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In an internal combustion engine, fuel starvation is defined as the failure of the fuel system to supply sufficient fuel to allow the engine to run properly, for example due to blockage, vapor lock, contamination by water, malfunction of the fuel pump or incorrect operation, leading to loss of power or engine stoppage.
Fuel exhaustion (also called fuel depletion) is defined instead as an occurrence in which the vehicle in question becomes completely devoid of usable fuel, with results similar to those of fuel starvation.
All engine-powered modes of transport can be affected by fuel starvation, although the problem is most serious for aircraft in flight. Ships are affected to the extent that without propulsion they cannot maneuver to avoid collisions or beaching. On aircraft, fuel starvation is often the result of incorrect fuel management, for example by selecting to feed the engine from an empty tank while fuel is present in another one.
Fuel exhaustion and starvation incidents on aircraft
Many incidents have happened on aircraft where fuel exhaustion or starvation played a role. A partial list of these incidents follows:
On 21 August 1963, a Tupolev Tu-124 operated by Aeroflot experienced a landing gear malfunction after taking off from Tallinn Airport. On finding that the nose gear could neither be retracted nor extended, the crew diverted the flight to Leningrad where they prepared for an emergency landing by circling the city burning off fuel. While circling the city the crew made repeated attempts to get the landing gear to lock down; they possibly became over-preoccupied with this and the aircraft ran out of fuel. The crew ditched the aircraft in the Neva River. There were no fatalities.
On 17 November 1964, a Dutch F-104 Starfighter crashed into a mountain in Norway when it ran out of fuel following the death of its pilot. The pilot died due to malfunction of the oxygen mask.
On 28 December 1978, United Airlines Flight 173, a Douglas DC-8-61 en route from Denver, Colorado, to Portland, Oregon, experienced a landing gear indicator light malfunction while preparing to land. The aircraft continued to circle in the vicinity of Portland while the crew investigated the problem, but it ran out of fuel and crash-landed in a sparsely populated area, killing 10 and seriously injuring 24 of the 181 on board.
On 23 July 1983, due to a chain of events and mistakes Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767-200, was fueled using pounds as the unit of measure instead of kilograms, resulting in only half the required amount of fuel being on board. The aircraft used up all available fuel and glided to Gimli Industrial Park Airport where the airliner landed safely. The aircraft (now decommissioned) became known as the "Gimli Glider."
After a string of mistakes and omissions by the pilots, a Boeing 737-200 operating Varig Flight 254 on 3 September 1989 strayed hundreds of miles off-course, ran out of fuel, and crashed in Brazil's Amazon jungle killing 13 of the occupants. Due to the crew's mistake in flying the aircraft west (270°) instead of north-northeast (027°), the aircraft was not found until four survivors walked onto a farm two days later.
The crew of Indian Airlines Flight 440, an Airbus A300B2-101, executed a missed approach procedure at Hyderabad-Begumpet Airport on 15 November 1993 due to poor visibility. During the missed approach a problem developed when the flaps would not retract fully. After some time trying to solve the flap problem and find somewhere to land near Hyderabad, the crew diverted the aircraft to Madras but because they had to fly slower due to the extended flaps the aircraft ran out of fuel. It landed in a paddy field near Tirupati; there were no fatalities among the 262 occupants but the aircraft was written off.
On 23 November 1996, three men hijackedEthiopian Airlines Flight 961 on a short flight segment from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. The hijackers demanded that the aircraft should be flown to Australia despite the pilot telling them that there was insufficient fuel to do so. After three hours of flying along the African coast and across part of the Indian Ocean, the aircraft ran out of fuel and the engines failed. An emergency landing at Grande Comore Island failed when the aircraft landed on the water just off the local beach, killing 125 people including the three hijackers.
On 25 October 1999, a Learjet 35 ran out of fuel and crashed in a field near Aberdeen, South Dakota. All 4 passengers (including golfer Payne Stewart) and the two crew members died. The crash was a result of the incapacitation of the crew due to hypoxia, caused by a loss of air pressure in the aircraft. Having departed from Orlando on a routine flight that should have crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Dallas, Texas, the aircraft flew unmanned for over 1,500 miles before finally running out of fuel.
On 12 July 2000, Hapag-Lloyd Flight 3378 had a landing gear problem when it failed to fully retract after takeoff. The pilots decided to continue to Munich but did not realise that their lower speed for much the same hourly fuel consumption (required because the landing gear was not up) meant that they had insufficient fuel to do so. Once the aircraft lost all fuel, the crew attempted an emergency landing at Vienna International Airport but the aircraft landed short of the runway. There were no fatalities.
TAM Airlines Flight 3804, a Fokker 100, suffered fuel exhaustion on 30 August 2002 because of a leak. The aircraft made an emergency landing in a field with its gear up, killing a cow grazing in the field. No-one on board the aircraft was killed.
On 13 August 2004, a Convair CV-580 freighter operating as Air Tahoma Flight 185 suffered fuel starvation due to crew mismanagement of the fuel tank system and crashed, killing one of the pilots.
On 6 August 2005 Tuninter Flight 1153, an ATR 72 en route from Bari, Italy, to Djerba, Tunisia, ditched into the Mediterranean Sea about 18 miles from the city of Palermo. Sixteen of the 39 people on board died. The accident resulted from fuel exhaustion due to the installation of a fuel quantity indicator for an ATR 42 in the ATR 72; the incorrect indicator was over-reading by over 2,000 kg, leading the crew to believe they had enough fuel for the flight.
On 14 August 2005, fighter jets intercepted Helios Airways Flight 522 after the Helios flight failed to respond to air traffic controllers in Greece. The pilots of the fighter jets reported that they observed no pilots in control of the aircraft until shortly before the aircraft ran out of fuel, when a flight attendant named Andreas Prodromou managed to reach the cockpit and attempted to control the aircraft. By the time Prodromou sat at the controls, the plane had exhausted its fuel and then crashed into a hill near Marathon, Greece, killing all on board. Fuel exhaustion was the final link in the accident chain, but as a consequence of cabin depressurization which had disabled the flight crew.
On 26 June 2007 a Skippers AviationEmbraer EMB 120 Brasilia on a charter flight was executing a go-around at Jundee Airstrip in Western Australia. During the go-around the crew experienced difficulties in controlling the aircraft, with the aircraft descending to 50 feet above the ground and the bank angle reaching 40 degrees. After regaining control, the crew realised that the left engine had stopped. The cause of the engine stoppage was fuel starvation.
A number of aircraft have been abandoned by their crew (both intentionally and sometimes accidentally) when the aircraft has continued on its own until fuel exhaustion caused it to crash:
Some time between midnight and dawn on 5 April 1943, the crew of a Consolidated B-24D Liberator named Lady Be Good lost over the Sahara Desert abandoned their aircraft as it was running out of fuel. The aircraft was found in 1959, with the bodies of most of the crew located in 1960. One crew member's body has never been found.