Preflight Rules to Live By — AviatorCast 129

Why are preflights so important? What happens if you DON’T do one? Let’s take a dive into the reasons we should recommit ourselves to the exercise, getting every flight off on the right foot.

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Flying is an exercise that can seriously penalize you for complacency. Before pilots ever step into an aircraft, they (should) do a preflight. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of all sorts of things that could be wrong with the airplane, perhaps even lending you hopeless with a broken ship while in there air. 

No-one wants that, so we do a thorough preflight, which is a list of items and things to check before accepting that the aircraft is airworthy for flight. 

In this podcast we will discuss:

  • Why a preflight should never be skipped
  • How a preflight eliminates the domino effect in some accidents
  • How a preflight can get you in a safety mindset for the start
  • The way a preflight shows your passengers you care
  • Why having a focused preflight is important
  • How mixing things up now and again is ‘safe’

Preflight is simply one of those things that is inarguably the safest thing you can do to start. Find out why! 


[vc_toggle title=”Episode Transcript”]

On this episode of AviatorCast, preflight rules to live by.

Welcome aviators to another episode of AviatorCast. Load your up flight bag with useful flight training topics, interviews, and aviation passion. Let’s kick the tires and light the fires. Coming to you from Angle of Attack Headquarters in Homer, Alaska. Here’s your host and flight instructor, Chris Palmer.

All right. Welcome aviators to another episode of AviatorCast. I’m really glad that everyone’s here. I’m excited for this subject today. I think it’s something that we probably don’t talk about enough. Or even above and beyond that, it’s just a good reminder.
So have you ever done a preflight only to be interrupted, and then you forgot something? I know I have some pretty crazy stories along those lines. Have you ever not done a preflight on the first flight of the day? A lot of people do the preflight on the first flight of the day, and that’s what they do. Are you rushing through your preflights? Are you feeling like you’re doing partial preflights? Are you feeling like you’re missing things, or just maybe committing the biggest sin of not actually doing it?
So we’re going to go through and talk about preflight rules to live by today, and how you can recommit yourself to doing that preflight, doing it well, and maybe give you some thoughts on ways that you can avoid, I guess, making this become too much of a formality, or too much of a pain in the butt. This is just something you’ve got to do, and I want to point some of things out today.
So I’ve got seven rules here, seven subjects of these preflight rules, and my thoughts will fit within those, so let’s start to go through them one by one. So first off, number one, a preflight should never be skipped. Now, when we go out to the airport, I know that sometimes we’re in a rush, and we want to just get in the plane and go, and there is certainly a lot of people that have done that in the past and they forgot something, and that’s why preflights end up becoming such an important thing, because you just don’t know what has happened to your airplane since the last time you used it.
Yes, even if you are an owner, the airplane’s in a hangar, it is something that you need to take seriously that there could have been something that changed. You never know if a creature crawled in to some space on your plane that could plug something up, or cause a fire. You just don’t know a lot of things. You don’t know what you don’t know. So you should not skip it, no matter the situation that you’re in.
So owning your own plane is one of the reasons, I think, a lot of people skip the preflight, is they think that, “Okay, I’m the only person that has flown it, and therefore there’s not going to be anything that’s happened to it, because I know everything that this plane has been through.” And while that’s a good bit of comfort to know that your plane isn’t really being landed hardly, like a flight-schooler plane. It doesn’t totally remove your liability. So even if you own your own place, you should absolutely take this seriously.
Rented airplanes, rented airplanes or flight-schooler planes. Now, you don’t know what the last person did to the airplane, so you absolutely need to do a preflight. I know that for our flight-schooler plane, I’m the primarily CFI here at our flight school in Homer, Alaska. In fact, it’s my flight school, so I’m the one-trick pony on everything. So on our airplane, we do a preflight every single time. Not only am I trying to build that habit into my students, no matter what level that they’re at, but I also want to make sure that there’s something we didn’t miss. And you don’t know, with airplanes, if something has deteriorated over time, and it’s just the time for that thing to break on that particular flight, so we’re always looking it over, and that gives me a sense of comfort. We’ll talk about that a little bit more here in a few minutes.
But those rented airplanes, or those flight school airplanes, you just don’t know what they’ve been through, so you’ve got to be really careful to make sure that you do the preflight. And even if you own the airplane, you need to do the preflight. So that’s what we’re covering here with number one, is a preflight should never be skipped. And so, commit yourself to making sure that you do not skip that preflight, that you just do it. It takes five minutes and you have that peace of mind that dovetails into number two, which is a preflight eliminates the aircraft domino effect.
So we know as pilots that a lot of the accidents that happen … or let’s say ballpark of 80% to 90%, which is very close, 80% to 90% of the accidents that happen are pilot error. Now, the other 10% is a mix of different factors from things that are weather-based, but also mechanically-based. So we’re talking about mechanically-based accidents. Those are things that are wrong with the airplane. So what we want to do is we want to eliminate the aircraft component of that risk. So by looking at the airplane, whether it’s our airplane, or a rented airplane, or a flight school airplane, we are making sure that we remove the risk of something actually being wrong with the airplane, so that then we aren’t in a position to where we have to get the airplane on the ground, or go through some sort of emergency, or have something to deal with that is stressing us out even more, adding even more risk to the flight.
So we want to eliminate that, first and foremost. And I can tell you right now that you really do find things in the preflight. As you go along and you check for things, you will find stuff over time. There are … I would say that very rarely is it a major issue, and that’s what makes it even more difficult with finding things during the preflight, is it’s usually just the tiniest, smallest stuff that we miss. And we get used to seeing the airplane time and time again, especially if it’s the same airplane, or the same airplane type, that we tend to continually look over certain parts of the airplane just because they’re habit. Our eyes are moving across a certain part of the plane. We think we’re checking it, but are we really looking? So I think that’s a big component of it.
So eliminating that entire aircraft component from that domino effect that leads to accidents is very, very important. And some crazy things have happened. I just, out of memory, pulled up some crazy stories of things like the flight controls being reversed. We have a couple opportunities to check and make sure that that is working correctly. In smaller airplanes, general aviation, we can see the flight controls moving. They do check the flight controls on airliners as well. They have usually a display that shows how the flight controls are moving, even though that’s a completely different system.
In ours, we have a set of pulleys and cables that are … were actually directly connected to the flight controls, and it can be easy, if not looked over properly, for a mechanic to switch that. So you can imagine that if you were going to go fly, especially talking about pitch, and pushing down was actually going to push the nose up and you weren’t ready for that, there have been some fairly prominent accidents of that happening, and there’s just too little time for that muscle memory that’s so ingrained within you to understand and make it work. Because really, if that nose is going up uncommanded, well, you are … you have all the training within you to just keep pushing forward, and that’s just going to make the situation even worse. So that has happened before in the past of those controls actually being reversed.
I’ve heard of people putting sand in other people’s fuel tanks, so we always check for quantity and quality of fuel during the preflight. Recently, here in Alaska, there was a string of fuel theft, and a lot of the pilots were trying to find out who it was. I think they eventually did find out who it was. I’m not sure if there is any criminal charges or anything, but they were taking fuel from people’s airplanes. And if you can imagine, you go to fuel up your plane and you only leave for a few hours, because you were filling it up earlier. You’re going to fly in that afternoon or something. And you come back and you say, “Oh yeah, I fueled it earlier,” you just jump in and you don’t look at even the gauges. Say that you skip looking at the actual fuel levels in the tanks, that’s a dangerous situation. I couldn’t imagine. And you can get in a pretty precarious situation very quickly with something like that.
There have been people that have taken off, or tried to take off with the entire tail missing. So the vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilizer, the rudder, the elevator, which is just … it’s hilarious. I mean, really? You were that blind that you didn’t see the tail missing from your airplane? These are real stories.
And of course, this is just another one I put in here, a ton of water from, say, a thunderstorm, which just drops a ton of water, we know that, that can get into your tank and cause water contamination within your fuel, and that can cause a big issue as well. And that storm, again, could have been between you filling it up and flying just a few hours later.
So what we want to do to remove that domino effect of the aircraft is we want to just remove it entirely. We want to do a thorough preflight and just remove it from the risk equation and make sure that we are being safe, that we’re not going to have aircraft issues, or at least we’re trying to eliminate as many of those things as possible, so that if it ever did come to an emergency, we are certainly getting rid of the big things, like missing a tail, or the controls being reversed, or fuel issues. We’re getting rid of the big killers, and maybe there are some other things like flight controls being stuck, but we can still do some things to turn the airplane, or pitch the airplane.
Anyway, just trying to remove as much of those big risk factors as possible, when it comes to mechanical issues from the aircraft. And then, once you’ve done that, you can focus on the actual big component of potential aircraft accidents, which is you and your decision making, and that’s a completely different subject, because you get to decide if you fly. You get to decide if you go in bad weather. You get to decide if you stay on the ground. It’s all up to you at the end of day as the pilot in command. So that was number two, a preflight eliminates the aircraft domino effect.
Number three, a preflight gets you in the safety mindset first. And I think this is maybe the golden rule of all of this. So when you approach the airplane and you’re getting into the flight for the first part of the day, you are starting in one place and that is at the airplane. And technically, actually, you would start with your preflight preparation, cross-country planning, briefings, all that, but if you approach the airplane with this mindset that you are going to be focused on safety from the very first moment, then I think that sets a precedent of how the entire flight is going to go from there.
If you are casual about safety and you just brush over all of this, there’s a chance you’re going to be casual about safety while you’re in the air as well. So I think we set the tone very early in our flight, each individual flight on how we are going to fly safely that day, and that starts with the preflight. And then from there, you can just build, and build, and build and become even safer, and that’s really what we want to get after, is we just want to start with that attitude of a safety mindset from the very beginning, from walking up to the airplane for the first time, doing a preflight and starting it the right way. So that is number three, a preflight gets you in the safety mindset first.
This is another big one, number four. A preflight shows your passengers that you care. So I flew with some people from my church, beginning of this summer or last summer, I just flew them locally, just several minutes across the bay, but I went through my thing. I went to the aircraft. I did the preflight. They were standing there waiting to go, and I take 10 minutes to do everything, and walk around, and check every little component, even though I was the last one to fly the airplane, and we live in a town that has very low crime rate, and the airplane is fenced in, so a lot of the factors that could maybe potentially hurt my airplane were already gone, but I still did it, because that’s what I do.
And I just remember that my friend, he actually didn’t tell me, he might have told me but I just brushed it off, but he told someone else that I was the safest pilot he had ever flown with, because he’d flown with some other people that would literally just get to the plane and jump in and go, and that’s not how I learned. That’s not how I teach my students. I don’t think that’s a safe thing to do. There are just way too many things that don’t give you a fighting chance if you don’t eliminate them, like fuel, and flight controls, and a bunch of these things we can check in the preflight that are very important. So I just thought that was an interesting thing, that he noticed that as a disparity from what other people had done.
So anyway, so a preflight shows your passengers that you care. And a lot of passengers are unlike us. They don’t have the flight experience to really know that this is a pretty safe thing if you are good at what you do. But they just gain a lot of comfort from knowing that you’re taking safety seriously. So them actually being able to watch you and see you do that is very helpful for them. You can even explain to them what you’re doing as you’re doing it. And you got to be a little careful there, because I think you could freak people out. You don’t want to be like, “Oh yeah, if these control cables get crossed, we’re going to take off and we could die if I don’t check this stuff.” That’s not the attitude you want to have, but just show that you’re being methodical about each little thing, taking your time.
So that is big for your passengers, because it could be the catalyst of a nervous flier actually having a great time, to see that your a conscientious pilot and you are going through the safety things seriously, so it’s actually really important for them to do it. So there’s just one last thought on this, that even if you have done the preflight already, say like 20 minutes before, well, literally, right before, and then your passengers show up, you could actually do the theatrics of doing it again just so they see, if you know that you have a nervous flier.
Now, I think that’s a little bit different. I think we don’t have to be showy about this. But if you do have a nervous flier, you could definitely show them how everything is working, what you’ve checked. If nothing else, you just want to talk to them about what you’ve already done, but it is very helpful for people to actually see you do that.
And the number rule is to actually do it in the first place, and you’re doing it to be safe. You’re not doing it for other people’s benefit, but you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and then the theatrics of it, if you need to comfort someone, can help out with that. So that’s number four, showing passengers that you care, that you’re taking this seriously is something I think helps out a whole lot.
Preflight should be focused. And I think this is interesting because I have forgotten things before. I have one prime example that actually happened to me several … gosh, a year or so ago. I think it was January 2018 it happened, actually. Anyway. So I had a discovery flight with a student. And a discovery flight, you do a lot of talking, you do a lot of salesmanship, kind of, you’re talking a lot about aviation, and you’re being friendly. This person is coming to you. They want to fly and you want to talk to them about it. You want to get them excited. And so, I just happened to be doing my preflight at the same time, which wasn’t a good idea. I wasn’t focused on what I was doing and the distractions got in the way.
Now, I was also replenishing the oil at the time. I was putting in a quart of oil and I left the oil … I got done putting the oil in. I put about a quart. I think just put a whole quart in. Took the bottle out, screwed the cap on, and then I put the bottle, just automatically, put the bottle in the back of the … the empty bottle in the back of the plane, or threw it in my truck or something, and went and flew.
Now, I come back and I have oil down the side of the plane outside the passenger … or the left side of the plane where the door is for my airplane. I had forgotten to put the dipstick, or the oil cap rather, it was the oil cap because I was replenishing, so I had forgotten to put the oil cap … screwed it back on. It’s tethered with a little metal thing, so it was just sitting there in the plane. It wasn’t going to really hurt anything that way, but I had blown out just a little bit of oil. It was only like a quarter of a quart, little bit of oil. I’m sure that it could be more dramatic on other airplanes, depending on what you do.
So it wasn’t a lot of oil, but it was so messy. Oh my gosh. A quarter or a quart, and it was everywhere, in every little crevice of the cowling and down the side is such a little small amount of oil, but it just dispersed everywhere. And I let myself get distracted during that preflight and I forgot that item. Who knows what else I forgot to look at because that was the mindset I was in. I mean, it just … I didn’t do that well at it. So that’s a good reminder. I’ve done that before and it seems to happen to me once a decade where I just do something so stupid like that, and then I have to recommit myself to doing this right, and really taking a step back and being like, “You know what? Yeah. I’ve had a lot of flights today but I need to be careful and look again.”
So I learned some things from that and thought more about the preflight again that distractions can’t be in the way. It’s better to do all of that before my passengers even get there. If I have a student, it’s good that I stand by their side. I don’t interrupt them too much. I don’t try to teach too much, but we actually do look at it. If I do get interrupted, it’s okay to start again. I can just go through the entire thing again, and I’ve done that a lot since that incident several years ago. So just start it again. Go back to the beginning and start the whole process again. It’s really easy to skip those things, especially when they’re habitual.
And I think that’s what brings me to the next point, which is number six. I actually have the numbers wrong here. We just have six of them. Which brings me to number six, is a preflight should be more than memory. So I’m big about a flow in a preflight, so when I do a preflight I start at a certain place on the airplane, and I basically do a pattern around the airplane. I start at the cowling and the oil because that takes a little bit of time. Actually, I do my fuel first, then I do the oil, that takes a little bit of time, then I move around the perimeter of the airplane checking all the different control surfaces. And anyway, yes, everything.
So I do it from memory in a flow. That’s how I like to checklists, and then I’ll check the checklist after. However, if you do things like that too often, you get into what’s called confirmation bias and you think that things are correct but you’ve just seen it a million times correct, and so you don’t actually see it when it’s incorrect. So it’s smart to mix it up. Start in a new location. Do it the opposite direction. Just mix it up a little bit to make sure that you are not skipping anything, and then making sure that you are using that checklist along with your flow to make sure that you’re doing it right. So that’s essentially how I do a preflight. I’m just … I’m basically just breaking down for you how I do a preflight myself.
So I walk up to the airplane. I take it very seriously right from the get go. I know I’m going to do it, even if I’m in a rush, whatever, I’m a little later than I thought I’d be, whatever, or the flight lesson is a little shorter. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to do the preflight. That’s my attitude going in. I check the fuel first because the quality of the fuel, which is if there’s any contamination or water in it, can take some time to get out, so I check that right away. And I check the quantity of the fuel, because the quantity can be time consuming. It can take time for me to fill up tanks. If you are a place where you need to call someone out to get the fuel, do the fuel, then it take a little while to do that. You might be waiting a half hour, so I want to do that right away because those time consuming things can be working in the background, if I need to call a truck to come out while I’m finishing the rest of the preflight.
So I start with fuel. I have to start with fuel because that’s the most important thing in my entire preflight. I cannot, and will not, and do not want to run out of fuel, or have contamination that causes fuel starvation in the airplane, so I start there. Then I go to oil because I might need to replenish the oil. That takes a little bit of time to drain into the airplane, into the engine, so I do oil. I’m really focused on that to make sure that while I’m in there, I screw the cap on. I take out the canister, if I’ve done that. I check everything else within the cowlings, since I’m already there. I make sure that there aren’t any sprays of oil. And then I shut that door, check that, that’s all good.
And now I’m starting with the flight controls and everything else. As I move from there to the pitot static, look up at the pitot tube, static port rather, look up at the pitot tube, fuel drain vent, moving along the wing to check its condition, make sure that no one has bumped it, nothing’s wrong with that, everything structurally looks fine.
Move around the tip, make sure that’s all good. We can do a light check. I don’t do a light check on every flight. I know that might not be kosher, but I have LED lights, which they don’t really burn out. I’m very careful about checking lights in the winter because it can drain my battery very quickly. So if it’s a night flight, I’ll treat that a little bit differently, but I’m careful with my lights not to cause other issues. So I check the lights. Move around the back, check the alerion, not only the attaching hardware, which is a big thing, the attaching hardware, and the screws, and the cotter pins, but also the counterbalance weights, make sure no one bumped that.
Move to the flaps. The flaps should have already been put down. Walking up the airplane. Make sure that they’re tracking symmetrically, that there’s not part of it that’s off the rail. Make sure the attaching hardware there is good. Then I move down to the wheel and check the brakes, the tire condition, and anything else there that I want to look at. There are lots of things to look at on the wheel, the tire, and the brake, and even the strut. Would you call it a strut? The spring, the landing gear leg, whatever, there’s a lot of different things that you could call it. But that’s more … better seen when you’re standing in front of your plane looking squarely at it to see if it’s listing at all, if someone landed it really hard and bent something.
And then I move along the fuselage, check that condition. Move back to the elevator … or the horizontal stabilizer first. Make sure that’s good. And then to the elevator, make sure that’s attached. Trim [inaudible 00:25:39], make sure that’s attached. Rudder, the cables there. Any place that something is attached, I’m checking.
And then the other side of the airplane is basically the same. And of course, checking the propeller, any nicks, or dents, or cracks, spinner, anything inside the cowling, air filter’s clear, strut has some give in it, nose wheel’s good, scissors are good, steering arms are good. So lots of different things, just from memory, that are … I’m visualizing coming up, but that’s what I’m checking as I’m going through. You’ll do your own thing. You’ll bring up the checklist. You’ll back that up. And really, it’s this attitude of going in and absolutely doing it.
So these are my closing thoughts on this. You’ve got to do your preflight. You have to. You’ve got to eliminate that. Because if you don’t, then something could creep up on you in the air that is really not good to deal with, and it could push you beyond your ability to control the airplane, to know what’s going on, to even your skills, beyond your skills. So we want to eliminate as much we possibly can from our risk factors by doing a preflight. And I can tell you right now, I catch just little things all the time, because I’m always doing it. I don’t want to be catching the big catastrophic things. It’s great if I do. That’s why I’m doing it. But it’s usually just the little things that come up. Don’t compromise. If you’re in a rush, there is no meeting, no thing you can’t be 10 minutes later for. I don’t care what it is. Even a birth. Better you’re there alive than late, or not there at all, or dead.
So nothing you can’t be late for. And really, you’ve already made mistakes there in how much time you actually gave yourself to do a critical mission. If you’re actually trying to fly to a birth of a child, you’ve actually made a big mistake already. You shouldn’t do that. Not in my … I don’t think you should do that. That’s called external pressures. It’s just not good to have extra stuff on top of you.
So do it. Make it a habit. Don’t compromise. And then my big three things I’m checking for, the fuel, the oil, and all the attaching hardware. So I want to make sure my engine is healthy. I want to make sure it continues to run. Needs oil to stay lubricated to do that and stay cool. Here, the cool factor isn’t such a huge issue because we do get a lot of air cooling, just because of the climate. Fuel, I want the engine to run, and stay running, and stay running for the amount of time that I think it should stay running because of the amount of fuel that I have. Fuel is huge. And then, attaching hardware. That goes for a lot of stuff, all the different controls and things. These are the big things that just … If these aren’t in place, you could have a situation where you cannot control the airplane. And of course, checking the engine, the propeller, I think is huge as well.
So those are my big three, fuel, oil, and attaching hardware. Attaching hardware actually goes for everything else, how the prop is attached, how the nose wheel’s attached, the wheels, everything, the control surfaces, everything. It’s so, so important.
So that is it. I hope you guys enjoyed that. I hope that inspired you to take your preflights more seriously. If you’re just starting out in aviation, I hope that set the stage well for a career of safe preflights that you can do thoroughly on some flights. And then if you are flying that and doing it for a living, yeah, you can do an abbreviated preflight, in some ways, after you know it’s just right, but you got to be really on top of it.
So I hope that inspires you to do really well at your preflights, eliminate that and start your flight on the right foot, start it safely. So in this video, comment with your favorite time code and what you liked best about this podcast. It helps us know what kind of content you guys like and we’d really appreciate that.
Also, if you enjoy the podcast and our other content, like our pictures and things we do online, think about supporting us through our training courses. I’ve got online ground school to help you pass the written test and you get you ready for flight training. That’s a huge part of your training. And then I’ve got Checkride ACE for checkride preparation.[/vc_toggle]


Chris Palmer

Chief Flight Instructor and President of Angle of Attack. Founded in 2006.


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