Preflights and distractions

What’s your excuse?

One cold day, I was taxiing out to the runway in our Cessna 172 when another pilot says over the Unicom, “Uhhhh, Skyhawk taxiing out, you still have your cowl plugs in.”

Ugh, how embarrassing. I was with my wife and had my tail thoroughly between my legs as I hopped out to remove them. Because of my obsession with preheating, I planned on leaving the cowl plugs in as long as possible on this windy day to preserve heat under the cowl while I preflighted the airplane and closed up the hangar. After completing my duties, I simply hopped in and fired up so the engine wouldn’t cool down a minute more. A classic case of obsessive behavior and being in a hurry.

Another perfect example of the above occurred when I took off from Kissimmee, Florida, in our family’s Baron with a load of six, full fuel, and bags after a Disney vacation. It was a great VFR day in Florida as I saddled up to head home. On the takeoff roll, I noticed the airspeed indicator was only indicating about 80 mph but the airplane was

Pitot tube cover
It means what it says...

clearly telling me it was ready to fly. Rather than perform a high-speed abort with a full load, I elected to rotate. In the climb, the airspeed still indicated just above 80 mph and was erratic. It quickly dawned on me that I left the cover on the pitot tube. I have this habit of tying the flag of the pitot cover around itself so that in windy conditions it doesn’t slap the wing and leave marks on the paint. Of course, this defeats the purpose of having the flag in the first place. Poor technique noted and since changed.

So in as cool a voice as possible, I told the tower that I needed to come back and land. “Roger, make left traffic for Runway 5. Is there any problem?”

“Negative, I just forgot something in the nose,” was my response. It wasn’t a total lie. I forgot to put the pitot cover in the nose. My mom was riding up front with me and she’s been around airplanes (and me) enough to know that I was full of it. I broke the news to the rest of my passengers and had to fess-up to my wife who, as you know, has been through this kind of thing before. I landed, pulled into the nearest FBO and quickly did the embarrassing job before heading back out.

I had a long flight home to think about what could’ve resulted from that mistake. Had the weather been low, I would hope to have made a decision to abort the takeoff. If not, and I continued around for an instrument approach without an airspeed indication, would’ve added another challenge. Since I’ve flown this airplane most of my life, I know what power settings yield the appropriate speeds for approach. But what if I was in a different airplane? It’s easy to see how a seemingly innocuous oversight could lead to a tragedy. In this case, six lives and a perfectly good airplane could have gone up in smoke.

A final option, and possibly the safest if the weather had been crummy that day, would have been to continue with the trip toward our VFR destination rather than perform a partial panel IFR approach. For normal flights in good weather, an airspeed indicator is not that critical, especially in an airplane you’re familiar with. When I learned to fly a Piper Cub, I rarely looked at the airspeed indicator. There were so many other audible, visual, and tactile clues as to what the airplane was doing, it seemed redundant.

Likewise, the aforementioned cowl plug situation likely would’ve been caught with higher than normal oil and cylinder head temperatures. However, it could’ve have gone horribly wrong if the foam decided to ignite after the plugs blew back onto the cylinders. Since I’ve now proven that I’m dense enough to leave the cowl plugs in, I wrap the cord between the plugs around the propeller. In that case, the cowl plugs will be forcefully yanked out and tossed away in shreds. A small price to pay for a stupid mistake.

Some time ago, I was in the 172 taxiing out when I came face to face with a Piper Seneca taxiing with a 10-foot long bright yellow towbar attached to the nose wheel. I tried to raise the pilot on the Unicom with no success. So I positioned my airplane to block the Seneca’s access to the runway. Using charades, I tried to signal the pilot that something was very wrong. I also pointed to my headset as a signal to listen to Unicom. Neither worked and the pilot was clearly peeved that I was blocking his access to the runway. So I shut down the engine, set the parking brake, got out and approached the airplane while pointing at the nose gear. Still no success. I walked around the back of the wing on the passenger side and the pilot opened the door. Turned out, it was a mechanic from the local FBO just taxiing to the runup pad and he wasn’t happy with me. He acted like he intended to taxi with the towbar on. But how was I to know? Besides, how smart is it to taxi with a giant towbar attached to the nose gear? Besides being poor maintenance practice, other pilots, like myself, will assume that it’s an airplane taxiing with intentions for takeoff.

Towbar
Don't forget the towbar

Years later, I was guilty of the same preflight crime. Actually, I wasn’t intending to fly, I was taxiing to another FBO to get fuel, but still it was very bad form. I arrived at the Brookhaven airport on Long Island, New York, and pulled the Beech Bonanza up to the self-service pump to get fuel. There was an airplane ahead of me and I shut down and waited. Not wanting to waste a cycle on the engine just to move it 20 feet ahead, I hooked up the towbar. When it was my turn to get fuel, I yanked the airplane ahead and started to begin the fueling process. As I’m trying to figure out how to get the pump working, the pilot of the airplane behind me told me that I had to have an account set up with the local airport authority to use this pump. Being an out-of- towner, this wasn’t going to happen. The pilot told me to taxi to an FBO on the other side of the field where transients could get fuel, albeit at a much higher price.

Of course, I wasn’t too happy with this waste of time and promise of more expensive fuel. I jumped in the airplane, fired up, and started taxiing. The other pilot signaled me and pointed at the nose wheel. I immediately knew what I’d done and shut down the engine. I thanked him for his preventative measure and noted that the propeller was precariously close to contacting the towbar. Luck was definitely on my side again. And my plan to use the towbar to save a hot start and cycle on the engine backfired miserably.

Will there be more preflight mishaps for me? I’m sure of it. I just hope they aren’t memorable enough to create another article.


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16 Comments

  • How stupid could you be? It’s funny how pilots I know who admit to mistakes are still around and those who don’t are not.
    I was at an airport, a pilot called an emergency, he left the tow bar on. I watched him land safely. Turned out it was a well experienced pilot who was a friend of mine. He said he was making adjustment at the compass rose and forgot to take off the bar.
    Another friend who bought a new toy, an electric tow bar, was so absorbed in the controls on the unit as he moved his plane into the hanger and bent the wing tip when it got to close to the wall.
    This other fool was taxing out in a 172 with his baggage door flapping in the breeze ! Who, meee?

  • Couldn’t be any worse than forgetting to untie the tail of the 172 that i was taking on my private pilot chedkride. FAA guy just smiled and said “i bet you never do that again” And ya know he was right.

  • In 27 years of flying I’ve never forgotten to take the tow bar off. I have left the airplane tail tied down twice. I’ve forgotten to remove the pitot tube cover once and forgotten to put it on a few times. One of those times a bug created a nest in the tube. Waited a hair to long to abort the takeoff when airspeed only went to 60 but I did manage to stop 3 feet from the airport fence. Only a slight flat spot in a tire. I lowered the landing gear and a passenger distracted me on final. The gear horn made me check the gear and it was still up. Gear motor had failed. Went around and lowered the gear manually. I now check on downwind base and final and have set my radar altimeter to 200′ as a final gear check.

  • Pete,
    If you’re as lucky as I was you abort the start and nothing is hurt but your pride. If you’re not lucky, it could be expensive. Drivetrain damage first at the hot section of the engine, (N2 power turbine). The blades and the transmission are remarkably strong in this case. If you don’t break the tie down strap, (shut down in time) the chances of further damage to the drivetrain is minimal. If the strap breaks and you have the hook still connected to the blade, then you have that extra 6 to 8 inches the beat the rear drive shaft cover up pretty bad. The sudden start (movement) of the rotor system is where damage to the transmission and the rest of the drive train can occur. Catch that (TOT) before it hits the red line and you’ve saved the day.

  • Sorry I forgot to add, to prevent this mistake, always swing your blades close to the 3 and 9 o’clock position before you strap in. If you do this you won’t miss that tie down still hanging on, and you’ll know your blades are clear and untied. It can happen to the best of us.

  • FrostWire, I’m new here and enjoy the comradely of these group discussions very much. I haven’t found all the right buttons yet to update my profile. Sorry, I don’t use Face book.

  • Hello everyone,

    I am a new pilot (70 hours) and appreciate all the insight and information. I can’t get enough!I still take various instructors up with me on small cross country trips and when winds whip up 90 degrees and 20 knots! I don’t mind paying a little more as I learn so much each time. I wonder if Richard C. wouldn’t mind going with me sometime? I think I would learn a few new tricks! As for my bonehead mistake…while on a phase check I couldn’t hear the instructor with all the local chatter to I flipped the frequency to another and forgot to change it back as I was entering the pattern. I was wondering why the pilot cut in front of me on downwind? I quickly changed back to 123.00 and repeated my position. Needless to say, from that point forward I just ask them to speak up.

  • Years ago I saw a fellow with a torjan try to taxi out witht eh chocks still on. You thought he figure it out after he jumped the first chock with lots of power…but no. Got him to shutdown, I removed the chock that was left for him and he went his marry way. Lessons to be learn can happend to anyone

    • I did the same thing once many years ago because I had made that very dangerous mistake of rushing. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were about 10 people at the fence watching the show. It was embarrassing. Never rushed a pre-flight again.

  • I did a too quick preflight on my 172 and got a nasty surprise on takeoff. When I glanced down to check the airspeed, it was 200 and decreasing. Confusion is quick and reactions are slow. Short runway to start with so I continued and came back and landed uneventfully. The static port on the side of the fuselage was plugged with bug dirt. I still haven’t figured out how the airspeed goes backwards from zero, …but I do actually look at the static port! ANOTHER lesson learned.

  • In the middle of my preflight on my Twin Comanche, a freind stopped by to chat. I then finished (?) looking over the airplane and proceded to take off. Just as the wheels were up, the tower called to tell me they had seen my towbar attached to the nose gear.
    I have a mirror that lets me see the nose wheel in the down position, and I could see the towbar sticking straight down! I was concerned that the gear and gear doors would be entangled, but had no alternative buy to put the gear switch down and hope. Lucky me. The wheels came down and locked, I landed and was astonished to find that there was enought play in the springs and hinges of the gear doors that they were undamaged.

    The obvious moral is to not allow anyone to interrupt your preflight, but if they do…start over and do a proper inspection.

    • Ha! This story hits home. I just took off the other day and heard a clunk on rotation, didnt think much of it at the time, thought it was ice from the runway. A few days later the FBO called and asked if I was missing something. Turns out I left my tow bar on the runway. I am scared and humbled that I made this mistake but it is nice to know I’m in good company.

  • I had about 50 hrs and had flown down to see some friends and impress them with my “new” 63 172…being a careful pilot I did a complete pre-flight when I was ready to leave. I flew straight and level back to my home airport about 20 minutes – but thought about going sight seeing, but had promise the wife to get home – good thing. When I landed there was oil all over the side of the plane. The oil cap was the chian on type and I had left it off.

    What a dummy!!

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