Running on empty

As it sat on the cusp of spring and the start of prime flying season on Tuesday, the Aero Club of B.C. drained the last drops of 100 low lead fuel, better known as avgas, from its 50,000-litre tank at the Pitt Meadows Airport.

A Piper PA-44-180 Seminole flies over the Waterloo region of Ontario at sunset.
A Piper PA-44-180 Seminole flies over Ontario’s Waterloo region at sunset. General aviation flights across Canada have been severely impacted by a shortage of 100LL avgas. Mike Reyno Photo

A non-profit flying club with 130 members, the organization sells avgas to the local general aviation (GA) community, as well as to three flying schools and a pair of commercial customers.

But potential fuel quality issues stemming from Canada’s only avgas refinery mean the club–and hundreds of others like it–can’t access new shipments of domestic fuel, a problem that may not be resolved until the end of March.

“What is frustrating is to see all these operators … most of them just are barely hanging on,” said Tom Heise, president of the club. “And for them to lose a flying day like today is devastating for them–any of the commercial operators.”

Imperial Oil, which manufactures avgas at its refinery in Strathcona, Alta., near Edmonton, announced on Mar. 8 that it had made “significant progress” toward resolving the potential quality concerns in avgas shipped since Dec. 28, 2017. All distribution was halted on Feb. 13 when the issue was discovered.

The company said in a press release it had identified all locations that received potentially “off-spec” product, which may cause interference with on-board fuel gauge sensors, producing inaccurate readings.

An attendant fills an aircraft with aviation gasoline.
An attendant fills an aircraft with aviation gasoline. Some operators are considering importing avgas from the United States to cope with a shortage of domestic fuel. COPA Photo

“We do not suspect potential for other performance issues, and also do not suspect any impacts on storage facilities,” said Jon Harding, a spokesman with Imperial Oil.

Harding could not say what caused the potential fuel quality issue, or why it was not discovered until Feb. 13.

“We’ve been taking this very seriously and working very hard on trying to resolve things,” he said in an interview with Skies.

“So [we’ve] been investigating the root cause at the refinery, and we’ve also been out in the field, testing all the locations where the avgas was delivered.”

As of Mar. 8, the company said about 70 per cent of the sites tested had been confirmed as “fit-for-use,” and it has been working around the clock to secure alternative supplies from across North America.

Imperial said these efforts have been successful, adding it believes its supply of avgas to customers will normalize by the end of the month.

“This has been a challenging situation and we appreciate all of the patience, understanding and co-operation we have received from our customers, their resellers and from end-users,” said Jon Wetmore, vice-president of Imperial Downstream, in the release.

“We recognize this situation has significantly disrupted the avgas flying community and we apologize for this.”

But Canada’s GA community continues to cope with the fallout from the situation, which has reportedly prompted flight schools to reduce training flights and grounded hobby pilots.

“Obviously the availability of fuel, or lack thereof, could severely curtail summer flying activities,” said Carter Mann, a spokesperson with the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), a national GA organization with nearly 16,000 members.

“That’s everything from flight training to nighttime newspaper deliveries to smaller communities, tourism dollars … we get a lot of Americans flying up to Canada in general aviation aircraft.

“So that alone will probably be a big hit if they’re not able to do that because of the lack of fuel availability.”

The fuel shortage could have a crippling effect on general aviation in Canada. COPA Photo

Mann also noted the economic impact of flight schools cutting back on training operations and the delays it creates for people trying to advance their flight training.

“We estimate the value of general aviation to the Canadian economy at $9.3 billion a year,” he said.

“So any drop in that is obviously a significant hit, not just to airports, but also to the communities that house them, the businesses that depend on them … so it’s a pretty big deal.”

Imperial Oil said in a Feb. 15 news release all shipments of avgas from the Strathcona refinery were stopped as soon as the company became aware of the issue on Feb. 13.

The company said it also notified Transport Canada and requested that all distributors cease distribution of the product. Aircraft that use jet fuel, also known as “Jet A,” are not impacted by this potential fuel quality concern.

Harding said the company has asked operators to communicate with their fuel reseller about the disposal of, and compensation for, off-spec fuel. He added pilots should also stay informed about notice to airmen (NOTAM) instructions.

“We’re going to continue to communicate with our customers and with the aviation community, and with Transport Canada, and we’re doing that,” said Harding.

“We also are very appreciative of the patience and understanding of our customers.”

Meanwhile, the Aero Club of B.C. ponders its options, including the possibility of importing avgas from the United States, with an expected increase of 25 cents per litre on the wholesale price.

“We have to pass that on to our customer,” said Tom Heise, a pilot for 44 years who owns and flies a Cessna 182 out of Pitt Meadows.

“We don’t know [if that will happen], and we don’t know the price yet. But we know it’s going to be considerably higher.”

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