WHEN YOUR PREFLIGHT IS INTERRUPTED
BY JASON BLAIR, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA DESIGNATED PILOT EXAMINER, AGI
Most of us have a flow we use when we are preflighting. It becomes a habit, and habits are good and bad. The good is that we get used to doing it and it generally means we are less likely to miss things. The bad is that if we get interrupted, those habits tend to leave us out of sequence, and it becomes easier to miss things.
What kinds of things might interrupt our preflight, you might be thinking?
Well, how about the fuel truck showing up to fill the tanks while you are halfway through the inspection. Maybe your passengers arrive with their baggage that you load before finishing your walk around. Or worse, some mean old DPE who distracts you in the middle of that preflight during your practical test. These and numerous other potential occurrences can leave a pilot out of sequence where they might miss something on a preflight inspection.
Most Commonly Missed Preflight ItemsFuel caps, chocks, towbars, open oil doors, and open baggage doors tend to be the most missed preflight items. All of these are things a pilot checks for that might get interrupted and missed. Sure, there are lots more, but taking a step back from the airplane before a final boarding can be a good way to help maximize the potential of catching these missable inspection moments.
I have seen pilots in numerous instances forget common preflight items. Many of them have happened on practical tests I have given. Towbars and chocks left in place can be easily seen, it would seem, but are all too commonly forgotten. In both cases, once an engine is started or a taxi is begun, they can do significant damage to the aircraft.
Fuel caps not being tightened down can result in fuel starvation and exhaustion accidents if not noticed, or at best, a long search next to a runway to find the cap that went bouncing away as you taxied or started your takeoff. They can also be costly to replace if not found.
Forgetting to latch down that oil dipstick or the filler cap, or leaving (and yes, I have seen this) an oil funnel or even bottle in the engine can generate one heck of a mess, quickly. If not caught before departure, they can result in catastrophic engine problems if enough oil leaves the system.
In one memorable moment, I was flying with a student and offered to add a quart of oil for him in the C172 we were going to fly. It was an older 172 that had a separate filler neck and dipstick. I got the dipstick back in place but forgot to put the cap back on the filler neck after adding the quart of oil. The good news was that we had a shorter flight, and we didn’t lose enough oil to cause an engine problem. But we certainly lost enough oil to need to add another quart at the end of the flight and I got to clean up the oil that covered the pilot side of the aircraft from the cap being off during the flight. Never trust your instructor, I guess.
A missed opportunity to fully latch or lock a baggage door can end up causing some major problems depending on where the baggage compartment is located. For many light aircraft, a rear baggage door will flap and bang if it is not latched and comes open during flight. You might even lose some baggage. In the case of aircraft with front baggage lockers, not latching them can cause dislodged contents to hit the airframe, the propellers, or engines (more commonly on multi-engine aircraft) and cause damage. The couple of times I have seen this in person resulted in very expensive bills to fix the damage done. If there is a baggage area, make sure it is latched. If the latch locks, do that too. I have seen latches fail.
When in Doubt, Stop or Return to Base
If you are doubting your preflight or just have that gut feeling you might have missed something – stop! Break the chain of events that could lead to worse outcomes. Even if you must shut down in a runup area and check something, do it. You can also taxi back to your hangar or ramp and check things you think you might have missed. A few minutes to re-check and make sure might seem silly if you find you did everything, but it also might be a very welcome opportunity to not make a problem happen.
I vividly remember the nagging feeling in my gut one night in my Stinson when I honestly couldn’t remember if I had latched the cowl back down. It started with flying to a friend’s airport for some night currency for him and me plugging in a heater that I put on the oil pan of my Stinson while we were out flying his Seneca. The extension cord was run from the plane to the hangar, and I put some blankets over the cowl. When we returned, I unhooked the magnetic heater, wound up the cord, and shoved the blankets in the back of my plane. But I got sidetracked at some point and forgot to latch down the right cowling. I didn’t remember that until I had started up and was doing the run-up. By then I was second-guessing myself.
Did I latch that cowl? I must have, right? I mean, if I hadn’t, while I was doing the runup it would have been rattling, right?
I should have listened to my gut.
It wasn’t until I was about 3 miles away from the airport after taking off that the cowl fluttered up, confirming I hadn’t latched it. Did I mention this was in the dark at night? Even better.
Fortunately, the cowl settled down and I made a slow turn back to the airport where I landed, taxied off, and secured my cowl before again taking off and heading home with my tail between my legs.
Pride was hurt, and there were fortunately only a couple of small bends in a corner of the cowling that my mechanic had to address, but I was reminded personally and vividly that an interrupted preflight can lead to missed items.
Depending on the make and model of aircraft you are operating, there are lots more things that can be missed. Some aircraft have much more intensive pre-flight inspection needs than others.
If you are preflighting and get interrupted, be sure to come back to your flow. Use a checklist, and if needed, start over. The preflight process is there for a reason, it keeps us from missing something that might cause a danger to flight if not caught. Don’t dismiss that potential if you are interrupted.
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Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with a focus on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications, a full listing of which can be found at www.jasonblair.net.
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