How to use self-serve fuel pumps at the airport

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When I learned to fly, my instructors did a great job of teaching me how to preflight the airplane, how to land, and how to talk on the radio. One thing I don’t remember is a lesson on traveling in a general aviation airplane. You know, what those lineman’s hand signals mean, what a courtesy car is, and how to use a self-serve fuel pump.

That last one might sound silly: we all pump our own gas into our cars these days so how hard can it be? Well, I can assure you the first time I encountered a self-serve fuel pump at a deserted country airport, I was mystified. There was a rusty lever, a confusing keypad, and an old hose reel that looked very intimidating.

fueling 172
It’s a lot like fueling your car, once you know what to do.

I did figure out how to use it eventually, and pumping avgas into a Cessna is pretty much the same as pumping 93 octane into a Chevrolet once everything is running. But like most things in aviation, the stakes are higher and the room for error is lower. So here is a step-by-step procedure to make your next self-serve fuel stop safe and stress-free. And yes, some of these lessons had to be learned the hard way.

1. Park close to the pumps, but not too close. There’s no fuel truck to drive over to your tiedown, so self-serve fuel means taxiing up to the pump. It sounds simple, but this sometimes requires careful attention because there are obstacles (trees, fuel tanks, fences) that threaten your wingtips and possibly other airplanes nearby. When in doubt, shut the engine down, get the towbar out, and push the airplane closer. It’s better than accidentally taxiing into a fuel pump.

2. Verify mags and master off. Seriously, do it very deliberately, even if you know you flipped the switches. Safety is the only priority here, and it’s worth an extra two seconds to verify the magnetos are off (key out!) and the master switch is off. The last thing you want is a spark or an unexpected engine start. You might even consider saying something out loud to confirm.

3. Ground the airplane. Now it’s time to start the actual fueling procedure. Step one is to grab the grounding wire, unroll it, and clip it to the airplane (typically the exhaust stack). This will prevent static discharge during the fueling process, and most self-serve fuel pumps will ask you to verify that you’ve grounded the airplane before turning on the pump.

4. Get the ladder out (if needed). If you fly a high wing airplane, take the time to find the ladder (usually next to or behind the pump) and set it up. Sure, many airplanes include steps and handles, but I find the more stable platform of a ladder to be safer and easier – especially when you’re trying to look down into a fuel tank. One tip: do this before you put the credit card in the machine, as there’s usually a time limit after approval. If you swipe the card then go for the ladder, you may have to start over.

Self serve fuel pump
Every pump is a little different, so read the instructions carefully.

5. Swipe your credit card. Now that everything is set up and ready to go, find the payment screen on the pump. Each one is a little different, but they all share the same basic setup. You’ll insert your credit card, then enter the airplane’s tail number, and choose whether you want a certain number of gallons or dollars. Once the credit card authorizes, the pump will turn on and you’re ready to fuel (some older models require you to flip a manual lever, so if you don’t hear a pump kick on, look for one).

6. Pull the hose out. Simple, but there are two quick tips to keep in mind. First, make sure you have the 100LL hose and not the Jet A hose. Many fuel farms offer both types, and Jet A in your Archer will ruin your whole day. Usually the hoses and nozzles are quite different in appearance, but it’s worth double checking. Once you have the hose in your hand, pull it much further than you think you need. If you get up on the ladder and find out you need another two feet, you might fall off the ladder trying to pull the hose. I like to walk with the hose all the way under the wing, leaving plenty of slack.

7. Take the gas cap off, but leave it in your hand. There are only two positions for the gas cap – twisted on the airplane tight or in your hand. Do not set the gas cap down on the ground or on the wing if at all possible, as you may forget it (with potentially serious consequences). Ask me how I learned this important lesson…

8. Put a towel down if you have one. Some fuel farms have nice rubber mats to prevent scratches from the hose. If you see one, use it. If not, even a shop towel or windshield cleaner can work.

9. Fill the tank, but cautiously. I always like to have an idea of how many gallons the airplane will take before I squeeze the trigger. That way I can start fast, then slow down the rate as I get close to my expected number of gallons. Otherwise, you may be met with a geyser of avgas.

10. Put the cap back on – now. Don’t wait. A follow up to number 7 above. When the tank is filled, put the gas cap on. You don’t want to allow water or other contaminants to enter the fuel tank.

11. Retract the hose. Now that the airplane is fueled, it’s time to reverse the process. First find the hose reel and push the retract button. This will spin the reel, sometimes with surprising speed. Use your foot to guide the hose and don’t be afraid to stop the process if things get out of control. It sounds ridiculous, but I once saw a pilot take a metal hose nozzle to the head when the reel got going too fast.

Fuel tester
Don’t forget to sample some of the fuel you just pumped.

12. Retract the grounding wire. Unlike the hose reel, this is usually retracted by pulling out slightly on the wire and then letting the wire automatically rewind.

13. Return the ladder and clean up. Put the ladder back right where you found it, ensuring it won’t be in the way of taxiing airplanes. If you spilled any gas, wipe it up. This is also a good time to sump the fuel tanks and make sure the fuel you just pumped is clean.

14. Most importantly, take a walk around the entire airplane when you’re done. When you think you’re ready to start the engine and taxi away, pause for a moment and look at the airplane. Make sure the fuel caps are on, the hose is put away, and there are no objects on the ramp. Many pilots start rushing around during fueling, especially if it’s hot or there’s a line of airplanes. Resist the urge to do that and take one last look.

The rising popularity of self-serve fuel pumps is great news for pilots. It’s usually less expensive, so it’s an easy way to save money on a long trip. Beyond just savings, though, self serve pumps make cross country travel easier. You’re no longer restricted to “bank hours” when searching for fuel so you have dozens of additional options. That quiet strip of pavement in the middle of nowhere might become the perfect stop when headwinds are stronger than forecast, and you don’t have to call the FBO to verify their hours.

With a few good habits, self-serve fuel pumps are easy and reliable. In fact, I seek them out when I’m flying.

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Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. He is an ATP and also holds ratings for multiengine, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of Air Facts, John is a Vice President at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, responsible for new product development and marketing.