Is That Fuel Gauge Actually Right?

For those that venture into the realm of emergency services, specialized equipment is nothing new. It is this specialized equipment that allows us to enter burning buildings without getting hurt, breathe in environments that would not otherwise support human life, or hang from elevated locations on a cable or rope only a few millimeters thick. While we are taught to trust your equipment there is also an emphasis (or at least should be) to check your equipment to assure it is in proper condition and working order. After having been involved in emergency services for my entire adult life, I have definitely learned to trust my equipment but also to continually be aware that, like anything, it can fail or otherwise break, usually at the most inconvenient or unexpected of times. It is when equipment falls into disrepair, yet still left in service, that disastrous consequences can result. This is as much true for ground based services and teams as it is for air based assets. 

Today’s reinforcing life lesson is brought to us by an aircraft fuel gauge. Recently our primary aircraft was undergoing some heavy maintenance (transmission replacement) which required us to work out of a backup aircraft for a few weeks. We’re a bit spoiled and normally fly in an EC145, so of course we all complain about the alternate aircraft (we’ve got to complain about something…right??), but we always make it work. As luck would have it, while in the spare aircraft, we noticed a discrepancy in the fuel gauge. After a few rounds of replacement parts, our spare aircraft was given a clean bill of health, and we were back in business. I’m not sure about you, but once an aircraft comes out of maintenance, there comes with it a bit of a sense of complacency thinking that everything is working as it should, and why shouldn’t it, it just came out of maintenance? Right?? Well, it’s right here that I need to warn you about this sense of complacency. It can slowly sneak into your mindset and, as our very own Dan Rauh frequently says, “Gives you that warm sense of security kinda like peeing your pants in the dark.” 

 But I digress, so back to my point: Our aircraft had come out of repair. The fuel gauge was given a clean bill of health, and a number of missions were flown with nary a hiccup. On my hitch, we had flown a couple of missions, the last of which we landed with eighty-ish gallons in the mains and topped things off with another forty gallons which should, according to even my “let’s count my fingers” math, should equal somewhere around one-hundred and twenty gallons. As a side note, my organization is one that prides itself in all flight crew members knowing what’s going on up in the cockpit. This includes, among other things, knowing what our basic fuel load is. This will prove important shortly. Fast-forward a few hours later to our next call: Aircraft walk-around complete, and everyone is on-board. Pre-flight checks begin and the “enough fuel for the mission” challenge is posed….and then there is a pregnant pause. Hmmmm. Shouldn’t we have one-hundred and twenty gallons? We all start questioning ourselves. “We landed with eighty, right? Yep. We added forty, right? Yep. That should be one-twenty, right? Yep. Whelp…the fuel gauge says one-oh-four. That’s not right!” As would be expected, we started second-guessing the fuel gauge and then started second-guessing the second guess. “There’s gotta be one-twenty in the mains…we should be good. Right? I know we put forty in!” As things like this happen, my head can see the holes in the proverbial Swiss cheese aligning: signs that there’s something wrong yet proceeding anyway (I can hear the narrative of the Nat-Geo aircraft disaster show play out in my head). “Ok guys…..let’s not be the next statistic on an NTSB report. If the fuel gauge is wrong, who’s to say what side of wrong it’s on. Is there actually more or less in the tank than is being indicated on the screen?” After a bit of conversation, it’s rightfully decided to scrub the mission. While it’s three to go and one to say “no”, all three of us quickly decide that we need to abort the mission and down the aircraft for maintenance until the whole fuel gauge issue can be sorted out. We can’t help anyone if we have an engine failure due to fuel starvation, and have to auto-rotate into a field now, can we? This is where the whole issue of all crew members being knowledgeable about how the aircraft functions comes into play. That and CRM, but that’s a discussion for another time. While we as non-flying crew members are never going to fly the aircraft, we can at least minimally look at the panel and recognize when something isn’t right. In this case, I was sitting shotgun, knew what our fuel load SHOULD have been, and recognized that it wasn’t correct for whatever reason.

At the end of the day, real life events once again emphasized that: A.) One should never become so comfortable or complacent in this, or any, job that you take on the attitude that nothing bad will happen, and B.) All flight crew should at least be minimally knowledgeable about how the aircraft functions. This industry, by its sheer nature, poses a lot of inherent risk, and it is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate that risk as much as possible. At the end of the day, we all either succeed or fail as a team. That being said, the notion of medical crew being self-loading baggage is antiquated, dangerous, and one that I firmly believe needs to be left in the past. On that very note, we recently had a pilot at our base that referred to us as “self-loading baggage that knows too much.” I, for one, took that as a compliment.  

Safe flying, everyone!

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