The dreaded pre-flight, and how to do it well

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I’ve never liked the pre-flight inspection. It’s like the salad course before a steak dinner–sure, it’s good for you, but all it does is prevent you from getting to the good stuff. I can still remember my very first lesson as a 15-year old, desperate to get up in the air. But instead of blasting off like Tom Cruise, my instructor took me out and walked me through a brutal, 15-minute inspection of the airplane. Like I cared about an exhaust manifold? I wanted to fly!
Pre-flight inspection
If I could go back and give the 15-year old me some advice, it would be short and sweet: “Get over it.” While no one dreams of becoming a pilot so they can sump fuel, the pre-flight inspection is a critical safety habit for all pilots. If 20,000 hour airline pilots do it before every flight, we mere mortals should probably do it too.

That doesn’t mean I spend 20 minutes before every flight, checklist in hand, opening up the cowl on the airplane. My pre-flight routine has evolved as I’ve gained experienced and transitioned into new airplanes. But I try to follow a ritual every time I fly, and I try to approach it with seriousness.

Every pilot’s checklist will probably be different for a pre-flight, but here are some general tips that have served me well:

  • Have a sterile pre-flight rule. Professional pilots talk about the “sterile cockpit rule,” where the crew can only talk about essential flight information below 10,000 ft. That means no jokes about the local baseball team while you’re taxiing to the runway. It’s a great idea to do the same thing during pre-flight, where there are even more potential distractions. Here’s one of the worst (and most common) scenarios: just as you take the cap off the fuel tank, your cell phone rings and you answer it, instantly distracting you from the job at hand. You might remember to put the fuel cap back on, but you might not. Try to make your pre-flight a time of real focus–no cell phones, no chatting with passengers and no distractions. It’s hard, but it’s really important.
  • Have an attitude of curiosity. In other words, don’t go through the motions. Some pilots do a pre-flight, but don’t really look at anything. There’s a joke about a pilot turning on the master switch to check the fuel gauges, but not bothering to notice that the fuel gauges were empty. He was looking, but not seeing. The only way to combat this complacency is to have a positive attitude that views the pre-flight as a chance to discover something or learn a new fact about your airplane. Don’t just look at parts of the airplane; look at them and ask yourself what you’re really supposed to see. Be curious.
  • Know the killer items. A good pre-flight means inspecting a lot of different components, but some items are more important than others. Know what those “killer items” are and give them special attention, whether it’s more time or a second look. At some flight schools, the flight instructor lets the student complete the pre-flight, but will always check these few items (oil dipstick, fuel caps, tires) before starting the engine. Don’t ever take off without knowing that these killer items have been properly checked.
  • Don’t accept “it always looks like that.” This is a major problem at some flight schools where maintenance maybe isn’t done to the highest standard. A student pilot points out something that looks wrong, and is told to relax because, “it always looks like that.” The mechanic may be right, and part of learning to fly is learning what is truly an airworthiness issue and what’s merely a cosmetic one. But if you have a serious concern about the airplane you fly, and it’s not been addressed after multiple comments, be skeptical.
  • Pre-flight yourself too. You’ve probably read about the “IMSAFE” checklist and all the ways you should check yourself to make sure the pilot is ready to fly. That’s a good start, but to me, pre-flighting the pilot is more about getting in the zone than just another checklist. Maybe you’re leaving a busy day at work or a crazy family life. Use the pre-flight time to get yourself focused on flying. I like to even mentally fly the flight beforehand, just to consider all the issues that may come up. Having a sterile pre-flight environment (see above) is a big help.
  • Understand the systems. If you’re just reading a checklist and looking at the airplane, you’re only doing half a pre-flight. But if you take some time to understand how the airplane works, it makes it much easier to judge whether your airplane is in good shape or not. Whenever I check out on a new airplane, I use the pre-flight as a learning tool, a way to understand the airplane. So if you read about a magneto in the POH, take a moment to look at the magneto on the pre-flight. Visualize how it’s connected to the engine, and what its role is during flight.

Do you like the pre-flight, or just tolerate it? Have any tips to add? Share your comments below.

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Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. He is an ATP and also holds ratings for multiengine, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of Air Facts, John is a Vice President at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, responsible for new product development and marketing.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I actually don’t mind doing the preflight. It does several things for me:
    – forces a transition from what I was thinking about before getting to the airplane to mentally preparing to fly.
    – keeps me aware of the airplane
    – Continues a routine that helps eliminate (or at least reduce) missed steps.

  2. I’m 76. My plane is 60 (a 1954 model). Both of us need good preflight inspections. And for the plane, I’ve found the “one last walk around” to be the most important part of the preflight checklist.

  3. I recently found out how important a good preflight inspection is,while going over our Cherokee 180 I found a machine screw in the air intake. I brought this to the attention of the flight school owner. We pulled the Cowell and found that two screws were missing from the rocker cover just before a cross country flight. This could’ve been a bad day, but we fixed the problem and everything turned out fine.Never assume that things are safe , know they are!

  4. Call me paranoid but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do a preflight in under 20 minutes. As an A&P and former military crew chief I’m looking hard. Even had the club manager joke one time about being able to sighnoff a 100 hour inspection after I got done. I still have found things I’ve missed such as a broken exhaust clamp during my current annual,something I should have seen. When my wife complains about how long it takes me to get ready I just tell her its for our safety. It is hard sometimes with the grandkids around but I’ll make them stay in the backseat of my truck until I’m ready to load. So many accidents have resulted from poor preflights and it just isn’t necessary.

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