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We are suffering from an aviation cultural issue as Pilots, the FAA and NTSB are all within the aviation community.   We all share a cultural similar opinion - these fuel related issues in aviation are pilot error. 

"Pilot error" is referred by social scientists as Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) This is where we naturally blame people, even when circumstances or conditions are the primary issue. 

Per FAR Part 91      Pilots need to have a working fuel gauge indicating the quantity of fuel in each tank.

The basic definition of working fuel gauge is one that indicates to  you, with some degree of accuracy

How much fuel is in each tank.    

The FAA concurs as it has argued that a Low Fuel Pressure warning light is insufficient as it will illuminate coincident with a sudden loss of aircraft power - the same physical fact, cessation of power, holds true of a fuel gauge that is only accurate at zero.

 It is very obvious - but we hear the zero fuel accurate statement in aviation all of the time. 

When you look at the Federal Airworthiness Regulations's for flight and the Federal Airworthiness Regulations for Aircraft Certification and then combine the regulations with the dialogues found in the various Notices of Proposed Rulemaking.  You come to the same conclusion.   Fuel gauges were required for a reason.  

It is interesting that in one NPRM dialogue a submitter offered that a fuel totalizer should be the de-facto fuel gauge in aircraft, that concept was soundly rejected

As you can see, the regulations only require that the aircraft fuel gauge read “zero” during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply determined under 14 CFR §23.959(a).  Therefore, the gauge cannot be depended upon for checking the fuel quantity in a tank.  This is especially true of the smaller, less sophisticated general aviation aircraft.  Visual or physical checking or both are the only safe means of determining the actual quantity of fuel onboard such aircraft.

The contrast to FAA regulation from FAA Guidance is quite startling 

Aircraft Fuel Level Advocacy



Unfortunately, this Fundamental Attribution Error results in a tendency for people to blame and disparage victims of an accident or a tragedy.  It is actually a protective strategy of the mind, providing mental separation of the pilot community  from those kind of pilots that run out of fuel. 

What unfortunately happens is that in these circumstances we fail to look for causes or relevant warning factors that could have mitigated or prevented the incident.  So lets be quite blunt.


And again in a FAA Safety Briefing from 2002.

Does this two-faced position by the FAA  support a culture where it is acceptable for "Fuel Exhaustion/Starvation" to be

one of the TOP 5 GA Incidents, and according to the AOPA Nall Report the second highest cause of pilot death.

       Unlike other countries, the NTSB does not even look at the fuel quantity indication system

in fuel related incidents or accidents. 

We have been trying to track down the source of a piece of "Pilot Folklore" regarding fuel level in aircraft.  Specifically the widespread pilot belief that the FAA doesn't require you to have working fuel gauges in your aircraft.   The comment goes  something like "The fuel gauges only need to tell you when you're empty".  For example in the FAA Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Fuel Related Accidents in the US get this typical NTSB Rubber Stamp​

"The pilots improper pre-flight and inflight planning, which resulted in fuel exhaustion"

What do the FAR's (Federal Airworthiness Requirements) say exactly:

  • Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) §23.1337(b), Powerplant instruments installation.  It reads:(b) Fuel quantity indication. There must be a means to indicate to the flightcrew members the quantity of usable fuel in each tank during flight. An indicator calibrated in appropriate units and clearly marked to indicate those units must be used. Comment:  It says you have to have a fuel gauge and it needs to show you the amount of fuel in your tank in flight.

  • In addition:  (1) Each fuel quantity indicator must be calibrated to read “zero” during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply determined under 14 CFR §23.959(a);It says that the fuel gauge must have the capability to be be calibrated to read zero usable fuel.  Comment:  This feature is an added part (In addition) to the requirement that it must let you know how much "usable" fuel you had and not the total volume of the tank,  when the aircraft is in flight.