While on my way to work a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a gas station and filled up my car. As I headed back onto the parkway, the engine started running rough and less than two miles later it shuddered to a stop. Knowing the eight years of wear and tear I had put on the car, I sighed as I called the tow truck, believing the grasp of mechanical old age was finally putting its inevitable squeeze on my car and wallet.
Yet, when the mechanic called me from the shop where my car was delivered, I was stunned by his report. “I took a sample from the gas tank,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell is in there, but it looks like it’s 90 percent water.”
I immediately called the service station where I had tanked up. But before I could even ask about the fuel, I was informed that they had indeed received a load of tainted gasoline the night before. While the proprietor proceeded to give me a detailed (and perhaps dubious) description of why the fuel was not what it should have been, I was somewhat relieved to hear that my disappointment in my car was unfounded. More than $1,000 in repairs and associated costs later (all covered by the service station’s insurance), my car was once again as good as a car with 120,000 miles could be.
As I waited for the repairs to be completed, I pondered how such a problem could occur, and I recalled a story I had written nearly two years ago about NATA’s then recently introduced online training course for FBO line-service employees. I remembered that the program, which I completed myself before writing the artcle, repeatedly hammered home that care must be paid at all times when fueling aircraft to ensure that the correct fuel is pumped into the correct aircraft. The procedure for verifying the fuel order form, matching it to the tail number of the airplane, confirming the order with the flight crew and checking it again must become one’s mantra, as line-service trainees are warned they must be correct 100 percent of time in refueling operations.
Another part of the course dealt with fuel-farm management and the requirements for fuel-quality testing, which is clearly where things went astray in the case of my car. While modern fuel farms have equipment to separate out any liquid or solid contaminants before the fuel ever reaches the refueller or the aircraft, the diligent testing that FBOs must continuously perform on their fuel supplies is clearly a vital task, simple to administer and inexcusable to neglect.
While the traveling public probably takes the quality of the fuel in the tanks of ground vehicles and aircraft for granted, the FBO industry’s fueling procedures obviously work, as cases of aircraft fuel contamination are extremely rare.
Though I felt frustrated sitting in my disabled car on the shoulder of a busy parkway, if I had I encountered a similar fuel problem while in an airplane at 40,000 feet, there is no doubt the outcome could have been much worse.