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When planning a flight, the pilots calculate the fuel load, allowing for diversions, delays, etc. While listening to an ATC recording of 30 minute taxi times at JFK, I wondered whether a plane has ever completely run out of fuel while taxiing.

I suspect that it probably would be after arrival, because before take-off, the plane has plenty of fuel.

I'm not talking about running out of fuel in flight: obligatory Gimli Glider link.

I'm aware that at least one Concorde flight landed on fumes, but I think it still made it to the gate.

I found this United Airlines flight from August 2022, which was pre-takeoff: in that case, after 3 hours, the plane returned to the gate to refuel, and then taxied for another few hours before the flight was finally cancelled.

I'm looking for more extreme instances of that story:

Has a commercial transport plane ever completely run out of fuel while taxiing?

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    $\begingroup$ If before takeoff, that would be a very lucky crew. There was an instance in the Navy where the refulers only topped off the wing tanks in an F-4 Phantom, and since the Squat Switch (which indicates that the aircraft is on the ground) inhibits pressurization of those tanks, no fuel could transfer into the main fuselage feed tank until they took off. Since they were only flying a few miles, the fuel in the wing tanks was enough to get where they were going, so the pilot decided to just takeoff, and let the wing tank fuel transfer then. The engines flamed out shortly after they got airborne. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2022 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ I can envision the pilot coming on the intercom: "OK, folks, this is embarrassing, but we've run out of gas. I'm going to need everybody out to help push us to the the next taxiway turnoff while the copilot goes to the station with the company credit card to pick up a couple of gallons..." $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Sep 8, 2022 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ "then got stuck on the runway (or a taxiway) because they ran out of fuel right after landing" -- I've updated; I suspect that this would be more common. I'm looking for cases where (e.g. due to taxiway congestion) the pilot's had to make a sheepish announcement over the PA. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2022 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ Even if an aircraft landed on fumes, one would think that they'd simply shut down and call for a tow before letting the airplane actually get to the point of fuel starvation. Though, if one is landing with that little fuel, it should already be an emergency flight receiving priority handling anyway. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Sep 9, 2022 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ You already referenced the United Airlines incident and that should be as close as it ever gets. To physically run out of fuel "while taxiing", the Pilot in Command and Pilot Monitoring must have completely ignored the gauges and botched the pre-flight checks since they clearly would not have enough fuel to make their destination or an alternate landing. Any crew in that position should be immediately de-registered, terminated and their licenses pulled $\endgroup$
    – Ian W
    Sep 9, 2022 at 19:29

2 Answers 2

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I saw this happen one time. A DC-3 pulled up to a flight school's pump because no one else had gas. The flight line kid dutifully pumped x gallons into the tanks, but didn't verify with the dipstick. Pilot was in a hurry and also did not verify. Turns out the pump was dry but also faulty and did not stop when it ran out of gas. Then the DC-3 taxiied out, and before takeoff it did run out of gas.

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    $\begingroup$ Lucky pilot. That could have gone a lot worse. $\endgroup$
    – TLW
    Sep 9, 2022 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ Solid argument for a refund there. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2022 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @MadPhysicist 🤣🤣🤣🤣 $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2022 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Is there an NTSB report on this incident you could link to? $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Sep 10, 2022 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ No idea. This happened in the mid-1970's. There was no incident or accident. One engine shut down on run up, so they shut down the other one once they realized why and towed it back to the line. It wasn't a scheduled flight, I think the pilot was just repositioning the aircraft to another field for/after maintenance. I doubt anyone bothered to report it. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2022 at 23:52
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One would really, really hope not, although "ever in recorded history" includes a lot of cases.

Fuel burn while taxiing is considerably less than during flight, by a factor maybe 4 or 5 (for a 737) with both engines running, and a factor of over 10 with engines shut down & just the APU running. So even with just barely enough gas for a 1-hour flight plus min reserves, that's still a lot of taxi time. And at some point, one would think that the crew (or their dispatcher) would realize that they have too little gas to legally take off, so they need to go back to the gate.

Of course, there are circumstances one can imagine that might prevent the aircraft from returning to the gate to refuel, and maybe there has been a case where they burned all their gas waiting to return but not being able to: a really bad blizzard, some sort of accident blocking the taxi route to the gates, a 9/11 type of shut-down, and the gridlock that these sorts of events could cause might do it.

But, while it's hard to "prove a negative," I've not heard of such a incident.

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    $\begingroup$ "circumstances one can imagine that might prevent the aircraft from returning to the gate to refuel" -- yeah; this is the crux of my question. Also: I can't imagine the hell of being stuck on a taxiing plane for longer than it takes to fly to the destination and back. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2022 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that would be a really, really unpleasant day, for sure! These days, airlines get immense fines for over 3 hours on the tarmac (longer for international), so it's a priority (which ATC understands) to get either to a gate or off the ground sooner than that. Before that rule, and in places not under FAA jurisdiction, things can drag out pretty badly, especially waiting on Customs to show up (i.e. after a landing or diversion). So it's not completely inconceivable it could have happened somewhere, some time. Not aware of where/when, though. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Sep 8, 2022 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ Technically, a plane that catches fire for whatever reason and burns off all its fuel while taxiing would "run out of fuel". Based on this, the answer to the title question must be Yes. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2022 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @RogerLipscombe I can't imagine the hell of being stuck on a taxiing plane for longer than it takes to fly to the destination and back - I can. About 20 years ago I was flying from Boston, MA (BOS) to Washington Dulles (IAD), which is normally just over an hour and a half. Due to a really bad blizzard in Boston, we were stuck on taxiways for nearly 4 hours before returning to the gate to refuel and then taking off another 1 hour later. $\endgroup$
    – Aleks G
    Sep 9, 2022 at 14:41

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