Post-maintenance Flights Are Critical

This is the time for a slow, focused preflight examination.

I worked as the graduate placement officer at an A&P school many years ago. The students would perform the annual inspections on my little Grumman Yankee; under the supervision of their properly licensed instructors, of course. Like now, general aviation was in a down cycle, and I remember nervously addressing the graduating class, explaining how I would be using my airplane to fly around, scouring every airport within range for companies that might be hiring. After an awkward pause, one of the guys muttered, "Geez. If you'd told us you were going to use it to find us jobs, we'd've fixed it better."

Even under less demanding conditions, the first flight after maintenance needs to be approached with particular caution. Even assuming all the work was performed flawlessly, you need to remember that the airplane has just been turned inside out. And when reassembled, some stuff might not have gone back together just the way you left it. One pilot I know couldn't get his radio to work after an annual-not a peep. After increasingly aggravated calls for a radio check, he taxied back to the shop, convinced they had severed a wire or shorted a connection. The technician on duty politely pointed out the volume control was turned all the way down. ( … all right, it was me.)

But more serious problems do surface. This is the time for an extended preflight inspection, and your mental attitude is what it's all about. If you usually check the oil through the small access door, take the time and patience to open the cowl for a detailed look inside the engine compartment. Scan carefully for anything that doesn't seem just right-loose or chafed wires, bolts without safety wire, or other unsecured bits. Same with the airframe. As you walk and crawl around it, check for anything that might look even a little bit askance or uneven. And you're not insulting the technician when you ask about something that catches your eye.

In the cockpit, your printed checklist is your best friend on the first flight after maintenance. But this time, as you enumerate each item, try to imagine a particularly ingenious gremlin doing its best to dismantle or readjust anything and everything that used to be set up just the way you liked it. Include the seat adjustment, throttle and/or prop control friction locks, trim, instrument settings-and everything else in your usual cockpit sweep. There have been documented cases of ailerons rigged backwards during maintenance-so your "free-and-correct" control check should be performed with particular concentration after maintenance. That's a small sample. There's plenty more, if you think about it.

If you rent airplanes, you face many of the same issues as an aircraft owner if you draw the short straw and book an airplane just out of the shop. Your attention needs to be that much more focused, because you are that much less familiar with the airplane's particular idiosyncrasies.

And don't forget to check the volume control on the radio.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at enewsletter@flyingmag.com. We'd love to hear from you.