Aircraft Fuel systems

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The fuel system is designed to provide an uninterrupted flow of clean fuel from the fuel tanks to the engine. The fuel must be available to the engine under all conditions of engine power, altitude, attitude, and during all approved flight maneuvers. Two common classifications apply to fuel systems in small airplanes – gravity-feed and fuel-pump systems.

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The gravity-feed system utilizes the force of gravity to transfer the fuel from the tanks to the engine – for example, on high-wing airplanes where the fuel tanks are installed in the wings. This places the fuel tanks above the carburetor, and the fuel is gravity fed through the system and into the carburetor. If the design of the airplane is such that gravity cannot be used to transfer fuel, fuel pumps are installed – for example, on low-wing airplanes where the fuel tanks in the wings are located below the carburetor.

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Figure 15: Gravity-feed and fuel-pump systems.

Fuel pumps

Airplanes with fuel pump systems have two fuel pumps. The main pump system is engine driven, and an electrically driven auxiliary pump is provided for use in engine starting and in the event the engine pump fails. The auxiliary pump, also known as a boost pump, provides added reliability to the fuel system. The electrically driven auxiliary pump is controlled by a switch in the cockpit.

Fuel primer

Both gravity fed and pump systems may incorporate a fuel primer into the system. The primer is used to draw fuel from the tanks to vaporize it directly into the cylinders prior to starting the engine. This is particularly helpful during cold weather, when engines are hard to start because there is not enough heat available to vaporize the fuel in the carburetor. It is important to lock the primer in place when it is not in use. If the knob is free to move, it may vibrate out during flight and can cause an excessively rich mixture. To avoid overpriming, read the priming instructions for your airplane.

Fuel tanks

The fuel tanks, normally located inside the wings of an airplane, have a filler opening on top of the wing through which they can be filled. A filler cap covers this opening. The tanks are vented to the outside to maintain atmospheric pressure inside the tank. They may be vented through the filler cap or through a tube extending through the surface of the wing. Fuel tanks also include an overflow drain that may stand alone or be collocated with the fuel tank vent. This allows fuel to expand with increases in temperature without damage to the tank itself. If the tanks have been filled on a hot day, it is not unusual to see fuel coming from the overflow drain.

Fuel gauges

The fuel quantity gauges indicate the amount of fuel measured by a sensing unit in each fuel tank and is displayed in gallons or pounds. Aircraft certification rules only require accuracy in fuel gauges when they read “empty.” Any reading other than “empty” should be verified. Do not depend solely on the accuracy of the fuel quantity gauges. Always visually check the fuel level in each tank during the preflight inspection, and then compare it with the corresponding fuel quantity indication.

If a fuel pump is installed in the fuel system, a fuel pressure gauge is also included. This gauge indicates the pressure in the fuel lines. The normal operating pressure can be found in the AFM/POH, or on the gauge by color coding.

Fuel selectors

The fuel selector valve allows selection of fuel from various tanks. A common type of selector valve contains four positions: LEFT, RIGHT, BOTH, and OFF. Selecting the LEFT or RIGHT position allows fuel to feed only from that tank, while selecting the BOTH position feeds fuel from both tanks. The LEFT or RIGHT position may be used to balance the amount of fuel remaining in each wing tank.

aircraft-fuel-systemsFigure 16: Fuel selector valve.

Fuel placards will show any limitations on fuel tank usage, such as “level flight only” and/or “both” for landings and takeoffs.

Regardless of the type of fuel selector in use, fuel consumption should be monitored closely to ensure that a tank does not run completely out of fuel. Running a fuel tank dry will not only cause the engine to stop, but running for prolonged periods on one tank causes an unbalanced fuel load between tanks. Running a tank completely dry may allow air to enter the fuel system, which may cause vapor lock. When this situation develops, it may be difficult to restart the engine. On fuel-injected engines, the fuel may become so hot it vaporizes in the fuel line, not allowing fuel to reach the cylinders.

Fuel strainers, sumps, and drains

After the fuel selector valve, the fuel passes through a strainer before it enters the carburetor. This strainer removes moisture and other sediments that might be in the system. Since these contaminants are heavier than aviation fuel, they settle in a sump at the bottom of the strainer assembly. A sump is defined as a low point in a fuel system and/or fuel tank. The fuel system may contain sump, fuel strainer, and fuel tank drains, some of which may be collocated.

The fuel strainer should be drained before each flight.

Fuel samples should be drained and checked visually for water and contaminants. Water in the sump is hazardous because in cold weather the water can freeze and block fuel lines. In warm weather, it can flow into the carburetor and stop the engine. If water is present in the sump, it is likely there is more water in the fuel tanks, and you should continue to drain them until there is no evidence of water. In any event, never take off until you are certain that all water and contaminants have been removed from the engine fuel system.

Because of the variation in fuel systems, you should become thoroughly familiar with the systems that apply to your airplane. Consult the AFM or POH for specific operating procedures.

Fuel grades

Aviation gasoline, or AVGAS, is identified by an octane or performance number (grade), which designates the antiknock value or knock resistance of the fuel mixture in the engine cylinder. The higher the grade of gasoline, the more pressure the fuel can withstand without detonating. Lower grades of fuel are used in lower-compression engines because these fuels ignite at a lower temperature. Higher grades are used in higher-compression engines, because they must ignite at higher temperatures, but not prematurely. If the proper grade of fuel is not available, use the next higher grade as a substitute. Never use a lower grade. This can cause the cylinder head temperature and engine oil temperature to exceed their normal operating range, which may result in detonation.

Several grades of aviation fuel are available. Care must be exercised to ensure that the correct aviation grade is being used for the specific type of engine. The proper fuel grade is stated in the AFM or POH, on placards in the cockpit, and next to the filler caps. Due to its lead content, auto gas should NEVER be used in aircraft engines unless the aircraft has been modified with a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The current method to identify aviation gasoline for aircraft with reciprocating engines is by the octane and performance number, along with the abbreviation AVGAS. These aircraft use AVGAS 80, 100, and 100LL. Although AVGAS 100LL performs the same as grade 100, the “LL” indicates it has a low lead content.

Fuel for aircraft with turbine engines is classified as JET A, JET A-1, and JET B. Jet fuel is basically kerosene and has a distinctive kerosene smell.

Since use of the correct fuel is critical, dyes are added to help identify the type and grade of fuel.

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Figure 17: Aviation fuel color-coding system.

In addition to the color of the fuel itself, the color-coding system extends to decals and various airport fuel handling equipment. For example, all aviation gasolines are identified by name, using white letters on a red background. In contrast, turbine fuels are identified by white letters on a black background.

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