Operators anticipate a certain amount of damage and figure the resulting repair and insurance expenses into the cost of doing business. Unless the students or pilots responsible are guilty of obvious misbehavior, flight schools usually exact no punishment beyond emphatic instruction in how to avoid making that same mistake again. Of course, that assumes they can figure out who the culprit was. The accident record contains recurrent examples of damaged airplanes being put back on the flight line without a word to anyone.
In many cases, it appears that no one recognized the problem at the time. Typical was a Cessna 172 at AOPA’s home field of Frederick, Maryland. A Phase III inspection found that a hard landing had damaged the firewall at some point since the Phase II inspection was signed off some 48 flight hours earlier. No one ever reported a hard landing to the operator. The odds are good that the airplane had been flown repeatedly after the original impact, which probably did nothing to limit the damage.
More perplexing are the pilots who don’t notice when the airplane hits something solid. The student pilot who used the left wing of a Diamond DA-20 to demolish a runway distance remaining sign said he never felt the impact. He flew four more circuits of the pattern and apparently was as surprised as anyone to find a three-foot hole in the leading edge after he parked. At least he could blame inexperience. A private pilot hit a REIL control box with his 172 while fussing with a handheld GPS, then taxied back and took off cross-country with a crushed exhaust system, mangled prop tips, a bent firewall, and damage to the left horizontal stabilizer. He might have been expected to notice that something unusual had taken place—and since he was going to be in the airplane, he had some incentive to stop and find out what.
That last example makes it only a little easier to believe that other accidents weren’t deliberately concealed. After a company checkout, an instructor took a student on a cross-country flight in a Piper Arrow. After landing, they found wrinkled skins and popped rivets in both wings directly above the main gear. The instructor swore that nothing had happened while he’d been in the airplane that could have caused that kind of damage.
If that suggests a somewhat casual approach to the preflight inspection—the instructor said that he certainly would have noticed the damage if he’d done the preflight himself rather trusting first the check pilot and then his student—it’s not the only case. A student went around after a hard landing in a Cessna 172, then landed without further incident. The next pilot who took the airplane out returned it early out of concern for a “different sound in the engine noise.” Only then did anyone notice the bent propeller tip (the firewall also turned out to be bent). Preflight? What preflight?
On the other hand, the renter of another Cessna pointed out wrinkled wing skins and was told by a company mechanic that the aircraft was safe. At that time, it had flown 99 hours since its last 100-hour inspection. When the next inspection began four days later, mechanics discovered three buckled ribs and damage to the spar. The pilot who banged it up was never identified.
The postflight inspection may be the most neglected aspect of general aviation, but it’s to every operator’s advantage to learn of any damage as soon as possible—not just to correct it before it gets worse, but also to minimize the risk to future pilots and passengers. Requiring that instructors insist on a real postflight after every lesson is apt to save trouble in the long run, as is making sure students and renters understand that the consequences of flying a compromised airplane can be much worse than those of admitting that they’ve screwed up.