The type, grade, and color of fuel are critical to safe operation. The only widely available aviation gasoline (AVGAS) grade in the United States is low-lead 100-octane, or 100LL. AVGAS is dyed for easy recognition of its grade and has a familiar gasoline scent. Jet-A, or jet fuel, is a kerosene-based fuel for turbine powered airplanes. It has disastrous consequences when inadvertently introduced into reciprocating airplane engines. The piston engine operating on jet fuel may start, run, and power the airplane, but will fail because the engine has been destroyed from detonation.
Jet fuel has a distinctive kerosene scent and is oily to the touch when rubbed between fingers. Jet fuel is clear or straw colored, although it may appear dyed when mixed in a tank containing AVGAS. When a few drops of AVGAS are placed upon white paper, they evaporate quickly and leave just a trace of dye. In comparison, jet fuel is slower to evaporate and leaves an oily smudge. Jet fuel refueling trucks and dispensing equipment are marked with JET-A placards in white letters on a black background. Prudent pilots will supervise fueling to ensure that the correct tanks are filled with the right quantity, type, and grade of fuel. The pilot should always ensure that the fuel caps have been securely replaced following each fueling.
Engines certificated for grades 80/87 or 91/96 AVGAS will run satisfactorily on 100LL. The reverse is not true. Fuel of a lower grade/octane, if found, should never be substituted for a required higher grade. Detonation will severely damage the engine in a very short period of time.
Automotive gasoline is sometimes used as a substitute fuel in certain airplanes. Its use is acceptable only when the particular airplane has been issued a supplemental type certificate (STC) to both the airframe and engine allowing its use.
Checking for water and other sediment contamination is a key preflight element. Water tends to accumulate in fuel tanks from condensation, particularly in partially filled tanks. Because water is heavier than fuel, it tends to collect in the low points of the fuel system. Water can also be introduced into the fuel system from deteriorated gas cap seals exposed to rain, or from the supplier’s storage tanks and delivery vehicles. Sediment contamination can arise from dust and dirt entering the tanks during refueling, or from deteriorating rubber fuel tanks or tank sealant.
The best preventive measure is to minimize the opportunity for water to condense in the tanks. If possible, the fuel tanks should be completely filled with the proper grade of fuel after each flight, or at least filled after the last flight of the day. The more fuel there is in the tanks, the less opportunity for condensation to occur. Keeping fuel tanks filled is also the best way to slow the aging of rubber fuel tanks and tank sealant.
Sufficient fuel should be drained from the fuel strainer quick drain and from each fuel tank sump to check for fuel grade/color, water, dirt, and smell. If water is present, it will usually be in bead-like droplets, different in color (usually clear, sometimes muddy), in the bottom of the sample. In extreme cases, do not overlook the possibility that the entire sample, particularly a small sample, is water. If water is found in the first fuel sample, further samples should be taken until no water appears. Significant and/or consistent water or sediment contamination are grounds for further investigation by qualified maintenance personnel. Each fuel tank sump should be drained during preflight and after refueling.
The fuel tank vent is an important part of a preflight inspection. Unless outside air is able to enter the tank as fuel is drawn out, the eventual result will be fuel gauge malfunction and/or fuel starvation. During the preflight inspection, the pilot should be alert for any signs of vent tubing damage, as well as vent blockage. A functional check of the fuel vent system can be done simply by opening the fuel cap. If there is a rush of air when the fuel tank cap is cracked, there could be a serious problem with the vent system.
The oil level should be checked during each preflight and rechecked with each refueling. Reciprocating airplane engines can be expected to consume a small amount of oil during normal operation. If the consumption grows or suddenly changes, qualified maintenance personnel should investigate. If line service personnel add oil to the engine, the pilot should ensure that the oil cap has been securely replaced.