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A view from 20,000 feet is different. It is encompassing. The mountains below look like little hillocks and the rivers like rivulets of water meandering along a path and cascading down to its eventual resting place, a lake or perhaps an ocean. The river below, on the surface, is filled with eddies and currents of water rushing past the banks coursing precariously around rocks in a frenzy, exploiting the staggering fragility of the land.

Checklist use

Checklists help us focus on what is important and reduce the risks associated with flight.

The view from near is clear but limited. The eyes focus on what they have been trained to focus on. A checklist for a pilot is the lens that focuses our vision to the needed components that must be in good working order. If we are diligent, we touch parts or things as we go along reciting the checklist, one by one.

The counterweight of the heavy burden of risk is simply it’s elimination. Yet in aviation some risks are just that, nonnegotiably dogged and persistent. They are just there. Can we live more empowered lives as pilots by reducing the frailty of our limited information of risks and hazards between competing desires of flight and safety? It is a human paradox.

We walk to the aircraft with an eye to where the next flight will take us. The enthusiasm and adrenaline are all there to hurl us into that dream-state. But somethings that the narrow focus may have missed inadvertently may come back to snarl at us.

On a cold day, the sun without warmth pelted down its powerless rays as my friend busied himself readying his Mooney aircraft for a flight to the $200 hamburger. I watched him walk around the aircraft with checklist in hand, nodding as he mentally ticked off each item. I stood and watched his meticulous performance with great admiration. He could be my copilot any day. Yes, but this was his airplane and I was in the right seat. He completed the checklist and climbed on the wing to get into his turbo-powered Mooney. I was given the instruction to close the hangar door, which I did. Upon walking back towards the aircraft, I noticed the aircraft tail hook was still tied. Hmm, I thought, make this a learning moment, or just untie it? You might guess at what I did.

On another flight in a Piper Arrow aircraft, I wondered around the aircraft as the pilot was busy preflighting. I simply placed my wallet inside the cowl opening and watched him look at everything on the checklist as his eyes just swept by the wallet. He was ready to go and there was no way I was going to let my wallet get ingested and shredded.

Flaps down on Cessna

I’ve seen numerous examples of pilots missing obvious issues during preflight even while using a checklist.

Flying in a Cessna 340 to an island for a hamburger is quite the trip. A pilot friend invited me to one of those and I hastily agreed. I walked along as he did his preflight check.  He did it by memory because of his “experience” I guessed. As he jumped in, I stood back. He looked quizzically at me, and I pointed to the gas cap sitting upside down on his left tip tank. He followed my gaze and a shaking of the head and furrowed forehead followed. Humbled, no, humiliated perhaps. Lesson learned for him, perhaps, for me, burnt in the memory banks.

One more quick tale and then we shall move on. On a flight back on a rainy day, I performed a preflight jumping from one checklist item to another. Once in the cockpit and out of the rain, a sigh of relief and the pre-taxi checklist was at hand. I started the engine and all seemed good. The roar of the engine was reassuring. All things were in sync. I advanced the throttle and the engine roared louder but the aircraft did not move. I tried a couple of times with similar results. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lineman come running out in the pouring rain making gestures with his hands around his neck, as if cutting his throat, which I deemed meant shut the engine down. So, I did. He cerimoniously pulled out the chocks from the nose wheel, gave me a toothy grin and ran away from the pelting rain drops. I would owe him a gratitude from my humility.

Stepping back from that limiting focus of vision to gather the entirety of the situation, as pilots, looking critically at the aircraft, one can see the blotches that get mixed in the gray. I have witnessed oil leaks in unlikely places visible only from a distance. Long streaks of oil over the louvers and other darker fluids, dripping on top of the mains, bent trusses from FBOs manhandling the Mooney and sheared off static wicks, a broken A36 Bonanza nose wheel tow-pin, minor dents to the trailing edges of the ailerons. I have seen rivets beaded with fuel suggesting fuel tank needed repairs. All sorts of trivial things that can in the future, lead to major things. Some of these stains or dents can be long-standing and become part of the confirmation bias.

Flying an aircraft is a disciplined endeavor that requires care and caution. It requires us to focus and then to let our eyes gaze over the whole aircraft. It is like admiring the intricacies of a Rembrandt painting from near and the magic from afar. The majesty and beauty and craft and perfection seen from two different perspectives.

So perhaps before departure of each flight and after each arrival, look upon the magic carpet with an added wonder of finding something new to behold. There will be nothing most of the times, but then, that one time when you find a wallet, a wheel chocked, an oil rivulet suggesting a loose bolt, a gas cap sitting idly on a tip tank, a dimpled tire, or something that might save the day.

So, step back and admire with a critical eye of what you behold!

Parvez Dara
Latest posts by Parvez Dara (see all)
5 replies
  1. Jim Baldwin
    Jim Baldwin says:

    An excellent article by Mr. Dara. Kudos for drawing our attention to – – just that, “paying attention”.
    As a retired charter pilot and flight instructor, I can attest to many incidents of inattention to detail or just plain ignoring checklists. And – -yes, I have been the author of a few of them along my “storied” career.
    We are all human, which confers upon us the unique trait of forgetfulness. That is why checklists will most likely “save our bacon”.
    Stay alert. Watch for other aircraft.
    Blue skies and tailwinds.

  2. rwyerosk
    rwyerosk says:

    Like the fellow above said…….We are all human. As a CFI and have given a few hundred flight reviews and check outs in aircraft, I have seen a lot of errors and sometimes gross mistakes made by pilots.

    If we learn from our mistakes then it is all worth it. If the the mistakes and errors are because of attitude or arrogance then the pilot will never learn and become a statistic eventually …..That, I believe. is why FAA came out with the risk management program..

  3. William Hunt
    William Hunt says:

    When I was a student pilot, my flight instructor climbed into the Cherokee, looked at me, and calmly asked “Did you know you just untied the ground from the airplane at the back tiedown? Not a hint of sarcasm or humor in his voice, not even a look of supreme disappointment, nothing, just a simple question….. Carl had a way about him. He earned his Golden Wings many years ago, but he still flies with me.

  4. Steve Kuemmerle
    Steve Kuemmerle says:

    Great advice. Since my earliest training, as I work my way around my Piper 180 pre-flight, I do a couple of things. One is that I carry a shop rag, not only to wipe down spots, but mostly, as a drop marker in case my walk around is interrupted. Second, as I work around and complete the prop and nose inspection, I turn my back to the plane and walk about 20 feet out (never walk backwards on a busy ramp) turn back around, and survey the plane from a distance. Over the years I indeed have occasionally spotted things I might not have from up close.

  5. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    This happened a long long time ago in Kathmandu, Nepal. A pilot did his walk around of his aircraft, which was a Pilatus Porter (PC-6). As he still had some time before departure, he allowed himself to have a cup of tea standing beneath the wing of his aircraft, while talking to some of his colleagues, marketing person or engineering person.
    Departure time arrived. Passengers boarded. Pilot started the engine, taxied out and took-off. After airborne, the Pilatus nose-dived and crashed, killing everyone onboard. Among the deceased were the wife and two daughters of Sir Edmund Hilary.
    On the walk-around, the pilot forgot to remove the external flight controls lock. A red flag with a warning ‘REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT’ was still dangling. Besides the pilot, no one noticed it either.
    A lesson learnt is: (a). finish your checklist. No not leave it for ‘after sometime/afterwards’.


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