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Sanity check

Step back and take another look

As I went through the before-start checklist inside my Piper Cherokee at the Sewanee/Franklin County Airport (UOS), I saw my mentor Bill Kershner out of the corner of my eye waving his arms while running to my airplane.

Illustration by Ryan Snook
Zoomed image
Illustration by Ryan Snook

I opened the side window to see what was wrong, and he asked me to verify that all the aircraft switches were off. He bent down, and I cringed as he stood up with my chocks in his hand. He chuckled and waved me off with wishes for good luck. I especially appreciated his kindness and grace that day as I was rushing off to take a practical exam at a nearby airport. (The fact that I made such a rookie mistake on the cusp of certification as a commercial pilot is not lost on me!)

I returned later that day and swapped stories with Bill and other local pilots on the front porch of the Sewanee airport. After they admired my new temporary certificate and shared their congratulations, I confessed that I felt boneheaded after the chock incident. Bill encouraged me not to dwell on it, and he shared a story from his days flying for Piper Aircraft, a stint he secured after an early start as a flight instructor and a Navy career flying Corsairs off straight-deck carriers at night in the Pacific. Besides supervising flight testing and demonstrating airplanes at the company, Bill flew owner William Piper around the country to dedicate new airports.

On one such trip, Bill entered the right (and only) door of the Piper Aztec followed by Mr. Piper as he waved to the press and crowd that had gathered to the side of the airplane. Bill started the engines and, after finishing the before-taxi checklist, increased power only to find the aircraft stubbornly stuck in place. After talking himself out of jumping the chocks, he took a deep breath, shut down the engines and said to the octogenarian next to him, “Mr. Piper, would you mind getting out?” Sometimes misery in company can take the sting out of our own foibles. At least it worked for me that day.

I’ve witnessed the similar mistakes of others in my years of flying. One day we had to jump on the unicom at my airport to warn the pilot of a Cessna 310 that he was taxiing on the runway while dragging his rear tiedown rope—and a chunk of grass-covered concrete—behind him. I’ve also seen what can happen to an airplane whose pilot forgets to remove the tow bar from the nosewheel before takeoff.

That one final walk around ... is that last sanity check I need for a safe and uneventful flight.If you’ve done something similarly silly, a search of NASA’s ASRS reporting system attests that we are not the only ones. In fact, just searching the term “gust lock” returned 81 incidents from the database. In one such narrative, the pilot of a Cessna 414 aborted the flight during the takeoff roll upon experiencing a lack of directional control. It turns out the pilot just forgot to remove the rudder gust lock and, fortunately, there was no damage.

Certainly, the general aviation community doesn’t hold a monopoly on such lapses. Several years ago, an Embraer CRJ200 regional jet flying Part 121 had to return for an immediate landing when the crew heard a flapping sound from the left side of the aircraft. The first officer knew immediately what it was. During his walkaround, he couldn’t remove the standby pitot cover, so he planned to access it from the jet bridge once it neared the aircraft. He just forgot about it, and neither the captain nor anyone on the ground crew noticed it either.

It strikes me that all these situations have at least two things in common. First, in most cases, aircraft damage was minimal, and no harm came to the pilot beyond embarrassment and a bruised ego. The good news about an ASRS report is that the authors survived their incidents and often reported minimal damage and no injuries, but for each lapse detailed in an ASRS report, there are multiple NTSB reports for which the outcome wasn’t happy.

Second, the takeaway from these examples is that each of these anomalies could have been caught by pausing to take one more look to ensure that nothing major was out of place. Years ago, I watched a flight instructor—after the preflight was done and the student had already strapped in—take one big circle around the Cessna 172 before climbing in himself. It struck me as such a great idea that I’ve incorporated the practice into my own routine. (Clearly this epiphany had eluded me before earning my commercial certificate.)

In all my endeavors I get hyper-focused on the details, and I am not as good at stepping back and seeing the big picture. I spend my days bouncing from one project to the next, and rushing is just a feature of my life that I’ve come to accept. But after I feel like I’ve addressed all the items on the preflight inspection and, without a checklist, phone, or anything in my hands to distract me, I force myself to stop and just look. That one final walk around has saved me from repeated chock incidents, departing without the cowling completely secured, or learning first-hand the damage a tow bar can exact. It’s that last sanity check I need for a safe and uneventful flight.

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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