The Only Time an Aircraft Has Too Much Fuel On Board Is When It Is On Fire

Charles Kingsford-Smith? Ernest K. Gann? TWA Captain? Yachtsman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In the aviation world there is an axiom that avers:

The only time an aircraft has too much fuel on board is when it is on fire.

This pearl of wisdom is commonly attributed to the pioneer Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, but a bit of Google-diving turns up no definitive sourcing. Would the QI be motivated to have a go?

Quote Investigator: Charles Kingsford-Smith was a top aviator, and he often had to worry about whether he had an adequate supply of fuel, but QI has been unable to trace the quotation back to him.

Instead, the maxim was used by another famous pilot who was noted for writing best-sellers that became Hollywood movies. In 1974 the book “Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus” was published, and it contained the earliest appearance of the saying that QI has located. In the following passage the author Gann poses and answers a rhetorical question about the DC-3 airplane (boldface added) [EGFC]:

“What happens if one engine quits?”

According to my recollection most DC-3s eventually arrived at their destination if they carried enough fuel. In my private manual I firmly believed the only time there was too much fuel aboard any aircraft was if it was on fire. As for single engine emergencies, I had enough familiarity with the proper mixture of fright, sweat, and faith to remain convinced “it can’t happen to me.”

Gann worked as a pilot for American Airlines and Matson Airlines. He wrote several popular books including “The High and the Mighty,” “Island in The Sky,” and “Fate Is the Hunter.” All three of these works were made into motion pictures with major stars such as Glenn Ford and John Wayne.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Newspaper reports in June 1930 described an attempt by the pilot Charles Kingsford-Smith to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. However, an insufficient supply of fuel caused the attempt to fail [CKSR]:

While Capt. Charles Kingsford-Smith, the intrepid Australian flier, did not reach New York in an non-stop flight, he did cross the Atlantic safely and landed on the British soil of Newfoundland. This is the second time only that a plane has made the western passage.

There was fog. There was compass trouble. Many hours were lost in checking position on this side of the ocean. Lost hours meant expenditure of gas, and so New York could not be attained. – Philadelphia Inquirer.

On this flight there was no failure on the part of the men: they acquitted themselves as brilliantly as any who had gone before. There was not enough fuel, that is all, and without fuel you cannot fly. — New York World.

Reports like these make it natural to ascribe the saying under investigation to Kingsford-Smith, and it is possible that he did say it. However, QI has not yet located any direct evidence. The alternative hypothesis is that the phrase was reassigned to him after it began to circulate.

In 1968 Ernest K. Gann published the article “On the Beak of an Ancient Pelican” in Flying magazine. Gann’s story was about piloting an old DC-3 from San Francisco to Samoa via Honolulu [EGBP]. This article was revised and used to create chapter 22 of the later book “Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus” in 1974.

QI carefully examined the 1968 text but was unable to find the quotation. Yet, the saying does appear in the 1974 book as mentioned at the beginning of this post [EGFC]. Hence, the words were added by Gann during the revision process.

In 1994 an article in the Washington Post contained a version of the maxim attributed to an unnamed Trans World Airlines (TWA) pilot [WPFF]:

“You don’t want to run out of gas, airspace and ideas all at the same time,” a TWA captain friend of mine once told me. He also noted that the only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire. To crash is to “buy the farm.”

In 1998 a pilot writing in the Boston Globe invoked the guideline [BGFF]:

The single most frequent cause of small-plane accidents, the safety board says, is engine failure. That gives the impression that planes are not very reliable. But the single most frequent cause of engine failure is no fuel. …

But it’s never going to happen to me. I’m going to adhere to the pilot adage that says the only time you have too much fuel is when your plane is on fire (another thing that won’t happen to me).

In 1999 a collection of aviation sayings that were being passed around the net were reprinted in the periodical Air Safety Week [ASWF]:

Aviation 101. A listing of humorous homilies on aviation safety is circulating on the Internet. … Under the attribution “anonymous,” were hereby present some of the better quips:

* The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.

* The probability of survival is equal to the angle of arrival.

* You know you’ve landed with the wheels up when it takes full power to taxi.

* Learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

By 2001 a version of the maxim appeared that was targeted to the domain of boating. Here is an instance in the discussion newsgroup called rec.outdoors.fishing.saltwater [SBFF]:

I was cleaning up some files on my computer and ran across this.

The Rules Of Boating …

5) The ONLY time you have too much fuel is when the boat is on fire.

In 2002 the maxim was attributed to Kingsford-Smith in a collection of quotes called the “The Military Quotation Book” [MQCK]:

The only time an aircraft has too much fuel on board is when it is on fire.

SIR CHARLES KINGSFORD SMITH

In conclusion, QI would credit Ernest K. Gann for now. He used the saying without implying that it was an existing adage. Also, he did not ascribe the words to someone else. QI was unable to find solid support for Kingsford-Smith or anyone else. Databases continue to grow and this judgment may require revision in the future.

(Many thanks to Frank Van Haste for this interesting question from the world of aviation.)

[EGFC] 1974, Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus by Ernest K. Gann, Chapter 22: On the Beak of an Ancient Pelican, Page 191, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[CKSR] 1930 June 26, Reading Eagle, A Gallant Achievement, Page 6, Column 1, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)

[EGBP] 1968 March, Flying, On the Beak of an Ancient Pelican by Ernest K. Gann, Pages 44-47, Volume 82, Number 3,Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

[WPFF] 1994 December 11, Washington Post, Flight Patterns [Part 1 of 2] by Robert Day, Section Magazine, Page W16, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank)

[BGFF] 1998 September 13, Boston Globe, Sky High by Douglas M. Bailey, Page 24, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

[ASWF] 1999 June 28, Air Safety Week, News Briefs, Page 1, Volume 13, Issue 26, Access Intelligence LLC, New York. (ProQuest)

[SBFF] 2001 October 11, 9:49 AM, Newsgroup: rec.outdoors.fishing.saltwater, Subject: The Rules of Boating, From: leewar yahoo.com (TVG), (Google Groups Archive; Accessed 2011 August 29) link

[MQCK] 2002, The Military Quotation Book edited by James Charlton, Page 108, Thomas Dunne Books: An Imprint of St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books preview)

One thought on “The Only Time an Aircraft Has Too Much Fuel On Board Is When It Is On Fire”

  1. Thanks so much for running that to earth. Yet another reinforcement of the idea that if a quotation is pithy, pragmatic, memorable and aviation-related, then there’s better than even odds that Ernie Gann said it!

    Regards,
    Frank

Comments are closed.