Every day around the world thousands of private pilots enjoy the experience of flying light aircraft. Some will go no further than a short journey in the local area around their home airfield while others will make longer journeys to airfields and airports hundreds of miles away and even across long stretches of open water.
Each of these pilots will, to one degree or another, carry out a sequence of checks that prepare both themselves and the aircraft for flight. How many checks are carried out will depend on a variety of factors. For example, how recently was the aircraft flown and when was the last time the pilot was PIC (Pilot In Command) of an aircraft? It will also depend on the airmanship of the pilot.
Whatever the aircraft type and whether you’re a student pilot or a veteran aviator with many hundreds of hours in your log book there are some standard checks that should be carried out before every flight. Even if some of them can be discounted without further attention the mental process of working through them and the physical process of walking around the aircraft will improve your airmanship and may one day save your life.
There are two mains sets of checks that can be carried out. The first set comprises the considerations of the pilot’s physical, mental, and emotional state. Fatigue, anxiety, and emotional upsets can all adversely affect the pilot’s ability to react and respond to emergencies as well as his or her concentration during flight planning. If the pilot dispenses with traditional navigational tools such as the map, ruler, pencil and stopwatch and relies instead on GPS and other electronic aids then the selection process and data input require concentration if navigational errors are to be avoided.
During this first stage of preparation the pilot will also complete the flight planning in which he/she will decide upon the best route to the destination taking into account terrain, airspace restrictions, and weather. For extended journey the pilot will also choose an alternate destination airfield should the weather deteriorate en route. He/she will also check NOTAMS and other sources of information for any news about temporary restrictions or warnings about unusual activity.
The second set of checks comprises the sequence of checks carried out on the aircraft itself. This is commonly called the ‘walk around’ as it involves just that; a walk around the aircraft while working through the aircraft’s check list. This will be either memorized by the more experienced pilot or carried about by the student or less experienced pilot. Just as each aircraft type has its own POH (Pilot’s Operating Handbook) so too will each type have its own checklist, but the basic principle is the same i.e. is the aircraft ready for flight?
Pre-flight checks on aircraft will include such things as; checking the overall aircraft structure, checking that the air vents and pitot tube are free from obstruction, checking the tires for signs of wear and tyre-creep, checking the propeller for any sign of damage or wear, checking the linkages on all moveable surfaces for signs of wear or breakage, and checking the levels of engine oil and fuel.
The cockpit will contain fuel gauges but these cannot be relied upon for one hundred percent accuracy and it is much preferable to visual check to level of fuel in the tanks. On a low wing aircraft this can easily be done by removing the fuel filler cap on the wing and using a tip stick, but on high wing aircraft like a Cessna a step ladder is required. Fuel checks also include draining water from the wing tanks. Water contamination of fuel is a common problem caused by the condensation that occurs on the walls of the wing tanks, but water is heavier than aviation fuel so it gathers at the lowest point of the tank where it can be drained off.
If the pilot is satisfied that he/she is ready for flight and that the aircraft is serviceable and prepared then there additional checks to be carried out depending upon the type of flight to be undertaken. For example, does the aircraft contain the necessary emergency equipment needed for flights over remote areas or over water?
Pre-flight checks can sometimes seem laborious and tedious to those eager to get aloft and enjoy a few hours’ flight but they needn’t be a chore. Repetition and practice will soon speed up the process and completing them will mentally prepare the pilot for flight. Treating the checks as part of the flight will not only make flying safer for pilots and their passengers but will also train the mind to be alert and increase the confidence of student and veteran pilots alike.
Ben Lovegrove is a keen amateur aviator whose blog Aviate, Navigate, Communicate contains many other tips, reviews, and news about aviation.