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The Preflight Puzzle

My first flight lesson - in 1968 - began with the walk-around inspection. My instructor pointed out all the things to look at and explained why they were important to check. Lesson number two started with me doing the walk-around inspection, explaining as I went, while my instructor asked questions. When I had trouble answering a question, he would provide additional explanations. By lesson number three I could answer all of his questions. So beginning with lesson number four and for all subsequent dual flight lessons, back at the FBO he would hand me the keys to the plane, tell me to go do the preflight, and added that he would be following me out shortly. He would stay in the air-conditioned office, chat with his buddies, and join me at the airplane in about 10 minutes.

When I became an instructor, I started my students out in the same manner. "You go do the preflight and I'll join you shortly" became a very routine statement. I didn't know what I didn't know.

After about 3,000 hours with students, one afternoon I told a student to go do the preflight and I would join him shortly. Then I found that there was no one in the flight school to talk to. I didn't need any more coffee; the logbooks were all up to date; and the day outside was really nice. So, I followed about a minute behind my student. I watched in astonishment as he walked straight to the airplane, untied it, opened the pilot's door, climbed into the front seat, fastened his seatbelt, and sat waiting for me to arrive. I was furious!

When I got to the airplane I asked him why he had not done a preflight inspection. "Oh," he said, "I never do a preflight. You wouldn't put airplanes out here if they were junk. Besides, other students have already done the preflight on this airplane two or three times today. If there was something wrong, we'd know about it by now." I was shocked that anyone would take responsibility for his own safety so lightly and amazed at his lack of concern. If we are going to fly any aircraft higher than we can afford to fall, surely everyone would want to know it was airworthy before taking off, wouldn't they? At first I was mad at him. Later I realized that it was my fault, not his. I vowed that it would never happen again with any of my students.

From that flight on, I never wasted time sitting in the office while my students did the preflight inspections. I began accompanying each and every one of my students when they walked out to the airplane. I am there to make sure that they do a thorough job, partly for their education and partly for my own self-preservation. Then, as the walk-around takes them back to the tail checking nuts and bolts and trim tabs, I climb into the cockpit and mess something up. Simple things like unlocking the primer on days when primer is not required. Not pulling it out - just turning it to the unlocked position. Then when the student goes through the engine start checklist and it says, "Primer as required and locked," we soon find out whether or not he or she checks to ensure that it is indeed locked.

Other times I might turn on a radio (or flip on the radio master switch). The airplane's battery switch is off at this time, so the radio makes no noise. When students get to the checklist item "Radio off," they will frequently assume the radio is off because it's not making any noise. To show them otherwise takes only once, and after that they are actively ensuring that the switch is indeed off.

Other times I might turn on all of the light switches. Again the airplane's battery switch is off at this point, so we're not draining the battery or overheating the lights. But when the student gets to the prestart checklist item "Lights off," it is amazing how many will look at the switches, see all of them pointing in the same direction, and assume that everything is correct. This little exercise soon fixes that.

If the airplane is equipped with fuses, it's fun to remove one - like maybe the fuse to the fuel gauge. Put the fuse in your pocket and replace the cap to its proper place on the panel. When the engine starts and the engine gauges come to life, you'll be amazed at the number of students who take a look at them but do not see that the fuel gauges read empty. They are looking, but they are not seeing. They might not see it the first time, but I guarantee they will see it the second time you do it. And that, after all, is the goal of this education job we're doing.

Before long the students learn to enjoy this little preflight exercise. They come into the cockpit knowing that something is amiss and take great pride in finding it. It is always something covered by the checklist. They become quite proficient at running checklists and actively checking and ensuring that things are correct. They stop assuming things are correct and start thinking as a pilot in command should think.

Once they get to this point it's really underhanded - but fun - to climb into the cockpit and mess up nothing. We get all the way to the runway, all of the checklists have been run, and the student has found nothing wrong. Before we take to the runway he or she will invariably remark, "OK. What did I miss?"

Obviously there are other things you can "mess up," but I think you get the idea. One caution in using this learning tool: Never mess up more than one thing at a time. That way it's easy to remember what you changed and make sure that it's fixed before takeoff.

I've found that this technique is very successful in keeping me involved, motivating students, and helping them to transition to the point that they are actively involved in making sure things are correct rather than simply assuming. It also provides for the safety of the student and the instructor. And it demonstrates that the instructor believes the preflight inspection is important. If the instructor thinks it is important, I guarantee the student will think that it's important.

Scott Gardiner is safety program manager for the FAA's Seattle Flight Standards District Office. He has 10,000 hours of flight time and holds airline transport pilot certificates for airplane single- and multiengine, commercial seaplane, and hot air balloon.

By Scott Gardiner

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