Safety Publications/Articles

Professionally Speaking

One little item

Don't forget to check the controls

Warning: This is about a subject on which I am somewhat of a fanatic. But first, three short stories.

On October 30, 1935, the first Boeing Model 299 -- later to become famous as the B-17 Flying Fortress -- crashed on takeoff during a test flight. It was determined that the crew -- the highly experienced and professional flight-test crew -- had failed to remove the gust lock before takeoff. That was not as unlikely as we might think today. The gust lock was not in wide use back then, and the crew was unaccustomed to this new device.

Move forward to the 1970s. At Montgomery (Alabama) Aviation we had just purchased a brand new Piper Pawnee agricultural aircraft, and I went out to look it over. I crawled into the cockpit, cranked it up, and did my usual precautionary wiggling of the control stick. In the full right forward position, the stick -- along with the elevators and ailerons -- locked firmly. Had an ag pilot done that in flight, the results would have been disastrous.

A few years later, a chartered light twin-engine aircraft took off with a well-known entertainer on board. The aircraft crashed almost instantly, killing all on board. The aircraft was lightly loaded; the two -- not one, but two -- pilots on board were extremely well-qualified and highly experienced. The crash occurred -- I am told by a technician who participated in the investigation -- because the gust lock had broken off when the pilot removed it, leaving the pin still locking the controls.

What do these three stories have in common? In two cases, the incident could have been turned into a non-event simply by following one simple item of the checklist. In the case of the Pawnee, it did become a non-event.

(Let's be fair to the B-17 crew. The checklist as we know it today was not in full use back then. Ernie Gann, in his great book, Fate Is The Hunter, pointed out that even the airlines didn't start using checklists until sometime in the 1930s.)

Today, all checklists include a short item advising the pilot to confirm that controls are "free and correct," or words to that effect. In two of the above events, the pilots did not confirm this. In my case, I did -- just because when I was a primary student a tough flight instructor had beaten into my head the proper way to confirm "free and correct" controls. He taught me that I had to follow that line of the checklist, and I had to do it properly.

First, push the stick or yoke full -- and he really did mean full -- forward and to the right. Then, while keeping it full forward, move it full left. While keeping it full left, pull it full back. While keeping it full back, move it full right. Keep it full right while pushing it full forward.

That little maneuver will find anything that interferes with the full travel of the control stick or yoke. It will find a radio that has just been installed. I once found just such a problem and on another occasion I discovered that a long-legged passenger had his feet stuck far enough forward to interfere.

I wish all of you would teach -- and insist upon -- this one little maneuver before each and every flight. It truly can be a lifesaver.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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