Fuel exhaustion—known for a long time as a leading cause of accidents in light aircraft—is a real and present danger in turbine aircraft, even those operated by professional flight crews. One recent accident in particular reminds us that this topic is especially relevant to light jet operators and pilots.
On the night of January 3, 2009, two professional pilots with a Part 91 operation were given a Citation II (N815MA) and what some would consider the unenviable task of flying from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro, NJ with an 11:00 PM departure on a night where much of the U.S. East Coast was blanketed in low IFR conditions. The crew intended to stop in Wilmington, NC (KILM) on the way to TEB. KILM is the northernmost customs stop permitted for use by flights originating in the Caribbean, and is generally the one preferred by corporate air operators destined for the Northeast.
Perhaps because of an issue with the aircraft’s RVSM status or because of strong winds aloft, the crew of N815MA flew the Atlantic Routes at or below FL280, occasionally using FL270 wrong-way. Fuel was certainly not abundant as the crew began their first approach at KILM, and the weather was definitely not “with the plan.” Faced with ½ mile visibility and a ceiling reported as 100 feet broken, the crew was unable to land after their first ILS approach to Runway 24. Second and third attempts failed to present the runway in the pilots’ windscreen. The crew decided to make a fourth approach, only to have the engines flame out on a downwind vector. The captain stated later that the aircraft just “ran out of fuel.”
Using their GPS, the pilots turned towards KILM and aimed at the runway intersection shown on the moving map. Around 50’ AGL, the crew spotted a row of lights and turned to parallel the row. The Citation landed gear-up on the departure end of runway 6 and overran the pavement, coming to a stop in the middle of the runway 24 approach lights. Amazingly, not one of the seven occupants of the aircraft sustained injury.
Where did things go wrong? The investigation is still underway so we can only speculate at best, but it seems as though this accident was the result of an error chain that began with a case of “get-there-itis.” Any pilot who has missed an appointment with U.S. Customs will probably be able to tell a story about his or her horrific encounter with bureaucracy. Surely, the pilots of N815MA were dreading the thought of having to divert to a non-Customs airport, and the “better dead than embarrassed” mentality may have been in play. Four approaches was three too many.
Situations like this demonstrate the need for strict adherence to one’s personal minimums (in this case minimum planned landing fuel) and decision-making rules. Frankly, if you miss one approach and fuel is not abundant, it’s time to give up and go elsewhere. Bear in mind that the accident flight was operated under Part 91…a Part 135 operator would not even have been permitted to attempt the approach at KILM in the first place.
As an owner-operator of a jet, it is of utmost importance to understand the range limitations of your aircraft and to never fall into the “personal airliner” trap. We cannot always complete our missions as planned and must be prepared to divert.