Gear Up: The Fuel at Destination Game

There's a secret to "making gas."

Gear Up Fuel

Gear Up Fuel

Let's see; at 380 pounds an hour, we should land with 400 pounds total. This is my bingo fuel for our Cheyenne and is permissible only when our destination is VFR and no delays, holds, vectors or early descents are anticipated. I have a little hand calculator that I bought for three dollars at Staples almost 15 years ago. I use it on long flights to calculate and recalculate our arrival fuel. The calculator I consider to be part of the minimum equipment list for long flights.

I've worked this problem many times, and over time I have gotten comfortable with the airplane's limitations and my own capacity for sustaining fuel anxiety. I keep a little spiral notebook in which I record each flight. I break out a new one each year when the airplane comes back from what has become an annual inspection. The notebook is sort of a poor man's engine trend monitor.

Each page is a separate flight. On the top are the dates, Hobbs meter readings, and the departure and destination airports. At the top of the climb I record the outside air temperature, engine torque, ITT, prop rpm and fuel flow readings. Every hour I note the distance traveled and the distance to go, fuel burn as reported by the fuel totalizer and fuel remaining as depicted on the fuel gauges. I compare the actual fuel consumed and time to fix with the printout I have downloaded from fltplan.com. There has to be something to keep me busy in a turboprop. Things are a little different in a jet.

"Chk fuel at dest." This notification catches your attention the first time you see it during climb-out in a Cessna CJ3, but I have come to expect it as calmly as any other normal cockpit indication. It is customary for the two of us up front to congratulate the airplane and ourselves when we reach cruising altitude and the computer driven MFD starts to show some fuel at our destination. Using the airplane's groundspeed and fuel burn and the distance to our destination, the number begins to climb as we accelerate at Flight Level 450. Up here our fuel burn is 400 pounds of jet-A per hour per side, or less. Not uncommonly, one of us will say, "We're making gas." No hand calculator required.

We also know that we'll often make even more gas on the descent as we throttle back and trade altitude for fuel. Not always, though. If we are instructed to descend early, we'll be stuck level at lower altitudes burning more gas. When flying from Florida to New York, it is not unusual to start down almost 300 nautical miles from our destination. Because the CJ3 can manage only 278 knots indicated airspeed below 29,300 feet, we're often sent down ahead of airliners that can do 300 knots or better. Once below 10,000 feet, we're all limited to 250 knots, so my sense of speed inferiority goes away. Our adage is: Add 300 pounds to the predicted fuel burn when flying into high-density areas like the Northeast.

At JetSuite we get our fuel burn predictions via an in-house computer program and the same way I do in our Cheyenne: on fltplan.com. This amazing flight planning tool is as accurate in the jet as it is in the turboprop. In the Cheyenne, I have flown 1,100 nautical miles and burned exactly, not a pound more or less, that estimated by fltplan.com. Not only do I marvel at this, but I also have come to rely on it, and even use it as an oracle.

Fuel management has been right up there with thunderstorms and ice when it comes to producing anxiety during my 47 years of flying airplanes, every one of which needed gas to run and could make you nervous when the tanks got low. The most frightening experience came early.

I had a newly purchased used Beechcraft Musketeer that represented my arrival as an airplane owner. On a flight from Teterboro, New Jersey, to Findlay, Ohio, I found myself harangued by headwinds and too proud to admit to a fuel stop. I mean, that's why we brought this airplane — so we could bring our relatives back to Ohio. Well, the marginal weather at Findlay went further to the margins and we went missed. On the divert to Toledo, those headwinds lashed me for an eternal 20 minutes. Once we broke out and landed, I was so shaken that I neglected to notice how much fuel we did take on and thus had no way to judge how close I'd come to plowing new furrows in Ohio farmland.

Fuel is like food. It nourishes the airplane's ability to accomplish the magnificence for which it was designed. Take, for instance, the feeling you get when your car has a full tank. Multiply that by a thousand and you have an idea of how that feels in your airplane. In our Cheyenne, which holds 366 gallons, you're talking about a house payment's worth of liquid sloshing around out there. On the long trek from Tampa, Florida, to Lebanon, New Hampshire, I keep a gimlet eye on the fuel gauges, the fuel totalizer and my ego. Those fltplan.com numbers better be close. The fuel gauge on the left seems to descend more than the one on the right for the first 600 pounds, but the needles catch up and line up when we get down toward empty; that is to say down where it really matters. I sometimes think of the airplane as getting hungry. By then, I am too.

If fuel is food, you can also have too much, if only on rare occasion. The old adage is: "You can never have too much fuel unless you are on fire." Recently we had an overfueling error in the Cheyenne. When I returned from a lunch at Vero Beach, Florida, the airplane was nestled on top of a bed of kitty litter used to absorb a fuel spill. No harm done, or so I thought.

Though the fuel gauges read full on the prestart, they fell immediately to zero as we rotated on takeoff. I knew we were full of gas and the trip was short, so I carried on. When we landed, the needles came back to a reasonable level. It took Bill and Mike at Aircraft Engineering in Bartow, Florida, a while to figure out what had happened during the overfueling. This was a good thing, because I really could not dispatch on a long trip without accurate gauges. A missed approach or truck on the runway with 400 pounds remaining will give you about 45 minutes at reduced power settings to contemplate exactly how stupid you are.

At JetSuite we plan to land with at least 600 pounds total. Most of us think 1,000 pounds is an even better number. That's almost 20 percent of the total capacity of the CJ3; it holds 4,710 pounds. It's funny, but when flying for JetSuite I am more oblivious to the price of fuel. I am not paying for it — directly, that is. Do I cut corners in the Cheyenne because I am paying for the gas? I hope not. I will be strategic about fuel stops, but that's about it. And we don't make fuel stops in the CJ3 unless we're going coast to coast. She'll do 1,800 nm with reserves. Still, I sometimes stop to contemplate that we've just put $3,000 worth of gas into the jet. I love working at JetSuite and I want the company to be as profitable as possible — my job hangs on this hook, so my interest is mostly self-serving. At some FBOs the total price can send your hands flying to your face.

Since the CJ3 travels at almost twice the altitude, twice the speed and twice the aura of the Cheyenne, I find its fuel burn to be surprising. It is slightly less than twice that of the Cheyenne. And it's a jet! This fact, among others, allows JetSuite to price trips at competitive levels. If you want Wi-Fi and a drink and don't need a flight attendant and that platter of carrots with the ranch dressing, it is a great way to go. I've been on trips where we have flown working people from one job to the next, be it mining folks from Colorado to Wyoming or South Dakota and back in a day or a DJ and his entourage that had two gigs in one night. One was in Boston, the other in New York.

In both the turboprop and the jet there's a certain sense of familiarity with the performance and fuel burn. As with all turbines, higher is better than lower. In a stiff headwind this fact of life is an inconvenient one. But I like the knowing. I like the predictability and I love the feeling of pulling the power back and setting a descent rate of 2,000 feet per minute. As the cloud deck looms large in the windshield, I feel good; I am making gas.

Look, I know airplanes are expensive. I know jet-A is dear and I know it is an indulgence to have a turboprop that can take six of us 1,000 miles. One (populists, mostly) could argue JetSuite's customers don't need to travel by private jet. But, oh my, how fabulous. If I could, I would. Meanwhile a 34-year-old turboprop has its own appetite for gas and its distinct charms.

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