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
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.
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.