Safety Publications/Articles

Don't scrimp on runups

Treat them as though your life depends on it - it does

On a recent walk around Anchorage, I heard the distinct sounds of Beavers and Cubs. Of course, I'm referring to the airplane varieties, the sounds of their piston engines running up, rpm dropping as their magnetos are checked, and then watching the airplanes take off to parts unknown. The noise disturbs few in Alaska, for their remote villagers depend on these airplanes and their pilots to deliver needed goods and services. Of course, a steady tourist trade keeps their pilots busy, as well. What I find interesting is that in spite of soaring fuel prices, these bush pilots don't skimp on their preflight runups because they realize their lives, and those of others, depend on their engines working properly. So, how do the rest of us measure up?

A thorough and proper runup is a key safety tool and should never be skipped or rushed.

A recent NBC Dateline episode featured narrow escapes from death. Not surprisingly, many of these segments portrayed aviation in a rather unflattering manner. Once again, the public was reminded of how dangerous flying is, especially in light aircraft. Personally, I've found it's not the flying that's dangerous, but the return to Earth for regardless of what happens in flight, one way or another, we must always return to terra firma. In this sense, a successful flight may be defined as one where the airplane returns to its ramp under its own power unless, of course, it's a glider.

With fuel prices continuing to put the squeeze on flying budgets, pilots have developed a tremulous relationship with the Hobbs meter. A flick of a switch activates the all--mighty time keeper, which promptly deducts money from our bank accounts. Seemingly, every swing of the blade eats up another buck, so it's no wonder pilots try to minimize their time on the ground. But many pilots always have performed minimal runups, going through the motions without really checking anything. On occasion, I even performed a runup while taxiing because I was pressed for time. Trust me, this is a terrible practice. Not only is it hard on the brakes, but you also may miss things you otherwise wouldn't.

The good news is that most aircraft engines are quite reliable, and the more they are flown, the better they perform. I've made thousands of takeoffs and landings in single--engine pistons and jets and only had one engine failure right after takeoff.

There are endless reasons for performing diligent runups. The first reason is contaminated fuel. We know what happens when we try to burn water, but what happens when you mix Jet A with avgas? Just ask airshow great Bob Hoover. You see, someone fueled his turbocharged Aero Commander with Jet A instead of avgas, thinking that it was a turboprop. Jet engines are pigs; they'll drink anything. But pistons are temperamental beasts that crave the good stuff. Precautions were taken after Hoover's accident to prevent this mistake from reoccurring, but there is no guarantee that different sized refueling nozzles and placards that say "Avgas Only" will prevent a tired worker from doing it again.

Tough financial times have created an even bigger problem in privately owned aircraft. I suspect more than a few of these aircraft never exceeded 50 flight hours in a good year, and now, that time may be cut in half. This poses a significant threat, not only in terms of pilot proficiency, but also for engine failures, tire failures, instrument failures, landing gear failures, and corrosion. But who can blame the pilot/owners when it's a choice between eating and flying? For flying addicts, as most aircraft owners are, this can be a tough choice, but eating usually prevails. And so their airplane sits, and condensation accumulates in the fuel tanks, and bad things wait to happen.

Way back in a previous life, I worked for a crop duster named Red Jensen. Jensen was an aviation pioneer who, among other things, became the first pilot in California to drop borate on a forest fire. In 1974, I was a freshly commissioned Air Force officer waiting to attend pilot training, and with few job prospects for short--term employment, I became his gofer. As such, I was driving his car back to Sacramento after dropping his pilot off in Susanville, near Reno. Jensen's pre--World War II N3N had been sitting in Susanville for a while, but the radial engine started right up.

I watched the big biplane take off, and then began my drive back to Sacramento. I hadn't been on the road for more than 10 minutes when I spotted the N3N sitting in a field near the road. Why was it there? Because the engine quit. The cause? Insects plugged an inlet, and the rest is history. Our pilot was fortunate that his engine failed where it did, for the Sierra Nevada range is treacherous. As I said, frequently used engines run better. Thankfully, our pilot was able to fly it out a few days later after the fuel system was thoroughly cleaned and a complete engine check was accomplished.

The next time you're walking around your airport, take a good look at how many light airplanes are flying. With the exception of Alaska, most general aviation ramps are too quiet. That means there are a lot of engines making nice homes for bugs and birds, and there's a lot of condensation building in fuel tanks. This isn't a good trend. And while your students are now flying on a regular basis to earn their pilot certificates, how frequently will they fly afterwards? Unless they become professional pilots, the answer is probably, "Not much."

Therein lies the problem, and it's a problem that will never go away, so long as your students and former students have limited disposable income. This is why instructors must insist that their students perform engine runups as though their lives depend on it because they do. No one can depend on luck.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark W. Danielson

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports