Back To School


Long ago and far, far away from where I am now, I was a relatively fresh private pilot attending college in a town sufficiently distant from my family’s home that impromptu visits were impractical. As a nationwide election approached, I realized the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot had come and gone, and I wouldn’t be able to vote, except in person. Unless, that is, I flew in for the day, voted, and flew back to school. Lo and behold, a relatively new Skyhawk was available to rent on election day, so I booked it and convinced a friend who had never experienced a small airplane to ride along.

On election day, the friend and I saddled up the rented Skyhawk and launched toward my voting precinct into good VFR. The flight home was without drama, and we arrived more or less on time. Meeting up with my father, who whisked us off to the polls and then took us to lunch, went smoothly and soon it was time for the return flight. Freshly topped-off tanks ensured we had enough fuel for the return, so we bade my father a good-bye, cranked up and began taxiing out.

Looking back, I guess I was distracted by all the questions my father posed about the flight and the airplane. My friend and I both wanted to get back to school, so I may have rushed the preflight. Anyway, as we taxied out, I noticed something blocking my vision over the engine cowl. The oil access door! I had left it open! What about the dipstick? We hadn’t yet left the large, open ramp area before I had to stop taxiing, find a place to park, shut down, climb out and check the door, engine oil dipstick and anything else that might look out of sorts. Turned out everything was fine—I had simply forgotten to close the access door—and soon we were winging our way…well, that was a problem.

I had routed the day’s flights over a VOR about midway between the two airports we would use. Flew right over it that morning but apparently they moved it while I was at lunch because it wasn’t where it was supposed to be for the flight back to school. I obviously screwed up somewhere in my planning: This was before GPS was in wide use, and we still did wind triangles. Eventually, I realized what was going on, turned the Skyhawk back toward school and motored off for an otherwise uneventful flight.

I’ve flown over or near that VOR quite often in the years since, and each time I see it on the moving map brings back memories of that day. I’ll never forget how distraction led me to ignore the open oil door or sprinkled errors into my flight planning. Might have been some inexperience, too. Moving maps and GPS—along with minimizing distractions during preflight—have all but eliminated the possibility that a lot of what happened that day can happen again.

Learning Experiences

Have you encountered a situation or hazardous condition that yielded lessons on how to better manage the risks involved in flying? Do you have an experience to share with Aviation Safety’s readers about an occasion that taught you something significant about ways to conduct safer flight operations? If so, we want to hear about it.

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