated the amount of fuel the plane needed and, while taking the Piper Navajo Chieftain to a sale organised by a British company, crashed off the coast of Jersey on 12 June last year.

The pilot, who was flying solo from Morocco to Iceland, was heard to say "Oh shit" when both engines started to misfire, according to a UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch report out today. The report found the pilot had grossly over-estimated how far the plane could fly without refuelling. It outlines a tragic series of events that led to the disaster, including the fact that the pilot learnt two days before the flight that his daughter had been born.

The man was acting as a "ferry pilot" delivering the plane to its buyer. He bought 725 litres and had 50 litres still in his tanks, which could hold 931 litres. Because he had been delayed in Morocco for several days he had probably run down his supply of local currency.

The plane's vendor had told the pilot that its maximum flying time was 6 hours 15 minutes when all the tanks were full, and that one fuel gauge did not work. He advised him to refuel in France, warning him that because the aircraft was 23 years old its fuel efficiency was less than a newer model.

But the pilot expressed the opinion that the plane had a flying time of eight hours and that he would consider refuelling in France only in the case of adverse winds. The engines started misfiring after five hours and 28 minutes.

"There was simply not enough fuel on board the aircraft when it left Tangiers for a non-stop flight to Guernsey unless the winds aloft significantly augmented the aircraft's ground speed, which they did not," said the report. "Evidently the commander ignored all the pre-flight and in-flight indications that he should land and refuel in France. The fundamental reason for the fuel exhaustion appears to be that the commander had a misplaced faith in his assumptions or calculations of the aircraft's range."

In its report the branch warned that the range of units used for aviation fuel - Imperial gallons, US gallons, pounds and kilograms - were a "potential trap for the unwary".

The plane sank almost immediately after hitting the water, and the body of the pilot was found still strapped to his seat. "Tiredness, mild hypoxia [oxygen deficiency], frustration and anxiety may have adversely affected the commander's judgement in the air," the report concluded.