It doesn't matter what sort of flying you do — unless someone else is paying the fuel bill, we'd all like to lower it. Flying is already expensive, so shaving off a few dollars here and there is a goal we all can share. Here are seven clever ways to minimize the fuel burn on your next flight.
Fly For Economy, Not Performance
Most POHs have charts for economy, normal, and performance cruise. If you want to save money, use the economy setting. Plane and Pilot once quoted a Cessna manual and figured that the best economy was at 45 percent power. You get 80 percent of the plane's maximum cruise speed at that setting while using only 63 percent of the fuel burn.
Another trick that can reduce your fuel costs significantly is to fly at higher altitudes. Even on relatively short cross countries, a higher altitude can reduce your fuel consumption by several percent. Many of us wrongly believe that it doesn't pay off for shorter cross countries, but you'll never know for sure unless you do that math.
"Lean" It Like You Mean It
"Leaning" is a skill that airplane owners learn to get very good at. It means saving money on fuel, and it also means saving money on maintenance. The procedure for leaning properly varies from airplane to airplane, but the idea is generally the same. You reduce the amount of fuel being sent to the cylinders to match the air reduction at higher altitudes.
But there's more to know about leaning an engine. For one thing, most manufacturers recommend leaning on the ground for taxiing. This can result in a gallon or more of fuel saved per flight, plus it's good for the engine. In the air, proper leaning is based on the engine operating temperatures, both exhaust gas (EGT) and cylinder head temperatures (CHT). If you're flying your own plane, an engine monitor that shows the temperatures for each cylinder is invaluable and will save you money in the long run.
We've all flown with pilots who wind up over their destination airports at cruise altitude before they decide it's time to go down. From a fuel consumption standpoint, the ride down to your destination should be the cheapest part of the flight. If your goal is to save money, you should milk it a little.
Plan your descents as if you're on an IFR flight. A 500 foot per minute descent works out pretty nicely, but you could certainly plan for even less if you're VFR. Figure out how many feet you need to descent and how many minutes it will take at your desired rate. Then, work backward from pattern altitude at your destination. If it's going to take 10 minutes, and you're doing 150 knots, you'll cover about 25.5 nautical miles in your descent alone. So you'll want to start your descent 30 miles or so from your destination.
The Shortest Route is a Straight Line
We all have to dodge congested areas or restricted areas from time to time, but going around stuff takes extra fuel.
If you're adding miles between your departure and destination, you're also using more gallons than you need to use. Sometimes you're building hours, and you don't mind taking the scenic route, and other times you are just moving from Point A to Point B.
And for those already penning angry emails, yes, the more accurate answer is the great circle route.
Where Weight and Balance Meets Your Pocketbook
Is it possible to load your plane for maximum performance? You bet it is. For one thing, any unnecessary weight should be jettisoned, hopefully before you leave the ground. Carrying around extra weight slows you down and reduces overall performance. Fly with only what you need.
Likewise, CG placement has a significant effect on the speed and fuel burn of a plane. Always load with the CG as aft as allowable, but never beyond the envelope.
A nice tailwind always gives you a helpful boost. Do your preflight planning every time, and look for favorable winds. Make altitude changes to maximize the effect. If you can't get a tailwind, at least find the minimum headwind.
On another level, if your plans are flexible, work around pressure patterns. For example, if you're making a long cross country up the east coast, wait a few days for winds to be headed the same way you are. Work with the weather, not against it. Our ships may be more advanced than the sailing ships of yesteryear, but we're still at the mercy of the same weather gods.
Most planes can hold more fuel than you need in your day to day flying. If you've got the range, do what the airlines call "tankering." The basic idea is simple. When you find cheap gas, fill it up. When you're at an airport with over-priced avgas, and you have enough to safely make it somewhere else, give it a pass.
The local price fluctuations in avgas are incredible. Here's an example. In South Florida, many pilots operate out of the Fort Lauderdale Executive, Pompano Beach, Boca Raton triangle. All of these are busy airports with several FBOs. A quick look at AirNav.com shows 100LL prices range from $5.53 to over $8.00 per gallon in the immediate vicinity. Just hopping to the next field five miles away can save you several dollars a gallon!
If a pilot were coming home from a long cross country, they might be inclined to stop for a top off at the out-of-the-way countryside airport at Okeechobee. There, you can fill up with self-serve 100LL for $3.67 per gallon!
As Always, Your Mileage May Vary
If you're paying an hourly wet rate for a plane, some of these tips might not help you much. But if you buy your fuel, there are many creative ways you can save a few dollars here and there. Some of these things might seem minor, but they all start adding up when averaged over several long flights.