If It's Broke, Fix It
By Dan Grunloh, Editor - Light Plane World, EAA 173888
It began as an occasional single drop of fuel from a brass fuel shutoff valve at the lowest point of the fuel system on a weight-shift-control experimental light-sport aircraft. It was rarely noticed, and never apparent when operating from sod airstrips. The owner considered it to be little more than an inconvenience for months, until it was parked for a time on a concrete tarmac for breakfast at a local airport restaurant.
The concerns about the hazards of the flammable fuel we use in our aircraft can never be overstated. The history of aviation right up to today proves that an in-flight fire is about the worst thing that can happen short of the wings falling off. Our fathers or grandfathers suffered with it in the war years, and fuel fires on the ground after accidents still occur to remind us of the danger. Ultralights and light planes can be more susceptible because our fuel lines and other fuel system hardware may not be as robust as those used in heavier aircraft. Many years ago an ultralight struck power lines, slicing a plastic fuel tank open and igniting the fuel (and wing fabric) on its way to the ground. More recently a powered paraglider pilot found himself tangled in lines with the canopy on fire due to leaking fuel. These are spectacular examples to be sure, but you can still get hurt badly in a much more mundane manner. Now that she has departed this world I can write that one of the kindest and most generous women you could ever meet in aviation, Sharon Wescott, always wore long-sleeves shirts (even in hot weather) because her arms were badly scarred in a fuel fire. The fire was caused by static electricity while filling a wing tank with fuel cans.
We tend to think that it can't happen to us, that we have been pouring fuel from cans for decades with no problems. The sweater or jacket we are wearing, or that rug or carpet scrap on the hangar floor may change our fate. The same is true for the occasional drop of fuel leaking from an airplane. All it takes is a careless bystander tossing a cigarette that gets rolled under the plane by the wind. It is for good reason we all keep a lookout for fuel leaks and for the ban on smoking near airplanes. The outcome could be much worse than having to leave your plate of scrambled eggs and walk through a room full of pilots because someone saw a drop of fuel under the plane. Admitting that it was only a slow leak wouldn't help the picture much.
The message I always try to communicate to my fellow EAA chapter members at this time of the year is that now is the best time for doing your maintenance or annual condition inspections. The key to "happy flying safely" (to borrow an expression from Duane Cole) is to have that airplane ready to go when the flying season really gets started in about two months in our area. Do it now or get it done now because you don't know what will be needed until you begin. We have good flying weather here in Illinois all the way into January, and then it begins again in April. So I do my annual inspection in February or March. Now I have to go replace a fuel valve.