ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Minutes before a single-engine Piper airplane made an emergency landing on the Maitland Boulevard ramp to Interstate 4 last week, the pilot notified air traffic controllers at Orlando Executive Airport that his aircraft had a problem.
"I am about 11 miles north of the airport and I just ran out of fuel in one tank, so I need to go straight to the (runway)," the pilot said in a recorded radio transmission.
It remains unclear why the pilot did not have enough fuel to complete his trip from South Carolina.
An average of more than 50 aviation accidents occur each year due to fuel management issues, according to a 2017 Safety Alert issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.
A News 6 review of NTSB accident investigations reports found several recent crashes in Central Florida were blamed on the aircraft running out fuel, a situation known as fuel exhaustion.
In May 2018, a pilot was seriously injured after crashing in Port Orange.
He later told NTSB investigators he "should have made a positive determination of fuel on board prior to takeoff." Only a cup of fuel was recovered from the plane's two tanks, according to the agency.
A pilot whose plane crashed in Ormond Beach in December 2016 was impaired by alcohol before and during a flight, likely leading to fuel exhaustion, according to the NTSB.
A pilot told federal investigators that he failed to fill his planes fuel tanks before taking off from Ocala in October 2016. The plane later crashed into a fence as the pilot tried to land it on the driveway of a local farm, records show.
"You just don't run out of gas as a pilot. That's not what we do," said Charles Davis, an aviator with the Orlando Sanford Flying Club. "If you do your pr-flight prep and follow the rules, usually you'll eliminate situations like this."
Davis said Florida has many fueling facilities and so-called fixed based operators such as Million Air in Sanford where pilots can quickly land to top off their tanks.
"There are a number of airports that you could divert to to get fuel," said Davis. "You would be looking at your fuel gauge and seeing it bouncing on the E. That should be your first sign that you have a problem going on. And at that time you would divert to another airport."
Prior to takeoff, pilots must consider factors such as distance, wind speed and passenger load to determine how much fuel the aircraft will need to travel to the destination.
"If you're going to have anticipated headwinds, it’s going to take you longer to get there. You're going to burn more fuel," said Bob Joyce, the director of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. "Aircraft have a limited amount of cargo and weight capacity, so that might limit the amount of fuel you take."
Federal Aviation Administration rules require pilots flying without instruments in clear weather conditions, known as Visual Flight Rules, to carry enough extra fuel to fly for a minimum of 30 minutes longer than it will take to reach the destination. At night, that minimum requirement extends to 45 minutes.
"Most pilots like myself, I will (plan for) an hour to an hour and 10 minutes," said Davis. "I just want that extra cushion because you never know (what could happen)."
Besides checking the fuel gauge, Davis said it is easy to verify the fuel level in some aircraft by simply removing the fuel cap.
"One of things in the preflight checklist is to visually look at your tanks to see if they're topped off with fuel," Davis said.
At Embry-Riddle, students are taught to keep their eyes on the fuel gauge while airborne.
"Every pilot should be monitoring the fuel," said Joyce.
"In fact, we have it built into our checklist to monitor the fuel en route at certain phases of flight. So it's really something you should be doing all along, because conditions can change."