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Training and Safety Tip: Light up your preflight

Aircraft and their parts age with repeated use and time. This wear and tear can cause an accident if a hidden flaw goes undetected.

AOPA Air Safety Institute
Photo by Chris Rose.

For example, on May 26, 2023, a Cessna 172 crashed shortly after takeoff from Palm Beach County Park Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida. According to an airport security video, the airplane climbed after rotation, and then descended and climbed again, followed by a 90-degree banked roll and descent to the right until it impacted the ground, tragically taking the lives of the flight instructor and student.

The NTSB preliminary investigation revealed a broken and corroded aileron cable and corroded aileron pulley, which might have caused the airplane to lose control. But with the entire aileron control system hidden behind sheet metal and access panels, how would the pilot know its condition?

Several aircraft areas concealed in darkness can easily be seen with a flashlight—but not just any flashlight. A smartphone flashlight might work for aircraft in a dark or dimly lit hangar, but for aircraft parked outside on a sunny day, a high-powered LED flashlight is in order.

In the case of the 2023 accident, an inspection with a bright light into the rear spar holes of the wing with flaps lowered might have revealed corrosion on the cables and pulleys. This wouldn’t have made the entire length of the aileron cable visible, though it might have been enough to show the cable’s general condition.

Here are other areas where a powerful flashlight can help improve the thoroughness of your next preflight inspection when you check:

  • The brake master cylinder behind the rudder pedals, to detect leaks.
  • The brake fluid lines, calipers, and pads, which are often shadowed by low wings.
  • Inside the wheel wells of retractable-gear aircraft to inspect fluid lines, gear, and door mechanisms, and to ensure the well is clear of obstructions and contaminants.
  • The air vent inlets on the front of the wings that, if not protected with a screen, can make an ideal home for small birds and flying insects.
  • The pitot tube where mud dauber wasps and contaminants can block the opening.
  • Inside the rear spar holes of the elevator to look for hidden bird nests or bee hives.
  • The rudder cable connections inside the tail of the aircraft.
  • The engine compartment looking through the oil/fuel sump door opening and engine inlets for bird nests, broken or cracked hoses, or anything that doesn’t look right.

So, be prepared and add that flashlight to your flight bag.

ASI Staff
Paul Deres
Vice President, Operations, AOPA Air Safety Institute
Paul Deres manages the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s day-to-day operations and key projects that drive new initiatives for advancing general aviation safety including videos, podcasts, publications, and other programs. Paul is an active pilot, certificated flight instructor, and veteran of the U.S. Army.
Topics: Flight Instructor, Aircraft Systems, Flight Planning
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