Preflight Inspections: It’s What You Don’t See That Can Hurt You

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Preflight Inspections: It’s What You Don’t See That Can Hurt You

Doing an adequate preflight inspection is one of the tenants to good airmanship.
We pride ourselves on knowing every nut, bolt, and screw on our airplanes, but how well do we really do with our preflights?

Let’s examine some of nuances and even some mishaps that have occurred and see how we can all do better.

I think we all worry about that a little bolt in the control system or a loose fuel or oil line – things we can’t often detect with the best of preflights. Are those really causing airplanes to come falling out of the sky?  

I reviewed over 100 NTSB reports relating to preflight inspections and preflight planning. See chart. 31 of these were inadequate preflight inspections and the majority of those were fuel exhaustion. Note:  it was not apparent in the reports if the tanks weren’t filled to the required capacity or if the pilot pushed past his airplanes capability – it is like a mix of both).  So what are we missing?

Complacency as defined by Webster as “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers of deficiencies”. You get too comfortable and you let your guard down. An example could be; you are the only person near the airplane since the last time you flew it, what could be wrong? So you cut corners on the preflight. We have to keep an attitude that I would rather take the time to do a thorough inspection on the ground instead of being up there with a problem wishing I had done a good inspection.

This foils even the professionals. You have a routine and that routine gets broken and something on preflight gets missed – simple. Examples range from access doors to pitot covers to fuel caps. All of these cause issues and can be very dangerous.

Some of the NTSB data I reviewed was pure negligence. There are individual who have no intention of following good procedures. Sadly, these people are not easily reached. If you are reading this, you probably aren’t one of these folks.

Mitigation Strategies

  • Checklists: Actually read and then do the checklist line-by-line. Having good checklist discipline is vital.
  • Repeating tasks if interrupted: If you get interrupted, start over. Go back to the top of the checklist and do everything again. It is time well spent and what’s the rush anyway?
  • Extra walk around (doesn’t have to be a forensic preflight): After you have completed your normal preflight and before you get in the airplane do one last walk around to see the airplane another perspective. You might detect something really big, like a tow bar still installed.
  • Check your attitude. Have an attitude of professionalism vs. I’m too cool to do this petty stuff. Having a good attitude is vitally important.

Confession Time
This is just one of the scenarios that taught me a valuable lesson early in my career. I was giving a ride to a friend in the rental Luscombe. Due to the unreliable nature of the fuel guage, we learned to ignore it; easy to do since it is mounted on the bulkhead behind the seats.

We used a tablet in the glove box to keep track of time and noted when it was fueled last. Since I was the last person to fuel it and I was the last person to fly it, I knew there was gas in the tank.

So I loaded up my passenger and departed for a short 30 minute joy-ride. It was really fun and I actually made a decent landing. No problem. Just like I have done a hundred times.

In fact it wasn’t until I went to top-off the aircraft a little later that I realized how close I was to calamity. I put 13.8 gallons into a 14 gallon tank! I turned white as a ghost. How can this happen? It turns out someone had flown the airplane after me and did not note it in the logs. I accept responsibility, because I could have gotten a ladder and crawled up there and visual checked the fuel – classic complacency. Lesson learned!

We can all work to improve our procedural habits and be more vigilant when it comes to preflight inspections. It’s a small thing to do that can avoid significant consequences.


If you have any good ideas, please post them below in the comments. We love hearing from you!

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