NOT ALL PRE-FLIGHTS ARE CREATED EQUAL
(Acknowledgements: David Fill/AIR FACTS)
“Have you ever walked to your favorite rental plane and had someone else tell you, “It’s all set to fly,” at which point you walk around it from a bit of a distance, hop in and go? After all, is that not how the airlines do it every day? We’ve all been at the airport gate watching a first officer walk around his plane with hands in pockets as though he’s out for a leisurely stroll. It might appear that he doesn’t take the pre-flight seriously but in truth, at that level, inspection is a team effort whose depth depends on many factors.
Your CFI told you a good pre-flight was important
Yes we know it’s boring, and it’s only a means to an end – aren’t we only there to fly? But the inspection will vary according to the type of airplane, where it is parked, and whether recent maintenance has been conducted. So let’s talk about our attitude to it.
One of the positives of owning your own airplane is flying the same one all the time without worrying about the abuse a rented airframe takes. But if anyone other than you has been flying it, it should be treated the same as a rental airplane. You trust your partners and their flying experience, but you don’t know what has happened to the airplane since you last flew it. It’s not unknown to reach a plane and find the prop tips slightly curled over due to a minor prop strike which the previous flyer may not even have noticed.
We all remember our first landings as a student and thus understand the punishment trainers receive, so we should look for wrinkled aircraft skin, prop damage, flat-spotted tyres, gear issues, brakes worn beyond limits etc. In the cockpit, make sure trim settings, flap and gear handles, and important switches for items like carb heaters are in the correct position. Look for general inoperative/unserviceable items arising from normal use, and for things others may have damaged and not realized (or not bothered to report!).
My airplane lives in a hangar, so I can be 99% sure that no one has flown it or had access to it that I didn’t know about; thus my preflight alters from a search for something another person did, to items that may break or wear from general usage. In the cockpit I’m not worried about the position of trim tabs, autopilot settings, or broken or missing items because I know how everything was left the last time. I still follow the POH/AFM, but, rather than examining each rivet and looking for hidden damage, I am more concerned with finding fuel, oil, or hydraulic leaks that can develop when an airplane sits for a while. I also watch for any bird, animal, or insect issues. I used to keep a Piper Arrow in a hangar where birds built a nest and laid eggs on my engine in the eight days that passed between flights!
Post-Maintenance Inspections & Aircraft Parked in the open
Your flight school records when a plane has come out of maintenance, and you should review this and see what’s outstanding and what has been done. Also, check to ensure that annual, 100-hour, or 50-hour inspections are current.
An aircraft after maintenance requires extra attention during inspection. Not only for the first flight, BUT FOR THE NEXT FEW FLIGHTS AS WELL. Numerous pilots have died and aircraft have been lost because inspection panels or cowlings were not secured, tools or rags were left where they shouldn’t be, or gear or control surfaces were not properly rigged. As PIC, you should know what work was done. After a simple oil change, are there leaks, loose cowling catches, or abnormal pressure or temp indications during run-up? If the airplane is just out of an annual, every system on it has been messed with and needs careful inspection.
An airplane parked outside for a while should be looked at with added scrutiny. There is no way of knowing whether the full tanks you had the night before were drained into someone else’s gas cans in the middle of the night; or something clipped the wingtip of the airplane; or a bird’s nest has been undergoing construction inside your engine cowling while you were away. The ultimate goal is to find things that if not repaired, replaced or removed may hurt the airplane, passengers, or crew”.