The importance of pre-flighting is one of the very first things we learn as student pilots. Follow your checklist. Carefully walk around the airplane. Check all the moving parts to make sure they move correctly and freely. Inspect to make sure rivets, safety wire, cotter pins and screws are all in place. How is the fuel quantity? Did you check for water and sediment from the tanks as well as the lowest points in the system? Propeller, brakes, tires, flaps…the list goes on and on.
Still it is amazing how quickly the importance of pre-flighting can disappear when people begin to rush or get complacent with experience. And as important as pre-flighting is in general aviation, arguably it is even more important when aerobatic flight is added into the equation. I would also argue that what aerobatic pilots know – or at least should know – is useful for all aviators whether they are flying a Piper Cub, Cirrus or Citation.
Aerobatic Pre-Flight = Risk Mitigation:
1. Sterile Cockpit
Aerobatic pilots know all about this – we toss our aircraft all over the sky and often it is open from the cockpit down the tail making it very easy for loose objects to find their way down to jam controls whether it be the stick, cables, tubes, etc. But this is still something that is often disregarded by many as they become more and more complacent over time. Pouches that Velcro closed do NOT guarantee safety – if you’re going to have a pouch in your plane make sure it is SUPER secured and consider one that has a zipper instead of Velcro. My personal opinion is don’t have anything in the plane but that’s not always a viable option. But, for instance, flying with a cell phone in your pant pocket or Velcro pouch in the plane (which are easily opened or missed during pre-flight) is a commonly disregarded danger. Is it worth the risk of jamming your controls just so you can sneak a picture of yourself for Facebook during a practice flight? Probably not.
I personally abide by the “EVERYTHING out that is not 100% necessary for that specific flight” rule. If you’re flying cross country you’ll need different things than when you’re flying aerobatics – but either way maintaining a sterile cockpit and awareness of where everything is in the plane at all times may save you and/or your passengers life.
Believe it or not parachutes are not required in all countries – and for those of you who know your regs you know that if you’re flying solo (as long as the plane isn’t placarded that parachutes are required) you don’t have to wear a chute even here in the States. But, is that wise? Most reasonable people would probably argue no – why take away your ace-in-the-hole? Again, it is all about risk mitigation and having a parachute is often the only way out in the case of a catastrophic emergency.
Be sure that your parachute is in current pack and if you are borrowing one find out who packs the chute. Additionally know how the parachutes are cared for and stored. If the chute is regularly tossed on the hangar floor, left in the sun all day in the cockpit and the containers look uncared for those are all signs to beware. You don’t want to be wearing a parachute that has been left resting in a puddle of oil, for example. Remember that it is your one out if bailing becomes the proper response so take the time to look it over.
3. Know How & What to Pre-flight
Do you know the specifics of pre-flighting the exact type of airplane you are flying? Do you know the weak points, the places that may have caused problems or accidents in the past? Some airplanes have weak points in the tails, some have had rudder cable issues, etc. If you know these things you can double check these areas and you should! By knowing the history of the overall type of aircraft you are flying you will be much better prepared to pre-flight.
Of course it is important to know the maintenance history of an airplane your flying. If you are borrowing an airplane make sure to talk to the owner and maybe even ask around to see if there is anything you should know prior to getting in an airplane. Again, some people may be willing to take more risk with their aircraft and their life than you are – you make the final decision as to whether you will fly a specific airplane or not and you do not need to explain your decision if you choose not to.
If you are renting an aircraft absolutely do the research necessary to find out about the maintenance on the plane. Often flight schools only have one or two aerobatic aircraft (if any!) amidst a fleet of GA airplanes and have no idea how important and specific maintenance for aerobatic planes is. The best thing is if they have a mechanic who knows, understands and has experience with aerobatic aircraft. Remember, going back to the sterile cockpit discussion, it is less of a concern to leave a tool under the seat in a Cessna – this same small error in a Decathlon, Pitts or Extra can be deadly.
5. The Pilot
Hopefully everyone knows of the IMSAFE checklist – we know that as pilots we need to pre-flight ourselves as well. How are we feeling? Are we fighting a cold? Are we fatigued? How are our stress levels (and keep in mind that stressors are all negative things in our life – weddings, the birth of a child, etc. are also stressors)? Every pilot, not matter what they are flying needs to make sure that they are physically and mentally ready to fly and that means that they are ready to fly in less-than-perfect conditions in case things change unexpectedly in flight. In aerobatics this is also incredibly important as the stress placed on the brain and body are even more significant than that experienced in most GA airplanes. If you’re not feeling 100% remember it’s okay to take the day off.
What this blog boils down to is safety. Every time we set foot in an airplane we are taking a certain amount of risk and the way we make flying as safe as possible is all about risk mitigation and preparation. What makes things even riskier at times is when we are renting or borrowing aerobatic aircraft as opposed to flying our own. If you fly your own aircraft you know where it has been, how it has been cared for and flown, you can set it up exactly how you like, and so forth. Still, often those who own their own planes become complacent in pre-flighting because they know what happened on the last flight and often forget that things may change even when sitting on the ground untouched between flights. A friend on Facebook relayed the following story to me:
At a fly-in a guy went around with a large collection of clothespins. He put them in various places on the aircraft: non-pilot side flap, elevator, pitot tube, etc then sat at the end of the runway and took pictures of aircraft and their clothes pins! The harmless pins would not affect flight but teach a great lesson! – Thanks Spencer A. for the story!
On the other hand, when renting or borrowing an aircraft there are numerous unknowns including if the person/people before you have taken the sterile cockpit approach, maintenance history, procedures (are other renters caring for the engine appropriately?), etc.
What is the moral of the story? Pre-flighting is important! Don’t become complacent – even if it just between same-day flights (remember every aerobatic flight stresses the airplane significantly!). Stay vigilant and always try to learn as much as you can about the type of plane you’re flying as well as the specific airplane you are flying. And always remember – you are pilot in command – if something is not right, don’t push it (even if it is the hair on the back of your neck standing up for what is seemingly no reason…sometimes attention should be paid to gut feelings) – the safety of your and your passenger(s) is the most important thing!