Preflight: Obsessive Compulsive or Laissez-Faire?

There has to be a happy medium between a preflight inspection that takes 30 minutes and none at all, but where is it?

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I just got home after delivering a brand-new American Champion Denali Scout from the factory to a dealer in Boise. One of the integral parts of any ferry flight is a careful preflight inspection—both for the pilot’s safety but also to assure that any little thing that is wrong is fixed at the factory before the airplane leaves. It’s cheaper and more efficient to do it in house than for the manufacturer to have to pay for a fix under the warranty. Nevertheless, I often feel as if I’m insulting the people who built the airplane as I do a fussy preflight—they’re rightfully proud of their work and I’m an outsider who may be giving the impression I’m second-guessing it. As I was going through all that had to be done to depart, company co-owner Jerry Mehlhaff, Jr. came up to me and said he wanted to make certain I checked over everything and stayed in the area after takeoff to confirm everything was working in flight. “We’ve checked it over, but a second pair of eyes is always a good thing.” I liked his attitude a lot.

Once aloft, after the in-the-air checks over the factory airport showed that all systems were functioning properly and I’d aimed the backcountry flying machine west, I got to thinking about how we pilots approach the preflight exams of our airplanes.

I’ve been through classes on big twins where the instructors seemed consumed with minutiae and insisting that we dutiful students memorize such things as the ply rating of the nose-gear tire, the weight of the aileron counterweights or number of degrees of aileron deflection—stuff that is not going to go wrong inflight and I generally can’t inspect it on a preflight. I’d learn it long enough to pass the checkride and dump it immediately, keeping in my head the material that was truly relevant to safely operating the airplane and that I could inspect during a preflight. Beyond that, I’ve watched pilots make preflights with the POH in hand, dutifully checking each item called out—and only each item called out. I’ve also watched a lot of pilots walk out to their aircraft and perform a preflight that, at most, consisted of checking the oil—and then go flying.

In my personal memory bank there’s a large folder entitled: “How could I have been so stupid as to do that with an airplane?” In it there is a deeply embarrassing preflight incident in which I overlooked what could have been a significant problem. I’d been flying a Cessna 206 every day for about a week and was about to check out another pilot in the airplane. He did the preflight and found a crack that went around half the circumference of an exhaust pipe. I had missed it for the entire week, as I doubt it had suddenly appeared on the last flight. He had done something I normally do, but had been neglecting: He had taken hold of the exhaust pipe and wiggled it.

With the above in mind, is there an answer to the historic question of how much and what information a pilot should have about the aircraft when it comes to a preflight and how to actually perform one successfully? I think there is—and the guidelines below come from pilots with far more experience than I and whom I greatly respect.

In a nutshell, it’s my opinion that a successful preflight is a function of whether the pilot applies a single-minded focus on the airplane itself during the entire process.

Without Distraction

It begins as you open the hangar door or are walking across the apron to where the airplane is tied down. That moment when you first see that flying machine—that amazing creature of flight—is when it should become your entire world. You look at the aircraft. All of it. For the time being, nothing else need exist for you but that aircraft. You think about how it should look and focus on matching that idealized vision with what you are actually seeing. One friend of mine with well north of 20,000 hours in the sky refers to the process of concentrating completely on the airplane during a preflight as a Zen sort of experience; you feel or become the airplane, reaching out to it mentally to be aware of the structure of its existence. Another friend, a retired airline captain, used a different label for the same process of total concentration while preflighting—that of old-fashioned Catholic/ Jewish/ Midwestern guilt and paranoia: You try to look into every little nook and cranny, because you just know something is wrong and you just have to find it because it’s out to get you. I’d like to consider the preflight a combination of the best portions of both of those approaches and try to avoid labels. I just make certain that I concentrate on the airplane to the exclusion of anything else.

So, what do we include on the preflight itself? The POH or the Owner’s Manual for the airplane provides guidance but, because it is not a “how to fly” book, it does not presume to tell everything. The private pilot manuals every one of us studied provide even more guidance; as do our primary flight instructors and other pilots we’ve spoken with over time. I suspect that most pilots have had some scares due to missing something on a preflight, so they have modified theirs accordingly. Each airplane has its special areas that must be examined, such as challenges involved with actually sampling the fuel for some airplanes, or checking the level of the hydraulic fluid in others. Such specialized systems mean that first you have to look at the handbook for the airplane and read what the manufacturer recommends doing on the preflight, learning how to go about finding those fluid reservoirs and little eccentricities. After that, it’s a matter of remembering the general things you learned long ago, to check to see that all fuel and oil filler caps are attached, and that no one has swiped a wing, that sort of thing.

No matter what is appropriate to include on the preflight of a particular type of airplane, the operant concept is focus, to point that intellect of yours at the task of insuring your ride is going to get you there and back again. How many accidents have occurred because the pilot got interrupted at exactly the wrong point on the preflight? Is it fate that pilots got distracted right then and missed something that would have been obvious—a missing oil filler cap or that the airplane had just come out of the paint shop and someone hooked up the ailerons backwards? (Yes, that has happened more times than is comfortable to consider, and a huge proportion of pilots who got those airplanes into the air died trying to fly them—and, please, always make sure that an airplane’s first flight out of any maintenance—any—is made solo, day, VFR.) To be fair to yourself and your passengers try to set things up so that you can do a preflight without distractions. Randy Sohn, who spent much of his flying career flying dozens of different types of airplanes with the Commemorative Air Force, had a practice of insisting on several minutes with the airplane he is to fly, without any interruptions. It helped him make sure the airplane was ready to go, and to recall the speeds and systems for the airplane. Then he was mentally ready for the challenges and any ill behavior it might demonstrate. If it was good enough for the guy who successfully flew the CAF’s B-29 out of the boneyard in California all the way to south Texas, nonstop, to start its restoration process and is alive and healthy today, then I figure the “fully focused on the airplane from the moment the pilot approaches it” concept is the one I should follow.

The First, Long Look

On that first look at the airplane, take in the big picture. Is anything hanging from it? Is anything dripping or is there any indication that something has been dripping? Are all the antennas sticking out from the appropriate spots? Is the airplane sitting level? If not, why not? How do the wheels look, the landing gear legs/struts? During that first good look, from a distance, you are trying to spot those things that you might overlook up close. For example, if the airplane is not sitting level, both fore and aft and side to side, it may not be able to hold its full rated quantity of fuel. That’s especially important if it has wings with little dihedral and fairly large fuel tanks. If it was not fueled while sitting level, there is a chance it is not really full of fuel, which could bite you in a few hours. So check. If the ramp is level and the airplane isn’t, find out why. It may just be a shock strut on one main gear that is not fully inflated, but it may also be something serious such as broken structure. Really look at the outside of the airplane. I keep thinking of the two pilots who set off to steal a light twin one night about 20 years ago. They didn’t notice that the flight controls had been removed. Yes, they went off the end of the runway at very high speed, firmly on the ground. Yes, they were seriously injured.

Then, look inside for the aircraft documents and to get the flaps extended (if that is your practice), remove the control wheel lock, get the fuel sampler cup and take a general look, and I mean look, at the interior. Is a seat crooked? Is it off the track or is it broken? Has someone stolen a radio?

Once outside, do what you’ve been taught, and do it in an orderly fashion. If you do get distracted (hey, life isn’t perfect), the risk is skipping something in that general area, so I’d suggest going back two or three steps and start over, not from the beginning, just back maybe a quarter of the way around the airplane.

Be prepared to get dirty. I am not convinced it is physically possible to preflight a piston engine airplane without getting dirty unless you wear gloves—a pair is in my flight bag. Getting dirty ties into the preflight where I slipped up: One has to grab hold of things to make sure they are secure. Grab onto those tailpipes and give them a little shake. If there is a crack, move it enough to spot the crack. Tailpipes have been so badly cracked that they have fallen off in flight, leading to fires; the simple act of laying on of hands prior to launch probably would have identified the problem.

Plenty of Fluids

Do you have enough fuel and is it clean? It sounds pretty basic, but look inside the tank. Take samples from all of the drain points, every one. Do you know where all of the fuel quick-drains are located? It means getting under the airplane in most cases to get the fuel sampled. Some fuel tanks have more than one quick drain. That’s because folks discovered surface tension sometimes prevents water flowing to the lowest point in the tank, especially if the airplane isn’t sitting level. If you get water in a sample, be very suspicious. If it’s a small amount from one quick drain and three or four subsequent samplings from that drain are without water (and you know it is fuel, not water), then things are probably OK. However, if the airplane has been parked out in the rain, or if it was just fueled, or if you get water in two or three samples or from more than one quick drain, stop everything until a mechanic has a look at the system. Get some professional help because airplane engines just don’t appreciate being fed water. You may have a leaking fuel cap (which seems to be the most common source of water), or the fuel you just took on was contaminated (it happens), so get an A & P involved and assure yourself that all of the water is out of the system. It may require that the system be drained and purged. True, it will delay departure—but a slug of water in the engine at the wrong moment may forever delay your arrival.

Make sure that you got the kind of fuel you want; even with all the designed-in safeguards, jet fuel still gets put in piston pounders. Often it happens because the pilot is distracted when the fuel truck appears and starts to load the airplane. The great Bob Hoover was misfueled a number of times in the days he was doing his airshow in the Aero Commander Shrike. I guess line personnel just figured that to get that kind of performance from an airplane it had to have jet fuel in it. More than once he was standing beside the airplane signing autographs when the misfueling took place. He was besieged by fans, one of those minor distractions that we mortals rarely face, but the point is that distractions are how the mistakes slip past us.

Catch all the fuel you drain and either pour it back into the tanks (if it and the sampler cup are clean) or put it into a dedicated container for fuel samples. It’s being done at more and more airports as the potential for contamination of ground water from dumped fuel samples has proven to be greater than was realized in the past.

If you fly an airplane used for training, look down the rows of rivets on the wings and in between the landing gear to make sure they still line up, that the airplane hasn’t been overstressed and broken a rib or other structure.

Make sure the fuel and oil caps are in place. If you fly an airplane that does not have the dipstick co-located with the oil filler cap, check the cap. Often you can see it from the cooling air intakes in the front of the cowling. If the oil cap is off, oil is going to come out of the engine amazingly quickly. It may warn you by appearing on the windshield, but on some airplanes it will simply be blown downward out of the bottom of the cowling. You may or may not get an oil temperature increase and drop in oil pressure before the engine seizes, so check before you go.

It Was Here Last Time …

Are the antennas in place? It’s kind of strange to be looking at the airplane and have that nagging feeling that something is wrong, and then realize that an antenna has departed. I owned a Cardinal that developed an appetite for ELT antennas. They made no noise on departure, so I didn’t realize it until a subsequent preflight where I went through the “I think there’s something missing here” sequence before figuring out that there was an empty space where the ELT antenna used to live.

Look for abrasion or tears on the underside of the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. It’s a spot few people check and I’m surprised how many times I’ve found torn skin from a rock kicked up from the landing gear, especially on airplanes that go into fields that are not always maintained in the peak of condition, which includes paved runways.

Are the landing gear struts properly inflated? A flat strut is not just an inconvenience; it’s a no-go item on most airplanes. A flat nose strut on a Cessna 310 means that the nose gear will retract, but then it will jam in the wheel well and you’ll get to make a landing on the mains and stare at the pretty runway when the nose drops through during rollout.

Are the static sources open? Touch them. If the airplane has been washed and waxed there is a chance that the static source has been plugged.

Touch things. Move the controls through their full range of travel; feel if the brake lines are secure. That doesn’t mean yank on things, but pull gently and see if things are attached well. How are the tires? Any large flat spots? Tread okay? Can you be sure you are going to land softly and smoothly enough for those tires?

How is the prop? Yes, treat it as if it will start when you touch it, but touch it and feel for nicks and its overall condition.

Untie the airplane and get the chocks out of the way. It’s embarrassing to start up and realize that one or more tiedown ropes is still attached or that you didn’t pull the chocks. We’ve all done it, and it’s a symptom of distraction on the preflight. By the way, powering out over the chocks is not one of the wisest things you might do with an airplane. A twin based at my local airport did that, the chocks flipped up into the nose gear well and, as Murphy’s law would have it, did just the right kind of damage to allow the gear to retract but not extend.

A good preflight does not have to take half a day. We use the airplanes because they cut down on travel time, we don’t want to waste it doing an endless preflight. The secret is to devote one’s full attention to the task so that you’re less likely to miss something.

And, paranoid is good, too. There’s nothing to motivate a preflight like the knowledge that the airplane has been tampered with and you have to find it. It does wonders for your level of concentration. With that as a thought, why not have your instructor do a little sabotage on the airplane the next time you do your flight review? It might be a valuable learning experience.

Rick Durden holds a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.

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