There aren’t a lot of good reasons to crash an aircraft, but some are certainly better than others. The pilot of a Piper Lance whose freshly rebuilt engine quit 200 feet into climbout knew he didn’t have a lot of options for saving the aircraft and wisely focused on saving its occupants. (He succeeded.) Likewise, when a short circuit at the hydraulic pump started a fire in the cockpit of a Cessna 172RG, the instructor and his student had no time for anything beyond getting it back on the ground. (They also succeeded.) But accidents caused by unanticipated mechanical failures are relatively rare, as are those precipitated by power losses that can’t readily be explained. The vast majority—about 70 percent overall—can be traced to something the pilot either did or failed to do.
Here, too, some are easier to understand than others. Landing is generally regarded as the trickiest part of flying airplanes; student pilots haven’t had a lot of experience doing it, so it’s not surprising things sometimes get out of hand. However, it’s hard to imagine what might motivate anyone to launch on a five-hour flight with three hours’ worth of fuel and no specific plans about where to stop for more. The hazards of VFR into IMC are drilled in from pre-solo training, but a couple of dozen pilots every year choose to blast off (or continue) into the murk and end up paying with their lives. Their thought processes are difficult to reconstruct.
But one type of accident frustrates safety advocates even more than fuel exhaustion or scud-running, if that’s possible. On average, two or three aircraft a month are cracked up as a direct result of problems that should have been turned up by a minimally diligent preflight inspection. Some pose the question of whether the pilot-in-command failed to notice the problem or chose to ignore it, but many of the case histories make the answer clear.
The consequences range from comical to catastrophic. In January 2014, a pressurized high-performance single was damaged because its owner didn’t check the oil filler cap before the first flight after an oil change. His rationale? The filler cap wasn’t listed on the “FAA-approved preflight inspection checklist.” Three weeks later, a high-performance twin was banged up in a forced landing after its owner neglected to confirm that the FBO had topped his tanks as requested. With the rueful clarity of hindsight, “The pilot stated that he should not have assumed the fueling had occurred.”
The cost to repair each airplane may push six figures, but at least no one was seriously hurt. Not everyone’s that lucky. Twenty percent of these accidents kill somebody, often more than one. That’s about 10 deaths a year due to problems that should have been recognized and corrected before the aircraft left the ground. In November 2012, for example, a Cherokee Six lost power in the first minute after takeoff; all three on board died after its 18,000-hour pilot stalled it in attempting the “impossible turn” back to the airport. Its fuel was found contaminated with water, most likely from condensation during the two months the airplane sat hangared with its tanks half full. According to witnesses, the pilot didn’t sump them before the flight. It appears that he and his friends were already running late—for an FAA safety seminar.
This brings up a lesson for your instructors to drive home: A perfunctory preflight is not worth doing. The inspection doesn’t have to be excruciatingly protracted, and the pilot needn’t attempt to perform a full annual before every flight—but efficiency is not the same as hurry. Five minutes can be ample to examine a simple piston single if the pilot really looks at it: looks at the fuel and the oil, the propeller and gear, the control surfaces and lights and antennas to find whatever’s about to bite. Hustling through the motions while the mind is elsewhere is scarcely worth the bother. We’ve heard of instructors (and at least one designated pilot examiner) who reinforce this lesson by concealing something unusual (a Teddy bear, a rubber chicken) in the aircraft; if the preflight doesn’t turn it up, there’ll be no flight. Not a bad idea if you can remember where you hid the cantaloupe!
Fuel and oil are the items most often overlooked, but far from the only things. Fuel starvation has resulted from rubber caps left on vent tubes; engines have cooked when pilots forgot to pull the cowl plugs. One fellow liked to make unauthorized taxi runs before the airplanes he was restoring had been inspected. When taken to task by his mechanic, he said it “had not killed him yet.” That lucky streak didn’t hold. Attempting a high-speed taxi in a Super Cub, the airplane pitched up almost vertically, and then stalled back in from 150 feet. It turned out that he’d attached the elevator cables to the opposite control horns—the third time he’d reversed control cables while working on an airplane. You have to believe that an attentive pre-flight would have detected that problem.