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Man, Am I Glad I Did the Preflight

It was a memorable journey for all the right reasons-flying adventure, beautiful sights, new opportunities, and good friends. But our recent flying trip might have been memorable for less pleasant reasons were it not for a run-of-the-mill preflight that turned up some surprises.

Neither my wife, Jean, nor I had ever before explored the West Coast north of San Francisco. So this summer we planned one of those glorious trips that most pilots dream of doing all the time, but manage to accomplish every few years at best.

Our first leg took us through Arizona and Southern California, past Mt. Whitney in the breathtaking Sierra Nevada, and on to Sacramento. Along the way air traffic control cleared us directly over Edwards Air Force Base, where the space shuttles land. Neat stuff!

The following day, a little more than two hours in the air took us to Eugene, Oregon. En route we passed within what seemed like touching distance of 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta, only to surpass that thrill with one of the most spectacular sights of our lives-Oregon's Crater Lake, formed when a volcano blew its top 7,000 years ago. Although it was late July, the crystal-clear lake still mirrored virgin snow deposited on its almost 9,000-foot-high rim.

From Eugene we flew to Seattle, where the Olympic Mountains pierced an undercast, punctuated by green islands and blue water glimpsed through holes in the clouds below. At Seattle's Museum of Flight we examined the last flying Boeing 247, the world's first modern airliner.

Turning south, we flew down the Washington and Oregon coasts to the remote Northern California shore. Although the weather was clear a quarter-mile inland, maritime fog and stratus shrouded the low-lying coast almost the entire way. Not until we arrived in the clear over our VFR-only destination airport did we know for sure if we'd be able to land there, or have to proceed to an alternate.

When I say that the airport was clear, that's actually only half-true-literally. The runway, which lies perpendicular to the coast atop a 500- foot bluff, was clear on one end and shrouded in clouds on the other. We started our pattern above the clouds, turned final and touched down in the clear, and then rolled under the overcast as we taxied in. It felt like diving under bed covers head first. What a kick!

I won't bore you with tales of hiking in fog through multicolored wildflowers along the shore or about gorging ourselves with seafood during our stay.

Two days later we were delivered back to the Cessna Skylane with our luggage, ready to embark on the long flight home. It was cold, with a wet mist-not the sort of weather one relishes for climbing around an airplane during preflight.

As I prepared to load the bags, I noticed that although properly secured, the baggage compartment door handle seemed slightly askew. Older-style Cessna baggage compartment handles tend to stick out a bit over time, but this had a twist to it that I didn't re-member from before.

I carefully checked all the doors and cabin contents, and determined that no one had broken in. I figured perhaps someone had tested the baggage door just to see if it was unlocked and to see what might be in there. After all, it would be easy enough for anyone to break into a Cessna if they really wanted to.

We removed the window sunscreens and loaded up our bags, and while Jean went inside to warm up, I climbed up on our portable stepstool to visually inspect the fuel. The left tank was just as I expected, but to my surprise the right fuel cap was ajar, as if someone had removed it and wasn't sure how to put it back.

I had personally checked the fuel and caps prior to our last departure and was certain both had been properly sealed. And in any case, it couldn't have been that way en route, or we'd never have completed our four-hour flight from Seattle nonstop.

Differences in fuel quantity made me wonder whether someone might have siphoned fuel out of the right tank, but it always seems to draw a little faster from that side in this particular airplane, so I couldn't be sure.

By now I was concerned about the possible effects of several days of misting rain with the fuel cap ajar, not to mention the horrifying thought of someone perhaps depositing contaminants into the tank. I extensively drained the fuel, which proved perfectly clear, then ran the engine for 15 minutes in the hope that any not-so-obvious fuel problems would become apparent.

Having satisfied myself that the fuel was OK, I started my preflight once again from the beginning. Everything appeared to be in order as I made my way carefully around the airplane, until I came to the tail. There I found that someone had grabbed the corner of the elevator trim tab and bent it. Now it was certain-somebody had aggressively tampered with our airplane. The big question was what else had they done?

After consulting with a mechanic about the trim tab, I preflighted the airplane yet again-and you can bet this was as thorough as any I've ever done. I examined the airplane inch-by-inch, from engine compartment to antennas, including scrutinizing the top of the airplane from a tall step ladder.

Happily I could find nothing else suspicious, other than where a soft shoe had disturbed dust at the base of the right wing strut. But I needn't tell you that even after the extensive preflight, a fanatically careful pretakeoff checkout, and extended engine runup, the first few minutes of flight were mighty stressful all the same.

It takes little imagination to consider what might have happened had I not so diligently preflighted on this particular day.

What if I'd launched on our final five-and-a-half-hour leg home without noticing the fuel cap ajar? Excessive drainage from the right tank would likely have become apparent in the fuel quantity gauges. But plenty of fuel starvation accidents have occurred because pilots didn't notice-or didn't believe their gauges-when fuel seemed to be depleting more rapidly than usual. And what if someone had dumped contaminants in the fuel, unnoticed, and I had neglected to test it?

As for the bent trim tab, my mechanic told me it probably would have gone unnoticed in flight, or nearly so. But what if the tab had been distorted to the point of interfering with another surface, perhaps binding the controls? Or if the hinges had been damaged so as to cause control flutter?

And what if, in missing relatively minor problems like these, we had not been alerted to more threatening damage?

Even with yet another examination by a mechanic at our first stop 20 minutes later, it wasn't until some five flight hours afterward, as we navigated rose-colored barrens through western Arizona, that I finally welcomed back the warm trust that pilots put in their airplanes-most of the time, anyway.

"Why is it," I thought while gazing at sunset-tinted desert sliced by the silvery Colorado River, "that pilots can face exposure to serious risk and still return to the cockpit?"

The answer is that if the causes of aviation accidents couldn't be determined, and thereby anticipated and prevented by careful pilots, few of us would fly, as piloting would be little more than a life-or-death lottery. That's, in fact, how it was in the early days of aviation, which is why few sane people took to the air back then.

But these days we can continue to fly despite disasters, because we can usually learn what went wrong, and therefore how to prevent such exposure in our own flying. Fortunately for us, almost 100 years of powered flight have resulted in valuable procedures which, if followed religiously, can save our skins the vast majority of the time.

Preflight inspection is one of those procedures. In my case it worked as it's supposed to, and providing I keep preflighting diligently in the future, it should continue to protect me. Like so many pilot procedures, the challenge is to keep doing it right, time after time, on the chance that something unexpected will happen that one time in a thousand-like some jerk tampering with your airplane-and you'll catch it.

But watch out for that time, when you or your student gets ready to fly and decides "it won't matter just this one time" to skip the weather briefing, or the weight and balance, or the preflight inspection. Now that is Russian roulette.

Man, am I glad to have carefully preflighted the airplane on this occasion, as I've done so many times in the past. Had I not done it, who knows what might have happened. But thanks to that preflight, the most memorable part of our glorious flying trip was nothing more and nothing less than circling pristine, deep-blue Crater Lake, framed by the delicious icing of its snow-covered rim. And that's what any pilot and passenger would want to remember.

By Greg Brown

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