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Is It Flightworthy?

Can an airplane be totaled and still pass a preflight inspection? The answer is that it depends on how carefully you preflight your airplane.

The airplane that prompted me to consider this idea was a Cessna 172 on the rental line at a local FBO. I was scheduled to use it to give an introductory flight to a prospective student. When the student was late, I decided to go ahead and start the preflight inspection. I checked the exterior and then moved into the cockpit. I'm in the habit of moving the controls through full travel before starting the engine because it lets me see, hear, and feel how the controls are operating.

Moving the yoke toward me, I noticed a sensation of roughness near the full aft position. I played with it a little, and the yoke eventually stuck in the full aft position. I went outside and found that the elevator also stuck when I moved it directly. I showed the problem to another instructor, and then I asked the mechanic to take a look.

Since my student never appeared, I went home. The next day, I asked the mechanic what had caused the controls to stick. The answer was disturbing. Apparently the airplane had been through a hard landing - hard enough to crumple the firewall, causing the controls to stick. As surprising as that news was, I couldn't believe what I heard next. The nosegear was hanging on by one damaged bolt. The metal skin of the wings had flexed and was no longer uniformly attached to the supporting ribs near the fuel tanks, causing it to make the distinctive sound known as oil canning when pressed lightly. Some of the wing ribs were damaged; the airplane was likely to be considered a total loss. The airplane is now in the hangar, engine removed, awaiting the final word from the insurance company. I find just looking at it very sobering.

The experience made me wonder about several things. How could someone land that hard and then not tell anyone? Surely the pilot guessed that the airplane had been damaged.

But more importantly, I wondered what I would have done if my student had showed up. Would I have flown since the only problem I found was some roughness in the controls? (I later discovered that another instructor flew the airplane after I wrote up the problem. Luckily he returned safely.) I wondered how many flights would have passed before the landing gear collapsed or there was an in-flight structural failure.

Mostly I wondered if we, as instructors and renters, have become too complacent as a result of constantly flying aircraft with "cosmetic" problems. Rental and training aircraft lead hard lives and require a lot of attention - maybe more than some owners are willing to provide. How many times have you been told not worry about the little stuff because the important things are properly maintained?

This airplane gave only two subtle clues that there could be a serious accident lurking in its future. The control roughness was only noticeable with the yoke full aft, and the sheet metal damage under the wings was visible only in certain lighting conditions (I missed it during my inspection). Can you tell the difference between an airplane that is ready to fly and one that is totaled?

By Larry Mitchell

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