The goal of this long article is to provoke and encourage pilots thoughts about the respective “Preflight Inspection” of their aircraft. Many of the preflight checks we get to see in the field are abbreviated, cut short for added convenience and to save time. Valuable time, we could be taxiing or flying, or talking on the cellphone. But, like with many things in aviation, the desire to save time, can and will come back to bite us, in the long run.
I recently heard an old hangar story about an older gentleman (lets call him Grumpy) who had extensive work performed on his older Piper Cub. The aircraft was pushed out of the maintenance hangar and Grumpy went on to check things out. He walked around the plane, wiggling here, touching this, looking at that. He then continued to load the seat with himself, fired up the engine and taxied to the grass runway. The airplane was observed doing some erratic flight maneuvers before being dug into the ground. A short time later, Grumpy was dead. Very dead. What had happened was an unintentional mistake of connecting the linkeage on the elevator upside down. It is safe to assume Grumpy wiggled all the controls around and listened for grinding sounds, making sure nothing is blocked. He just never looked and verified the CORRECT application of control inputs.
*Disclaimer: Grumpy’s story has been delivered to me by the means of “hangar flying”, he could have been a woman, the Cub could have been a PA11 and the weather could have been windy, too.
However, what supposedly happened to Grumpy, has happened to other people before, sometimes it was caught, sometimes it was not. Some DPE’s may have a habit of wanting to see their applicants not only check that certain controls are “FREE” but that they, as stated on many checklists “FREE AND CORRECT”.
What does Grumpy have to do with Seaplane Preflight Checks?
The first point I am trying to make is that a checklist is a pretty nice tool to have when it come to getting to know your aircraft better. It deserves some attention and some careful studying and is usually (even though not always looking like it really needs more handling) happy to be grabbed and handled by pilots. We should spend some time and go through each section of the document looking where there are things that could be better or more extensively covered. Example: I am looking at the POH checklist of a 1980 Piper Warrior, for an upcoming flight and noticed that it reads on the outside check:
Control Surfaces…….Check for interference, free of ice, snow, frost.
Inside, just before Takeoff, we are reminded:
A perfect example, in my humble opinion, for CFI’s and Pilots alike, to read any and all checklists without being mentally limited to what exactly the document says. We should “look for things to be wrong” and be positively surprised if they are fine. Period. Some may call it paranoia, some do not. Pick your spot.
Having said that a checklist is not an all inclusive document, we may feel inclined to work our way through it, maybe together with a CFI or other pilot with experience on type, maybe even with a A&P and pinpoint hotspots and weak spots on the list. I guarantee that there will be “News” we did not know about!
Lets try set up a few “good rules” for the future performance of our preflight inspections. We assume the pilot is briefed on WX and TFR’s and is just walking out to the plane. He/ She has spent time with POH & Checklist and is ready for the flight. The focus is now squarely on the plane – the pilot is mainly trying to find an excuse not to fly. The expectation should now be to find something wrong with this airplane, before the airplane does it, in flight.
- Eliminate Distractions: We should make an effort to reduce and eliminate any and all distractions. Cellphones, pagers, extremely talkative people, animals, basically everything that can and will pose of risk of overseeing something should be silenced, somehow. I have made it a habit to show and explain something to my passengers during my preflight checks. If I have to talk to anyone during a inspection, it will be limited to and about preflight check items. If the cellphone has to be answered, the preflight check should start over or be picked up from 2-3 items prior to the disturbance having been introduced. Taking your mind off things, even for a short period of time is a perfect recipe for disappointment, later.
- Use your Checklist: During the first few flights with a new type of aircraft you should always look over all items to be inspected, familiarize yourself with the airplane and try to develop the pattern you will follow. If it takes a bit longer, show up early, but don’t skip items. Once the preflight inspection is completed per list, you should be able to go through the list again and recall clearly that you checked each point.
- Do it once, do it right: Have you ever watched other people perform preflight inspections? Pay attention how systematically people move about the aircraft. Do they turn around drain the fuel out of the wing tanks? Do they abandon the empenage, moving on to the right/ left wing, just to return to the empenage again a short time later? Do they follow a system/ pattern or are they just looking at things as they come to mind? In order to insure the integrity of our preflight inspections we must develop the habit of checking more than the hot topic items we know from Rote.
- Look for reasons to ground the plane: Many owners and operators will curse my name for saying this, but our main focus in performing preflight inspections should be to find reasons to ask questions or to decline the aircraft. It sounds cruel, but there are simply no good reasons to accept half a cookie for full price. The owner/ operators intent is not to endanger you or the public. 99.9% of them will listen and help with questions, to insure customer satisfaction and safe flights. We have all heard the “ARROW” acronym and most people can religiously recall each point by rote – but how many people actually pull the Registration or Airworthiness Certificate? Do you think the FAA Inspector is going to say: “Naw, you’re fine, just leave it!” Spending time with the planes documents and MX books can be a one time deal, but it can prevent embarrassment and surprises.
FLOATS & AMPHIBS:
Just like the wheels and undercarriage of land planes, seaplanes are exposed to some pretty rough living. Subsequently we should pay extra attention to the floats and what keeps those attached to the fuselage of our aircraft.
Start by paying attention to how the plane sits in the water. Having the aircraft lean to either side or back and forth may be a good indicator of a possible leak which may have filled one or more of the float compartments. Obvious defects, deep scratches, loose rivets, dents and the general condition of the skin of the floats are usually indicative of trouble. When we pump the floats with the bilge pump, we should pay attention to the amount of water we remove. Having no water at all is either a sign of brand new bone dry floats, or could be meaning that the pump is defective, but could also indicate that the connecting tube or funnel is defect. The issue should be to get the floats as free from water (and weight) as possible. Storage compartments should be inspected as well. Links and connecting bolts, wires and nuts, burdened with keeping everything neat and together should receive attention as well. Wires and water rudders should be free of obstructions, correct in direction of movement and properly greased or lubricated where applicable. Unless the aircraft is beached it should be possible to quickly hop in the plane and listen and feel for the grind or possible obstructions to free movement, prior to firing up the noisy engine. Letting the water rudder down (if left up) or vice versa should be exercised as well. How bad would it be to figure out that all looked well, except the water rudders would be blocked, shortly after pushing out into this faster flowing river?
Amphibs & their gear retraction systems are prune to the same issues as their purely land based sister ships. We should pay attention to the same things, except, on amphibs we should also be on the lookout for missing mirrors (gear indication) proper markings and gear position indicators and the function of the subsequent possibly optional warning bells and whistles. The gear wells should be free of obstructions, switches and stops should be in serviceable condition. Once floats, attachements, wires, bearings and rudders have been found to be safe for flight, we should spend our time with having fun on, in and above the water. Even when flying straight floats in a 65 H.P. Piper, we can and maybe should include a few callouts to our repertoire, to avoid embarrassment and possibly death in the future.
“Gear UP for WATER Landing” & “Gear DOWN for RWY Landing” accompanied by a visual check will only sound and feel silly for the first couple of times. Fostering a good habit early on may save thousands of dollars and possibly some body bags in the future. Accidental gear down water landings seem to remain popular among the best of us. Maybe it’s time to start attacking this sort of accident a bit more fiercly.