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.

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