It starts with a spark: staying safe during aircraft refueling

Aircraft refueling may be a routine practice, but don’t become complacent. Make sure you’re attentive to all safety precautions, every time.

While goal in fueling an aircraft is obviously to, eventually, accomplish flight with that fuel, there are two other necessary safety goals around which all fueling precautions revolve. These goals are:

  1. To keep sparks from occurring
  2. To ensure danger and damage can be mitigated when they do

The primary danger surrounding fueling an aircraft comes from the possibility of a spark igniting fuel vapors and causing a fire. By taking appropriate precautions, you can prevent the majority of sparks from happening, though there are always some inevitabilities. Fortunately, further precautions, equipment failsafes, and your own attentiveness can ensure fueling operations stick to and accomplish all three of their goals.

Filling it up

Most fueling safety practices will quickly become routine to pilots, whether those procedures are standard safety procedures or company-specific. And yet, complacency can be insidious. Pay close attention when your aircraft is being fueled to ensure the operation complies with the following limitations:

Never fuel indoors, such as in a hangar. Always fuel outdoors, but be aware that this does not remove the risk of fuel vapor igniting. Contrary to what you might expect, fuel vapors will not dissipate in the outdoor air. They will settle and spread, keeping the ignition risk in the area of the fueling. Stop fueling immediately if a spill of any magnitude occurs.

This may seem obvious, but the moratorium on open flames near fueling operations may not always be obvious to everyone in the area. Don’t just avoid smoking yourself, but keep an eye out for anyone else taking a break with a cigarette near the aircraft. Different operations may have different policies on the required distance, but you should also exercise your own judgment if you feel someone is too close.

Finally, keep an eye on the operation itself: ensure all trucks are grounded properly, keep passengers out of the area (and ensure they have all disembarked, except in specific types of operations), know the location of the nearest fire extinguisher (make sure it is within reach), and end fueling immediately if there is a thunderstorm or severe weather event within 20 nautical miles.

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Some fuel it hot

Some operations will permit hot refueling under certain circumstances. It is important that you recognize the hazards of refueling an aircraft with the engine running before you make the decision to hot refuel. Even if hot refueling is permitted by your operator, it is still not a decision to be made lightly. If you ever have the slightest reason to doubt the safety of a hot refueling operation, shut the engine off and refuel normally.

Remember, too, that hot refueling should only be done with JET A or JET A-1 fuel. AvGas has a low flash point, making it more likely to ignite under such an operation. In addition, hot refueling should only be performed for aircraft where the engine is located above the fuel system. If any fuel were spilled into a running engine below a fuel system, a dangerous fire would be almost certain.

Although hot refueling is generally performed out of a need for haste, do not rush safety precautions. Ensure passengers disembark safely, and if an EMS passenger is not in a condition to be removed, ensure an attendant stays with the passenger to evacuate them immediately if necessary. Close all doors and windows near the fueling point and do not allow any passengers to enter or leave once fueling has begun.

Finally, remain at the controls during hot refueling, seatbelt unbuckled, electrical equipment in standby mode or off, and be ready to shut down the engine and evacuate if needed. And that means ready! Do not allow yourself to daydream, become distracted by other cockpit work or flight planning, or anything else.

Remain focused and attentive during all refueling operations, and you’ll take off safely with your tanks full every time.

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