In the course of a flight review or check ride pilots make extra effort to go through the motions of a thorough preflight. Its Kabuki for aviation. Both the evaluator and the evaluatee know their respective parts and want to play them well.
No one likes to admit it out loud, but we cant help but feel that its a bit of a put-on. We perform our roles and if not too many lines are missed, we get the applause and the endorsement. Then, once the evaluation threat passes, the checklist might sift into the baggage compartment with the POH, Weight and Balance paperwork and we go back to flying the way we always did. In front of a grand jury Id be forced to admit it myself. But only if granted immunity and a lucrative book deal.
With this cynical approach I administered a BFR the other day. I watched the subject pilot check his fuel. He took a large sample and ran the requisite amount down his arm. I suggested he move his cigarette to the other hand. Then, he held the sample up to the sunlight, squinted as though searching for the building blocks of life, swirled it lightly and, like a satisfied wine taster, he threw the sample on the ramp.
What are you looking for? I asked.
Water and other contaminants, he answered dutifully. By now hed moved to the peek-a-boo Piper oil door in the cowling and removed the dipstick. He wiped it clean and checked the oil level making certain to stare into the tiny door opening to simulate engine inspection. With most cowlings, unless the engines been stolen, you cant see much.
Ever seen water in the fuel? I asked.
That stumped him. Ah, no, actually…
I asked him to take another fuel sample. Like a high school chemistry teacher, I added water to show how it sinks to the bottom. The pilot nodded appreciatively, because, well, because this was a BFR and he didnt want to spend any more time with me than absolutely necessary.
I felt proud but, as it turned out, too proud. While I patted myself on the back, Id inadvertently interrupted the pilots preflight routine. Our rhythm was off and neither one of us noticed that the oil dipstick never made it back to the filler neck. Every instructor knows to never trust a student, even a licensed student with 10,000 hours, and I should have followed my preflight routine and double checked the oil, but I didnt.
He snapped the oil access door shut and we flew with the dispstick somewhere behind us. The flight portion went well, but post-flight stares from other pilots revealed the oil streak down the fuselage and across the tail. I used the opportunity to emphasize the need for a better preflight, not only with a checklist, but without distractions, even from knucklehead instructors like me.
Although we lost relatively little oil in flight, that pint or so made a huge mess in the slipstream. Fortunately none of it ended up on the windshield. Some engines, however, are not so forgiving.
While I was a tower controller I watched a plane make an emergency return to the airport after declaring, Tower, my engines blown up! It hadnt really. The pilot had simply left an oil cap off, and oil streamed back across the windshield. At night and about to go IMC, that suddenly black windshield and resultant shaking yoke brought on by the pilots tremors probably made it seem like the engine had blown. The emergency call was the right call, and the pilot landed, found the cap, added a quart of oil and departed safely.
Even with checklists in hand, pilots at all levels make mistakes. The checklist will not guarantee complete safety. In fact, those who put too much faith in any list or manual, may forget to think when faced with slightly unusual situations. Still, the checklist is important, but to be of value it should include some very basic items, such as: Dont forget to remove tie down ropes, chocks and tow bar.
Go ahead and giggle, but youre not a real pilot until youve loaded the passengers, buckled into your five-point harness and fired up the engine only to try and taxi with the tail securely tied to a 12,000-pound block of concrete. Ive become a real pilot several times myself. It usually takes full power to break the rope but, by then, youve stretched your Cessna 172 into a 206.
There is no face-saving way out. Shut down and untie the airplane. As embarrassing as this is, theres also no need to compound your mistake. Never climb out with the engine running or ask a passenger to undo your mistake. Shut the engine off. Start all over.
Chocks are a particular challenge for some. Line personnel (ramp rats) love to chock your airplane when youre not looking. I once watched a pilot go to take off power on the ramp as he tried to jump the chocks hed forgotten to remove or didnt know were there. He eventually made it, but there are too many levels of stupid to explain why this is a bad practice. If nothing else, all that noise merely draws attention to your mistake.
If you left the tail tied or a chock under the nose wheel, what else did you forget? With the wheels chocked, did you get a good look at the tires? We think of airplanes having wings but some have wheels as well, and we tend to ignore tread and pressure requirements.
The Piper Dakota I fly is a wonderful airplane equipped with the most annoying tow bar on the market. Piper engineers no doubt spent hours calculating the exact length of pipe needed to make it impossible to both push and see at the same time. By the time the Dakota owner gets the airplane moved, he or she is so angered they dont ever want to see that &*%#ing tow bar again, so it gets thrown into the weeds or, worse, left on the nose wheel.
Other manufacturers have copied this design; I believe its in the public domain. As a result, tow bars are easily forgotten. When I was a line guy in college I watched a Cessna land with what looked like a stinger pointed out the front. As it taxied in and shut down, I mentioned to the student pilot (it was obvious from the nose prints on the side glass) that he had a tow bar attached. He looked toward the nose, scratched his head and said, …wondered where that was.
Years later, as a controller, I was vectoring a Baron for an approach and the pilot said, Approach, I may have a gear problem. Whenever a pilot even hints of a problem controllers alert the crash trucks. Theres no fee for this service and no FSDO agent will call with a violation. So we rolled the fire trucks to await the Baron.
We assumed the Barons gear was stuck in the up position but the pilot was somewhat reluctant to admit on the air exactly what his problem was. Finally, he confessed that hed taken off with the tow bar still attached to the nose wheel, which in itself, was not a problem, until he brought the gear, and tow bar, up. Apparently, all that grinding and crunching under the floorboards made him suspicious. He landed safely. The tow bar was recovered and I suspect that pilot has double-checked his tow bar status ever since.
Preflight checklists should include simple things like closing the doors, including the baggage door. From the view in the control tower, Ive seen approach plates, overcoats and underwear get sucked out of baggage compartments just as the plane rotates. Airplane doors are notoriously flimsy and often pop open in flight even when the pilot has made certain to latch it before take-off. Cherokees are renowned for this.
A suddenly opened passenger door on take-off gets your attention, but, as emergencies go, its one of the safest. Barely qualifies. As in any emergency, the first step is to fly the airplane. An open door doesnt cause the airplane to crash, unless it suddenly opens at 39,000 feet. Even then those little masks should fall out of the ceiling, so dont sweat an open door.
Keys to Disaster
Many pilots love to put stuff all over their planes – everything from cowl plugs to pitot tube socks to plastic owls designed to scare away sparrows. Problem is, sometimes they forget one of these items during preflight. And not all preflight gaffs make for amusing pilot lounge tales.
Some turn deadly, like the PA-32-300 that departed New Bedford, Mass., one April night in VFR conditions and went into an unusually nose high attitude, followed by a crude level off, then a turn one way, followed by a turn the other way, then what witnesses called a sudden nose dive into the ground. The sole occupant, the pilot, was killed.
Post accident investigation was easy. Investigators found the right hand control yoke had a control lock installed. It was secured by a padlock, the key to which was on the key ring with the ignition key. An after-dark preflight – if, indeed, there had been one – must have missed the control lock. The run-up, if there was one, also missed that critical pre-takeoff check of the controls for free and correct movement.
The investigators found the ignition key out of the ignition. Perhaps the pilot realized his error and was groping for key and lock, in the dark, on climb out behind a 300 hp engine. It was too late.
Stories abound of pilots who miss the gust locks bolted to exterior control surfaces. This is an easy oversight when borrowing a friends plane. Any item attached to the aircraft should have a giant red streamer attached and a note in the preflight checklist. Better yet, if you hobble your aircraft, drape a big note over the throttle that reads: GUST LOCKS INSTALLED! Still, pilots will miss them. The pilot who rushes a preflight is speeding toward disaster. Less than five extra minutes of serious preflight inspection can prevent this.
Gust lucks and control locks are wonderful devices to keep the wind from slamming the controls around and damaging cables, pulleys and control surfaces. They can be as simple as using a seat belt to tie the yoke back. A trussed yoke is hard to miss because the pilot usually has to undue the belt in order to get into the left seat. Still, pilots do manage to get airborne with belts holding the controls. Its a little like driving your car with The Club attached. This is a real possibility in older tandem seating aircraft, such as Cubs, Champs or even newer Citabrias and Huskies.
Pilots rarely give thought to the empty rear seats in any airplane, but the accident reports show that we ought to. An experienced Citabria pilot in the Fort Worth area took off with a rear seat belt left loose by a passenger on a previous flight. On take-off, the loose belt somehow tangled with the rear stick and contributed to a stall spin accident from low altitude. More recently, another Citabria pilot attached a briefcase to the rear seat with the seat belt only to discover when it was too late that the briefcase limited the rear stick from reaching full aft position. This contributed to a landing accident where the plane was substantially damaged, although the pilot was uninjured. Briefcases, like neckties, have no place in aviation.
Depending which seat is occupied for solo, the impatient pilot could miss a restricted joystick. The pre-takeoff check of controls is designed to catch this. Not all airplanes have a checklist onboard, so revert to the arcane acronym: CIGAR, which in some circles stands for: Controls (free & correct through full movement); Ignition (mags. on both); Gas (on a tank with fuel); Altimeter (set); Radios (set). That last-minute check of controls also discretely tells passengers to move their limbs out of the way. Obviously, CIGAR does not cover everything; flaps, for instance are left off.
Despite all the checklist and mnemonic devices to avoid brain lock, pilots still draw big blanks at times. A checklist looks swell on a check ride and instills confidence in passengers (some might ask why youre reading how-to directions before flight), but a checklist can be boring.
Every ATC position in either tower or center has a checklist for use when one controller relieves another. Like pilots, controllers often pay lip service to the list while thinking about other things.
The human mind is full of holes; it wanders around, becomes distracted. Its easy to skip over items, to become jaded and miss the callback. Break the monotony by actually touching gauges and circuit breakers as you read the items aloud. A plane with six tanks, four valves and two boost pumps gets a little complicated so talk yourself through it. Catch your own mistakes.
Not everything is on a checklist and cant be. Those of us living in the cold country have respect for ice and snow, but how many pilots really understand the need to remove frost from an airplane? It looks so harmless, and its such a pain to find a step ladder and climb all the way up to the top of your Cessna 210 just to remove a little fuzz. But frost destroys lift by causing early air flow separation over the airfoil.
In practical terms, that tiny layer of frozen fuzz appears on cold clear mornings when youre in a hurry to fire up the engine to get the heater working. That same frost could increase your stall speed by as much as 10 percent. A broom, a heated hangar or the suns warming glow will cure the problem.
Cold weather brings other preflight hassles. Its a miserable environment when the preflight is performed with numbed fingers on a windswept ramp. Each year pilots burn up their own airplanes with home made engine preheaters. Preflight in winter is an invitation to shortcuts, as a yet another Citabria pilot discovered in Turlock, Calif.
We know to drain the fuel sumps for water before flight, but in winter that drain valve often freezes shut, so we ignore it. After all, common sense warns that forcing a delicate valve to open would only break it, right? Yes, maybe, but, as the Citabria pilot discovered, when the drain plug is frozen shut its probably frozen with water, which holds all sorts of garbage. Eventually that slurry of water, dirt and microscopic life forms works its way into your carburetor or injector nozzles and down you come.
Not to pick on Citabrias, but another Citabria pilot, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, discovered that water enters fuel from various sources other than condensation or rain through an improperly sealed cap. In this case, the fuel truck itself was the culprit. According to NTSB, it had an exposed filler cap that allowed in water, which in turn it passed to the Citabria in a 50/50 ratio. While this may temporarily improve an FBOs profit margin, it plays havoc with aircraft performance. The plane crashed.
Small amounts of water usually pass through the engine with barely a noticeable burp, but dont bet on it. Drain all sumps before each flight and after each refueling. The experts around the coffee pot in the pilots lounge might tell you its a waste of time, but you aint flyin a coffee pot.
The preflight ritual does not begin with the ceremonial unlocking of the hangar door at dawn. It really begins at the end of the previous flight. Set the plane up for the next flight, which, if its a rental or club aircraft, would be for the next user.
These arent cars. You cant slam the garage door and run into the house assuming your machine will be in working order the following morning. Airplanes are more like horses. Theyre temperamental, expensive and need constant attention. They like to be pampered and groomed, so part of your preflight should include a good after-flight rub down (of the airplane).
Take five minutes and walk around this magical contraption that just hauled you through the sky. Wipe off the bugs and mud. Clean the windshield and remove the oil from the belly. Not only will your plane look better but youll get a better feel for the machine. Youll notice little things that may cause trouble later. The loose antenna that can be fixed tonight is better than the one that breaks next week when youre in the clouds. That old expression, If you have time to spare, go by air, should read, if you go by air, have time to spare for a proper preflight and post flight inspection. If youre too rushed to enjoy flying, then, whats the point? Take a bus.
Dont think of flying as transportation. Its a lifestyle that happens to take you places and through an environment few humans enjoy.
The preflight is an ongoing process for the regular flyer. It includes a constant awareness of the sky. Pilots who watch the Weather Channel get a different picture than mere mortals who want to know if its going to rain on their golf game. Pilots are always preflighting. This awareness of our sky carries into the official preflight briefing from Flight Service, DUATS or other on-line weather services.
Whether youre planning a flight or not, always have an eye to conditions so your briefing isnt a mandatory cram session where you digest mounds of information in three minutes in order to make the go/no go decision.
Thumbing through NTSB accident reports over the past 15 years, reveals a staggering number of fatal VFR into IMC. Pilots with inadequate preflight planning fly to their deaths regularly by pushing into weather either they or their airplanes are not prepared to handle. The saddest part is, we dont seem to learn in this category.
They may know better, but rare is the pilot who hasnt run the scud without a proper briefing or cut a few corners in a preflight or pre-takeoff run-up.
Honestly, do you stop at the run up area and follow the checklist before every departure, or just the first one of the day, then give a quickie run-up during taxi? Pilots who fly the same airplane for many years develop their own routines, most of which work just fine.
Even the most conscientious pilot, however, can develop what seems to be a safe pre-departure routine that inadvertently leaves out a step that might one day cause trouble. This is where the ritual of recurrent training might uncover that tiny oversight thats waiting to bite.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Log Book Can Contain Hidden Warning Signs.”
-by Paul Berge
Paul Berge is a CFII and aviation writer who blames a lot on his childhood.