Professional pilots can be absolute perfectionists regarding preflight planning, cockpit resource management and adherence to SOPs. So, why is it that a large percentage of them aren’t equally fastidious about what’s in the fuel tanks of their aircraft?

That’s a question asked by an increasing number of concerned pilots and FBO owners, among others. They know that pilots’ and passengers’ lives depend upon fuel quality and purity.

Consider the recent experience of a San Diego-based broker who sold a 2007 Piper Meridian to a buyer in Coolangatta, Australia, just south of Brisbane. As a condition of the sale, the broker needed to ferry the airplane from California to Australia, a 6,700+ nm, four-leg trip with long flights over some of the most isolated sections of the Pacific.

San Diego to Honolulu was the first and longest leg, a nearly 2,300-nm stretch over open water. For the broker, ETOPS truly meant, “engine turns or pilot swims.” He had confidence, though, that the Meridian’s single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6A turboprop was up to the job — if fed with pure jet fuel.

The broker was fastidious in his preflight preparations, including draining all aircraft fuel sumps, checking for contamination and discarding the fuel samples in an EPA-approved waste tank. At the FBO he owns, he also checked the quality of the fuel on the truck that would fill the Meridian’s wing and ferry tanks, ensuring that the fuel met ASTM standards, that the refueling personnel were properly trained, and that the tanks and trucks contained only “clean and bright” Jet-A. After fueling the aircraft, he let the wing tanks settle for several hours and then again sampled the aircraft fuel to ensure it was pure, free of water and other contaminants.

After some minor delays, he launched off on the 10+ hr. mission from San Diego-Gillespie Field to Hilo, Hawaii. Favorable winds saved fuel, so he was able to divert from Hilo and press on farther.

He arrived in Oahu late in the evening, just before midnight. No line service personnel were on duty at the FBO, so he chocked the airplane by himself and secured it for the night.

The next morning, he returned to the FBO and requested fuel. As a precaution, he asked one of the line service managers when they last sampled the Jet-A in their trucks. The manager replied that checking fuel quality was a “night shift” function.

A red flag shot up. The broker said he arrived late on the previous evening and there was no “night shift” on duty. So, how could the “night shift” have sampled truck fuel and checked it for contaminants?

When requested, the line service manager also could not produce logs of when the fuel trucks last were checked for fuel quality. However, he verbally assured the broker that the fuel was quite pure.

At that point, the skeptical broker insisted upon witnessing the FBO’s line service personnel check the trucks for fuel purity before he would allow his airplane to be refueled. A couple of quarts of Jet-A were tapped off the first truck and fed into a standard white bucket.

The results were damning. The sample was filled with water and other contaminants. It appeared that the truck’s fuel hadn’t been checked in weeks.

The broker requested a second truck. When the fuel sample was tapped into the white bucket, it was full of sand and other particulates, but at least there was no water. After several samples were drawn, the fuel eventually appeared “clean and bright,” free of visible contaminants. The broker also insisted that the line service personnel perform a specific gravity check using a hydrometer to check for dissolved water or other invisible liquid contaminants, such as other types of fuel.

The line service personnel at the FBO seemed surprised at the need for such meticulous fuel checks, but the broker explained that it was no more unreasonable than asking that, before commencing a surgical procedure, your doctor’s team be required to scrub with antimicrobial soap, don sterile garments and snap on fresh latex gloves.

Once assured that the Meridian could be replenished with clean fuel, the broker filled the tanks and departed for Majuro, Marshall Islands, an almost 2,000-nm leg. At each stopover, the broker was equally meticulous about checking fuel quality and draining the aircraft’s sumps. The rest of the trip went without incident, as the aircraft flew on to Honiara on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and finally south to Australia’s Gold Coast.

Setting Higher Standards at FBOs

Many business aircraft pilots assume that fuel sold by well-established, reputable FBOs is clean, pure and dry. They simply don’t bother to check fuel purity at refueling stopovers.

Perhaps that’s why the questions posed to customers by line personnel are typically, “How many gallons? With or without Prist? What type of credit card?” They are not accustomed to pilots’ inquiring about or personally checking the FBO’s fuel quality.

It’s true that most FBOs attempt to adhere to the fuel storage, handling and dispensing protocols contained in FAA Advisory Circular AC 150/5230-4B and even perhaps ATA Specification 103, the airline association’s Standard for Jet Fuel Quality Control at Airports, and the ASTM’s Aviation Fuel Quality Control Procedures, a comprehensive guide by fuels expert Jim Gammon.

But it’s also true that many people who refuel aircraft are entry-level employees, young, inexperienced and minimally paid. Mentoring is often minimal and oversight casual. Compliance with standards is not assured. Fueling a $60 million business jet may be a line service specialist’s first job in the aviation industry. There’s little incentive to study fuel quality control procedures when you’re being paid $10 per hour and a penny per gallon.

During initial indoctrination, refuelers may receive cursory training regarding how to check fuel specific gravity, assure safe vapor concentrations and confirm static bonding. But if a fatal aircraft accident were to occur as a result of an FBO’s mishandling of fuel, it’s questionable if many line service specialists could provide clear and convincing testimony in court that they had taken all prudent steps to assure fuel purity. An FBO’s potential liability in a tort action could exceed several hundred-million dollars.

That’s a key reason why the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) created the International Standard for Business Aircraft Handlers. IS-BAH starts by incorporating NATA’s Safety 1st ground audit check, but it also follows IS-BAO for the SOP disciplines, personnel resource management, continuous improvement SMS processes and meticulous record-keeping protocols.

In February 2015, SRC Aviation at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi became the first FBO to be certified to the IS-BAH standard. The following month, American Aero, a Signature Select FBO at Fort Worth-Meacham International Airport (FTW), became the first FBO in the Western Hemisphere to earn Stage I IS-BAH certification.

Riggs Brown, president of American Aero, worked closely with Robert Agostino, aviation director at Group Holdings, an affiliated company that has earned Stage III IS-BAO certification, to develop the disciplines needed to earn IS-BAH certification.

“We already had the SOPs in place, but it was more challenging to implement the safety management system,” says Brown. “Similar to IS-BAO, IS-BAH’s SMS is a non-punitive, self-reporting process.”

Agostino, who also serves as American Aero’s vice president, says that earning IS-BAH certification was a top priority.

“Safety doesn’t end when the engines stop turning and the chocks are in place. The whole purpose of IS-BAH, as with IS-BAO, is to determine if you have the habit patterns that promote safety. SMS is a continuous feedback, closed-loop process that determines whether you have personnel or process issues,” says Agostino. He notes that while the process is non-punitive, “there is no protection against negligence or malfeasance.”

“IS-BAH is the logical extension of the safety envelope, and it sets an international standard for operations in business and general aviation aircraft ground handling,” says Brown.

As with IS-BAO, IS-BAH certification requires a multi-step audit by an accredited third-party. The audit checks the FBO’s organizational structure, its normal and emergency procedures and its SMS. “It’s a voluntary accreditation that clearly demonstrates that we deliver the best and safest services in the industry,” says Brown.

David Gonzales is American Aero’s line service manager. “Fuel quality is our No. 1 priority.” This starts by checking the documentation accompanying every load of fuel from the supplier in accordance with ASTM D1655 (jet fuel standards) and ATA Spec 103 procedures, as shown in Figure 1. The fuel batch and serial number of the tank trailer also are recorded. Before accepting a fuel load from a supplier, Gonzales insists on parking the truck for several minutes to let any water and contaminants settle to the bottom of the tank. A fuel sample then is taken to check that the fuel is “clear and bright,” free of visible water and that it meets temperature-adjusted, density standards in accordance with ASTM D1298.

Contaminated fuel must be discarded into a waste tank for disposal and subsequently salvaged by a third-party firm. Clear and bright fuel samples are emptied into a reclamation tank that recycles fuel back into the FBO’s storage tanks.

Every morning, as shown in Figure 2, Gonzales’ team samples aircraft fuel at storage tanks, filters, pumps and trucks. Any sediment, particulates or water is drained off and discarded into the waste tank. Clean fuel samples are recycled through the 30-gal. reclamation tank. The two-tank system already has paid for itself because it minimizes the quantity of fuel that must be discarded into the waste tank.

“We’ve adhered to ATA 103 and NATA safety protocols for the past 24 months. For instance, we top off our trucks every day because we don’t want condensation to form inside the tank that could contaminate the fuel,” says Gonzales.

As shown in Figure 3, American Aero also has procedures in place that enable pilots to have line service personnel check the fuel coming from the truck prior to having their aircraft refueled. Available checks include visible free water, ASTM D2276 particulate color and particle assessment. Some flight crewmembers also may want to see a thermo-hydrometer test to check fuel density and a dye test to check for water saturation in the fuel. Most checks can be performed with a visual fuel sampler vessel (Figure 4).

If pilots sump their aircraft, the fuel sample must be discarded into the FBO’s waste tank, even if it’s “clear and bright,” free of contaminants and water. Once fuel is dispensed from the FBO’s truck and into a customer airplane, it cannot be returned to the FBO’s storage facility, a rule to prevent possible inadvertent contamination.

On occasion, an FBO may have to defuel an aircraft for fuel system maintenance, repairs or an inspection. The captured fuel may be used to refill the same aircraft from which it was drained, but it cannot be returned to the FBO’s storage tanks for use in other aircraft.

How to Check Your Fuel

A surprising number of turbine aircraft pilots do not regularly sump the fuel tanks of their aircraft to check for water and contaminants. Take the case of a San Diego-based business aircraft that is stored in a leased hangar at Gillespie Field. The hangar owner, who also supplies fuel for the aircraft at its home base, asked the flight department manager if he would like to have fuel samples drawn from the aircraft, to which he assented.

When samples were taken, several gallons of fuel in the white bucket contained water, odorous microbial contaminants and particulates. Several of the sump drains also temporarily stuck open, as they were partly clogged by contaminants and strands of tank sealant. When the process was complete, the hangar owner disposed of the fuel samples in a 30-gal. waste tank, almost overfilling it with contaminated fuel.

Asked how often the aircraft’s fuel tanks were sumped, the flight department manager said that it wasn’t a regular procedure conducted by flight crews and he couldn’t recall when the aircraft’s fuel purity was last checked. This lapse was in spite of the aircraft’s routinely being flown on missions to Hawaii and back.

However, many conscientious flight department managers, including those with IS-BAO certifications, also do not require flight crews to sample aircraft fuel routinely. Rather, to comply with AFM requirements for fuel sample checking, they have maintenance crews sump the tanks and log the events.

Most flight departments have their aircraft refueled as soon as possible after landing, and then it sits for several hours. This provides time for most water and contaminants to settle to the bottom of the aircraft fuel tanks before sumps are drained and fuel samples taken.

Few flight departments require pilots to check sump drains during layovers. But many carefully vet the fuel handling processes of FBOs from which they buy Jet-A. Most require one flight crewmember to be present during aircraft refueling to assure that the correct type of fuel is put into the tanks and that line service personnel comply with best standards for fuel quality checking. In case of any questions regarding fuel purity, many departments require their flight crewmembers to have line service personnel perform ATA Spec 103 spot checks on fuel dispensing equipment, such as a white bucket check or visual fuel sampler vessel check.

In some cases, spot checks of fuel quality by flight crews have triggered comprehensive investigations of some FBOs by major flight departments. Lack of proper fuel handling procedures, plus missing logs and records, has led to some FBOs being blacklisted by major flight departments.

Flight departments and FBOs have well-established industry resources, such as those cited above, to help them develop procedures that assure aircraft are replenished with pure, clean and dry ASTM-standard aviation fuels. But fuel safety ultimately depends on the willingness of all involved to embrace best practices voluntarily. A cavalier approach to aircraft fuel quality management could introduce an aircraft operator to an unwelcome, extended stay on a polar ice cap, or in a broiling, hostile desert, or on a life raft a long, long way from home. B&CA

This article appears in the June issue of Business & Commercial Aviation under the title, "Refueling Discipline."