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Pre-takeoff Checklists

One thing that I thought odd when I first started flying was the propensity for pilots to tell stories about how they really messed up and lived to tell about it. As I listened to more and more of these hanger flying stories I came to the realization that almost all of them involved the pilots taking off without using a checklist.

The most recent event is what prompted this entry. I was introduced to an older flyer who was in town for a few months. He’s been instructing for over 20 years and was telling a former student and A&P about a recent experience he’d had after replacing the brake pads. It seems that he taxied out at a fairly large field and while taxiing to the run-up area and had to stop for a regional jet that was waiting for clearance. His new brakes worked just fine. When it was time to continue the taxi, the brakes continued to hold. He then spent 20 minutes loosening the brakes so that he could taxi out of the way of the now irate pilots behind him. That’s why the one of the first items after engine start is “Taxi 3 feet and check the brakes”.

I can’t even remember how many pilots have told me how hard it is to see out of an oil covered windshield. The first time I heard the story it was told by an ex-Army pilot who was telling me about his flight training in WWII. Engines then had a lot of nasty habits and leaking oil was one of them. He managed to land without incident. Then next time I heard the story was from someone who had loaded up his plane with out-of-town relatives to basically show off his new airplane and piloting skills. The plane was just back from an oil change so he didn’t bother with the normal pre-flight, just piled people in and took off. There is an amazing amount of oil that quickly exits the engine when the oil filler cap is left off. And it continues to wash up onto the windshield for months after the incident. I’ve heard several variants of this story. The good news is that the oil starts leaking shortly after takeoff, so you can make it back to the field for landing. So every checklist should have, “Tighten the oil-filler cap and make make sure dipstick is in place”.

This next story is always about “someone I know who saw someone…”. It involves pilots starting the engine or even taking off with the towbar still attached. I wondered how someone could not notice that a towbar was attached to their airplane until it almost happened to me. I had pre-flighted the plane and was sitting in the cockpit ready to go, when the instructor pulled up and said he’d be ready after he hit the restroom. While he was gone I needed to move the plane so someone could get by. I left the towbar in thinking that I’d pull the plane back up when the instructor got back. I got in the cockpit and started going over some checklists or listening to ATIS. He asked me if I was ready to go and I said “Sure”. He didn’t think we were ready and since I’d completely forgotten about the towbar it took me a second before I realized why. My rule now is that the towbar is never left on the airplane. If one end is attached to the airplane, the other end is in my hand. (Same thing for airplane tugs.) At a minimum it is always removed and placed behind the nose wheel. If I plan to fly, as opposed to moving just moving the plane, then it is stowed in the baggage compartment—even if I think I’ll have to move the plane before takeoff. So every checklist should have a final walk around before starting the engine.

Another pilot related this story:

Well, I hate to admit it, but I did one of those really dumb moves. I left the tow bar in place as I taxied away from the refueling pump. And that caused a prop strike.

Looking back, I can see how it happened, but it’s still dumb. There were two links in this chain:
1. I rarely use the tow bar when refueling since I can usually taxi up to the pump.
2. I got into a conversation with another pilot as I was refueling and when finished I overlooked the tow bar.


Related to the towbar is baggage doors left open because they were waiting for someone who had a bag, but the person arrived and put the bag in the back seat. Doors left open on takeoff because it was hot in the plane. Chocks and tie downs left in place. So the final step before getting in the plane should always be a final walkaround to make sure the mental map of the plane matches what it should look like.

A local pilot got into his dew-covered airplane and began taxiing to the run-up area. The taxiway lies parallel to RWY 11 and in the early hours of a January morning the sun shines very brightly directly ahead. With fogged up windows and bright sun it is surprisingly easy to entirely miss the fact that another airplane is already in the run-up area. I would imagine that this is a problem in the winter months in cold climates when hot beverages, or people, are in the cabin. So make sure that the plane will not fog up, either inside or outside, when you start taxiing.

Two tragic stories about newly minted pilots visiting for the day and taking off at night without getting a weather briefing. The first case happened just as I was learning to fly and the second recently. Both pilots had few total hours (70 and 55 hours) and each had only 20 hrs solo PIC time. Neither had night flying experience (5.5 and 3.5 hrs — all dual). They took off and almost immediately entered fog. The first pilot tried to return to the airport, lost control of the airplane, and crashed about 4 miles from the runway. The second pilot turned left after takeoff and flew directly into a mountain about 700′ AGL on the left downwind. The NTSB issued a safety alert Controlled Flight into Terrain in Visual Conditions about a series of controlled flight into terrain accidents that occurred in nighttime visual meteorological conditions. Better preflight planning could have prevented the accidents, according to the NTSB. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Terrain Avoidance Plan Safety Brief discusses preflight planning tips. The checklist items for these stories is, “Get a weather briefing or at the very least listen to the ATIS before takeoff” and “Plan your route before taking off, especially at night”.

It’s probably not a good idea to argue with controllers in Class B airspace. Especially when they are gently reminding you that your are not in the VFR corridor. Yet I’ve heard pilots insisting they were on course, when they were flying the old corridor route and the new route had been in effect for several months. I’ve also heard pilots at the non-towered field asking for the weather because the ASOS was down. It wasn’t down, the frequency had changed. The checklist item is to always have current charts in the aircraft and be familiar with changes that affect the areas you fly in.

Feel free to add your own stories in the comments section.

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