A pitot cover left on, control surface locks still in place, a luggage door hanging open, a tie-down rope still fastened to the aircraft. These are sample oversights that come about from an inattentive and undisciplined pre-flight check.
Most often, lapses such as the above result in inconvenience: switching off of the engine, then hopping out of the aircraft to correct the offending preparatory miscue. However, while an aircraft may not get far while still pegged to the ground, some have managed to get airborne, or nearly so, with these other slip-ups having gone undetected. In a worst-case scenario, the consequences can be fatal, and examples exist to prove the latter point.
Prior to every flight, a systematic inspection of the airplane should be carried out. Every manufacturer recommends procedures to most effectively do this. While the general inspection items described below apply to just about every small aircraft, pilots should follow the specific guidelines described by the manufacturer of the aircraft in which they’re about to fly.
Start in the cockpit. Drop the flaps to 20 degrees to allow for a thorough visual check of the flaps during the ensuing walk-around. Then, ensure that the battery and ignition switches are off, and that the control locks are removed. For retractables, make sure that the landing gear switch is in its down position.
Start your checks around the fuselage. Check that the contents inside the baggage compartment are secured and appropriately placed within the limits of the aircraft’s centre of gravity. Then, make sure that the baggage door is closed and locked.
Static ports along the fuselage should be checked to ensure that they’re free of obstructions. The fuselage itself should be scrutinized for loose or missing rivets or fasteners. Whether the aircraft is metal, composite or fabric, look for cracks or tears in the aircraft’s covering.
Make sure avionics antennae are properly mounted and secure. Anti-collision and navigation lights should be checked for their condition and security.
Remove control locks from the tail. Check the mobility of the rudder and elevator while also focussing attention on the state of hinge pins, the security of bolts, and the presence of cotter pins. If there’s dents, cracks or excess play, now is the time to identify the issues.
Control surface locks must come off the wings. Look for dents, cracks or excess play in flaps and ailerons. Move your fingers over hinge pins, bolts and cotter pins here too: make sure nothing is loose, worn or missing. If the wing surface is wrinkled, warped, cracked or rippled, identify it now. Check the navigation lights, and check the stall-warning vane for freedom of movement. Make sure wing leading edges are clean and free of bugs and contamination.
Have a look at the landing gear. Verify the condition of tires (for pressure and tread wear), wheels, fluid lines, fittings and brakes. Make sure oleos and shock struts are clean and properly extended. Check the condition of wheel fairings: ensure they’re secure and free of mud or ice. Remove wheel chocks.
Move on to the fuel tanks. Visually check the quantity and grade of fuel. Ensure that fuel caps fit securely. Drain a sufficient amount of fuel into a container to check for water or sediment. Make sure that the drain cocks don’t drip fuel.
Check the engine compartment, and verify the engine’s oil quantity. Look at the condition of the cowling, its access doors and cowl flaps. Check for cracks in the exhaust stack, and ensure that studs are tight. Make sure spark plug terminals are secure. Engine mounts must be free of cracks and firmly bolted in place. Drain fuel from the gascalator to check for water or sediment. Look for any loose wires.
Inspect the propeller. Make sure that the spinner is secure. Look for nicks and scratches in the propeller blades, and remove any loose stones from underneath the prop that could damage the propeller on engine start up.
Remove the cover from the pitot. Check for any blockage in its orifice, and make sure it’s properly aligned.
Finally, having done a complete check around the aircraft, check the cabin. Anything loose should be secured. The windshield should be checked for cleanliness and cracks. Seatbelts should be firmly in place, and unused belts should be fastened in unoccupied seats. Fire extinguishers should be at full capacity, a first aid kit should be accessible, and an ELT should be armed and secured in its mounting. Mandatory documents must be on board, as should all cockpit checklists.
Every airplane is different. And, every pilot should have their own sequence for conducting pre-flight checks. Every aircraft owner, too, knows best the nuances of their aircraft. Be thorough with your pre-flight checks. No matter how many times you fly, stick to the same inspection routine each and every time. The pre-flight is no place for complacency.