From the first day of your training, you are exposed to the retinue of a thorough preflight inspection. Taking the time to inspect your aircraft, both inside and out, can prevent everything from an embarrassing situation to a fatal accident.
No matter your experience or certificate level, a preflight is an integral part of your routine. You can stand at the window in an airline terminal and see pilots making their methodical walks, checking various components before launching on yet another flight. The professionalism required of us as aviators means we always take the time to ensure a safe flight for ourselves and our passengers.
A Proper Preflight
To start with, is there a “best” way to preflight? While there are many techniques different pilots may utilize when preflighting, one standardized source of information is your Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) or Aircraft/Rotorcraft Flight Manual (AFM/RFM). Since the standardization of aircraft manuals by the FAA around the GAMA (General Aviation Manufacturers Association) format, the manufacturer-approved preflight procedure can always be found in Section 4 of a POH.
Preflighting begins before even showing up at the aircraft. What is your personal condition and are you ready for flight? The FAA uses the “IMSAFE” checklist as a measure of pilot readiness, but you may go even further with your own personal limitations. Schweizer lists the first item in the prelight section of the Model 300 helicopter as “have a thorough understanding of operating limitations” – have you reviewed the limitations for your aircraft lately, especially if you are flying multiple?
The Preflight Method
Once you’re at the aircraft and you’ve secured your personal belongings, grab the appropriate checklist as a reference for your preflight inspection. When you’re new to an aircraft type it can provide a step-by-step guide for everything to check during your inspection and as you build familiarity it can serve as a true checklist to ensure you haven’t missed any steps.
During your first flights, utilize your instructor as a resource for checking items, especially things you may be unfamiliar with. Items like cotter pins, pitch links, and oleo struts are unfamiliar to many without an aviation background and knowing what to look for – and what is not acceptable – is key to ensuring your aircraft is ready for a safe flight.
If something appears to be missing, or you are unsure of the condition of a particular item, bring it to the attention of an instructor or mechanic. It may be something that is a non-issue or could be the indicator of a larger problem. Either way, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing it’s been seen.
Finally, remember the professionalism we mentioned at the beginning of the article. It can be easy, especially as your experience builds, to overlook items during preflight you may consider minor. Holding yourself to a high standard shows both yourself and your colleagues you take safety seriously and prevents any unwanted experiences with an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector.
The Potential Consequences
A search of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) website for “inadequate preflight inspection” will result in over 500 results. Taking a look at some of these accidents, from minor to fatal, gives a sober reminder of the potential results of skipping the preflight.
- In 1987, a Beech HA-1 (a modification of the Beech 18), crashed shortly after taking off from Memphis International Airport. The pilot had failed to remove the aircraft’s tail stand (designed to prevent it from tipping backward during cargo loading) and had departed with it attached. During a low level, tight turn back to the airport, the aircraft stalled and crashed, killing the pilot.
- In 2003, a homebuilt RV-6 crashed during takeoff in North Carolina. The pilot had secured the flight controls by using the passenger-side seat belt to hold the control stick in its full aft and centered position. During the preflight and taxi sequence, he failed to release the seat belt or perform a flight control check. The aircraft lifted off prematurely, stalled, and spun, though fortunately the pilot sustained only minor injuries.
- In 2018, a helicopter belonging to the North Carolina Highway Patrol was destroyed following a dynamic rollover while lifting off of its helipad. The pilot was in the process of preflighting when a passenger interrupted him to ask a question. Resuming the preflight, the pilot neglected to remove a hold-down strap securing the helicopter to its ground transporter.
In 2010, a Cessna 182 crashed in Virginia following a loss of engine power during cruise. The NTSB noted that the pilot parked the aircraft outside regularly with approximately half-full fuel, a prime condition for condensation to build in the tanks. When asked if he sumped the fuel before flight, the pilot said he did not because he was “in a hurry”.
Finally, in a 2012 accident that became fairly well-known due to its entire sequence being filmed and ending up on YouTube, a Stinson 208 crashed in Idaho following a hot day, high altitude takeoff. The NTSB cited his “inadequate preflight planning and decision to takeoff…outside of the airplane’s takeoff performance envelope”.
Though these accidents involved mistakes, carelessness, or undue risks, all could have been prevented by a thorough preflight.
To Sum it Up
No matter the need to depart, a thorough preflight – on every flight – is a smart decision and a worthwhile use of time. Taking a few moments to verify both you and your aircraft are ready for the flight is a mark of professionalism. Having a knowledgeable instructor at a who takes the time to thoroughly flesh out the preflight process and the systems of your particular aircraft is a major benefit, as is a top-tier flight school that encourages the same.
No matter your aviation career goals, every flight you undertake will require you and your aircraft to be ready and a proper preflight of both can ensure your flights go off without a hitch.