June 6, 2019 was the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The skies, filled with allied aircraft, wearing invasion stripes, are an image that most of us on the planet have only learned about, and not experienced. Combat the likes of what those on that day experienced, on the beaches, on the waves, and in the sky is likely, and thankfully, never to be repeated. However, the image of those young men, alone in their cockpits, has continued to inspire aviators to this day. Today, combat for most of us means being stuck in a traffic jam, or being inconvenienced on a call to our internet provider to sort out some problem with one of our mobile devices.
As a small tribute to those who served on that day of days, I elected to fly our simple Cessna 206 in my own one ship anniversary flight on the D-Day anniversary.
Whether we own our own aircraft, or rent from a flight school or flying club, we can all benefit from remembering that just like in 1944, every flight has lives depending on that flight’s successful completion.
A pre-flight inspection in 1944 may have included checking armament, parachutes, and battle plans, but it also included the same basic checklist items that we all still review on our flying machines, prior to any flight, even for a flight to the local practice area and back. In fact, many of our current safety procedures and inspections were borne out of necessity, and the by the lessons learned by those using aircraft in anger, to create a lasting peace.
When a young airman went out to check his craft in 1944, he was not just wiggling the ailerons, checking his tire pressures, fuel quantity, and removing bugs from his windshield to satisfy his commanding officer, or because it was a base policy to do so. He did it because he was acutely aware that any imperfection with his plane, however small, may be the start of a cascade of problems that could possibly result in his not returning home. Accidents are typically caused by a chain of events, and we pilots have the ability to break that chain, often at multiple points.
A thorough pre-flight inspection is a perfect time to make a go/no-go decision about your plan to take off, after you have confirmed that the weather supports your flight, and that you are otherwise prepared to fly. Don’t assume that the maintenance department has the plane ready for you, with the seat belts starched just the way you like them. Don’t assume that the previous renter topped off both tanks for you. Don’t assume that all of the bolts that hold pieces of the plane together are still where the AME installed them. As PIC, it is your responsibility to confirm, to the best of your ability, that the aircraft it flight worthy.
Take the long way to your aircraft and notice the condition of your antennas, tires, control surfaces, and metal. Does the plane have any hanger rash? Did someone leave the baggage door open, or the co-pilot seatbelt dangling outside of the door seal? Can you see two fuel caps? When you check the oil, look around inside the cowl. Did someone leave an oil rag inside, or forget to install the oil cap? One other wild consideration at this time of year is birds. They are making nests and laying eggs. Their will to fly, may impede your ability to do so. It may not be on your checklist, but it should be on your mind. Has a bird decided to make your plane their new nesting site?
My June 6th flight in our Cessna 206 was uneventful, and the aircraft was freshly signed out after a thorough annual inspection. The engine was spotless, and the flight was perfect. Where the story gets interesting is at the pre-flight inspection of it’s subsequent flight, 13 days later. This aircraft lives outside at Villeneuve, by the tower, with cowl plugs installed. Some bird droppings on the cowl may have gone unnoticed, were it not for the fact that I have seen this problem previously. It was the single blade of field grass sticking out of the cowl next to the oil cooler that was the tell. Sure enough, birds somehow defeated the cowl plugs and had built not one, but two nests, on top of the right cylinder bank. A total of 4 eggs were also laid.
Keep in mind, this all happened in less than 13 days, on a regularly used aircraft, at a busy airport, that has a bird management strategy in place. Missing the nest on pre-flight would have been easy. It took removal of the cowl to see the entire structure that the birds had built. If the one piece of grass sticking out of the cowl had blown away in the wind, who would have thought to look inside the cowl with a flashlight during the day? flying with the nest material under the cowl would create a fire hazard at least, and a further risk when faced with how, when, and where to deal with the emergency landing that would certainly follow. Again, here are those links in the accident chain that we hear about…
The birds that built the nests were resourceful, and were doing what birds do. They were not trying to hurt anyone, or bring down an aircraft. Airport ops was doing their best to deal with problem birds. The AME just signed off on a fresh annual inspection. The plane just flew a few days ago. What could be wrong. The answer is anything, and everything. Assume that no plane that you want to fly is ready to do it until you make sure that it is.
Most of us in general aviation today make a choice to fly on any given day. Rarely will the world stop turning if the weather stops us from attending a fly in breakfast, or taking a scenic flight over the river valley. It’s not 1944, and none of us are being pressed into combat in our Cessnas or Pipers, and if we don’t fly, freedom will still reign. Too often though, we are tempted by complacency to shortcut steps that matter. Our instructors teach us to fly only when we are ready, alert, and sharp. Then, only when the weather supports our plans. We should plan our flights, and fly our plans. A thorough pre-flight inspection is one of your best opportunities to demonstrate professionalism to your passengers, and a commitment to safety to yourself and others around you. Elevate your expectations of yourself and you will find it contagious. The pre-flight checklist is the minimum that we refer to. Think before your yell “clear” – have you done everything possible to ensure that you and your aircraft are ready to fly?