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Training Tip: A plug for better preflightsTraining Tip: A plug for better preflights

The airplane seemed slightly sluggish during takeoff on a flight to give a nonpilot passenger a taste of the thrills of flying.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

With rpm still below normal and climb performance not improving, the pilot decided to return to the airport.

It wasn’t until after landing that acrid-smelling smoke began to billow from the cowling and low oil pressure and high temperature indications appeared on the glass-cockpit Diamond DA40’s engine instrumentation.

The smoke persisted at shutdown as the pilot and passenger disembarked. “Thinking that I had failed to tighten the oil dipstick before departing and that oil had leaked on the engine, I walked around the nose and checked, but the dipstick was tight,” the pilot said in an Aviation Safety Reporting System submission.

That’s when the pilot walked around the nose of the aircraft and realized that the cowl plugs had not been removed before departure.

In this manner the pilot became acquainted with some hard lessons that you might want to note for the future when you can start giving rides to people seeking a taste of the thrill of flying.

  • No matter how well you (think you) know an aircraft’s procedures, the checklist still matters.
  • Get the passenger involved in the preflight by calling out checklist items. This serves a more important function than just allowing the person to feel included: It can help the pilot avoid being tempted to engage in distracting extraneous conversation.
  • A tight aircraft-rental schedule was pushing the pilot to cut corners, because “I wanted to maximize the amount of time my passenger and I would have in the air.” That’s a clue to consider canceling the flight.
  • Don’t dismiss early signs of trouble—in this case, sluggish response to takeoff power—when you are not yet airborne.

Cowl plugs of dubious design or condition may have contributed to this mishap, but the pilot’s preflight had offered several opportunities to observe that they were still installed. Inattention to the business of piloting was the culprit. Reports are replete with similar accounts involving control-wheel locks, pitot-tube covers—even wheel chocks and tiedown ropes. Once I watched a Cessna 172 land with a homemade wooden rudder gust lock still firmly clamped to its tail.

If someday you find yourself plugging the idea of a joyride to a friend, let this cautionary tale help prevent your plans from going up in smoke.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Aeronautical Decision Making, Aircraft Systems
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