NTSB Issues New Safety Alert Warning of Jet Fuel Contamination

Danger of diesel exhaust fluid being introduced into Jet-A remains high, the Board warns.

Embraer Phenom 300
Accidental introduction of diesel exhaust fluid into Jet-A can lead to a total loss of engine power in flight, the NTSB warns.Embraer

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday issued a new safety alert warning sellers of jet fuel to take measures to prevent contamination of Jet-A by diesel exhaust fluid.

Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) is required for all new on- and off-road diesel-powered vehicles, making the presence of the clear, colorless liquid more prevalent at airports, the NTSB has found. When introduced into a diesel-powered vehicle's exhaust stream, DEF reduces nitrogen oxide emissions. However, when DEF is mistakenly mixed into jet fuel, a chemical reaction occurs that forms crystalline deposits that can accumulate on filters, engine fuel nozzles and fuel metering components, resulting in a loss of engine power.

When improperly stored in unmarked containers, DEF is a clear, colorless liquid that can be mistaken for other liquids found on the airfield, including fuel system icing inhibitors, the NTSB notes. Both fluids can be purchased in bulk and transferred to smaller containers for ease of use. “Under these circumstances,” the NTSB said in the safety alert, “unlabeled containers and common storage areas increase the likelihood of confusing these liquids.”

The NTSB wants fuel providers to ensure they store all chemicals in labeled containers and that they add a “NOT FOR AVIATION USE” label to all DEF containers.

Aviation fuel contamination of all types is a longstanding safety issue and inadvertent introduction of DEF into aviation fuel is the latest iteration of the issue. The NTSB is currently investigating a May 2019 incident in which a Cessna C550 experienced a total loss of engine power to both engines during an air medical flight. The crew diverted the plane to a nearby airport and safely landed.

Analysis of fuel samples, fuel system filters and fuel screens from the airplane indicated the presence of urea, the primary chemical found in DEF. During the investigation, an airport lineman reported the day before the incident he combined two partially filled containers. Further investigation revealed that one container held de-icing fluid and the other held DEF, which he mistook for de-icing fluid. He subsequently added the combined fluid to the fuel truck’s de-icing fluid reservoir and fueled the Cessna the next day with 480 gallons of jet-A containing the DEF mixture.

Two other instances of the inadvertent introduction of DEF into aircraft fuel tanks, after being combined with de-icing fluid, have been documented. Because both instances were identified before the aircraft attempted flight, neither event was investigated by the NTSB.