When You Find Something Amiss

There’s a learning curve to the preflight inspection, which can be intimidating to fledgling pilots.

The first lesson for a private pilot begins with the preflight inspection. [Credit: Shutterstock]

The first lesson for a private pilot begins with the preflight inspection.

Checklist in hand, the fledgling pilot follows the CFI around the aircraft to learn what is normal and what is not. By the third lesson most learner pilots are doing the preflight inspections by themselves—and some CFIs watch from a distance.

I am one of those instructors. After the third lesson I sometimes salt the aircraft with strategically placed toy plastic frogs—the kind you get from a dollar store. A frog on the fuel cap, a frog on the horizontal stabilizer, a frog on the fuel selector—could mean the cap left off overnight, a dent, and the fuel placard missing. These issues spark a discussion. If these conditions existed, would the aircraft be airworthy?

The salting of the airplane with frogs is random during dual instruction. This encourages focus and attention to detail during preflight inspection. It has worked—many years after he left my charge one learner found a bird's nest in the tail of his aircraft and another won the preflight inspection contest at EAA AirVenture.

The only time I ran into issue with this method was when coworkers and students at a particular school decided to help themselves to the frogs, lizards, and other creatures I used for this purpose and put them in airplanes to “scare” their fellow pilots. Although I was not responsible for people stealing toys out of my desk and using them irresponsibly, I took the items home anyway.

There is a learning curve to the preflight inspection. The task is often intimidating to the learners. One learner insisted she did not have the experience to inspect an airplane and handed the checklist back to me. Another was afraid to remove the cowl plugs because he thought they were necessary for flight—he was confusing them with spark plugs. In both cases learning took place.

Every flight school has a story about someone who walked into a strut, or a (thankfully) still propeller blade, or the edge of the Cessna wing. Teach the learners to make sure there isn't someone standing under the wing of the high wing aircraft on the other side of the cockpit when they move up the ailerons to check the hinges because the aileron coming down on the other side will bonk that person on the head pretty severely if they are in the right position beneath the wing.

It is important learners understand the preflight inspection is a physical experience. You will climb up on wings to check fuel. You will kneel, squat, or crawl under the aircraft. The latter is especially true when working with a low wing airplane, such as a Piper Cherokee. You may also get grime stains on the front of your pant legs just above the knee as you lean against the aircraft during the preflight inspection. Wear them with pride.

Is This OK?

Primary learners can be hyper-vigilant when it comes to oil streaks on the belly, dings, cracks, nicks, and scratches in an airplane. This is a good thing. You'd rather have them err on the side of caution. The smart instructors introduce their learners to the mechanics at the school from day one and encourage them to ask the mechanics if they see something that could be an issue with the airplane, or if they have a question and the CFI is not around. CFIs often consult the more experienced CFIs or instigate the search for a mechanic when the learner finds something. It's important the learners see the CFI asking questions because this teaches them it is OK to do so.

It is also important the learners understand that if they find something wrong with the aircraft, they will not be expected to pay for it.

I write this because apparently there are some schools that do this. I had a learner who allegedly missed a 6-inch crack in a spinner on the school's Cessna Cutlass RG (retractable gear). The learner claimed he didn't notice it—I was skeptical—how could anyone miss that? It started at one of the screw attachment points and propagated around the cone toward the pointy end. I was amazed the spinner had not separated from the aircraft. The mechanic who removed the spinner cone noted it had been repaired before on the crack line and showed us the repair weld that had failed. Now the entire spinner needed to be replaced. The entry into the maintenance logbook read "too much time since new."

The learner was very concerned he was going to be made to pay for the part—he told of how this had happened to someone at his last school—then suggested I should pay for it since I noticed it. That made the mechanic laugh, and he gave me the damaged cone to use as a teaching aide in private pilot ground school.

When damage is discovered during a preflight inspection, it starts an internal investigation at the fixed base operator (FBO) or flight school. Check the dispatch records. Who was the last pilot who flew it? Was it a renter or was it an instructor and learner? Discussions are had—did you notice X,Y, or Z when you flew the airplane?

This is particularly true if the damage grounds the aircraft. People become immediately defensive. Even a call to a learner who was on the schedule to fly an airplane and has been moved to another plane can result in an outburst of "Do they think it was me? Are they going to make me pay for it?"

Although it would bother me greatly if I found out one of my clients was responsible for the damage or knew about it and didn't report it, my greater concern is having healthy airplanes for the clients. Also, I have been around the industry long enough to know sometimes aircraft damage is done by non-pilots on the ground.

A Cherokee at my home airport suffered tail damage when the muggle hired to mow the grass in the tiedown area broke protocol and tried to use the riding mower instead of the push mower close to the aircraft. The mower blade hit the tail, bent metal, and took a chunk out of it. And he didn't report it. When the aircraft owner found the damage during his preflight inspection, he reported it to the airport manager, who used security camera video to track down the culprit.

Sometimes the answer is yes, the pilot noticed the damage and flew the aircraft anyway because they didn't realize it made the aircraft unairworthy, but they made it back so what's the big deal?

This becomes an opportunity for education, such as the time a renter pilot noticed a crack in the tip of the propeller when he landed at his cross-country destination and flew the aircraft back to the base airport. The crack was about a quarter-inch long, when he found it, he said. It was larger when he landed at the FBO at the end of the flight. The chief pilot, owner of the business, and chief mechanic met with the renter and explained the danger of flying an aircraft with a cracked propeller.

According to the chief pilot, the pilot could have lost a propeller tip in flight that would have resulted in an unbalanced propeller and likely result in a substantial control issue. What made it even spookier was the school determined the crack had been in place before he left the home airport. The learner had taken a photograph of his children standing in front of the airplane that morning. The digital image was blown up on the computer, and you could see the crack in the propeller blade. When the renter pilot told me the story—several days after the event—his voice was shaky. He had not noticed the crack until he reached the destination. To say he learned from the experience is an understatement.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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