More Flap on Flaps

March 5, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

05-473_13ThingsThe flap blog from two weeks ago stirred up some divergent views. In short, a new pilot checked out in an old C172 and lowered full flaps on the preflight, forgot to raise them on takeoff and crashed with four fatalities. I questioned the need for a flap check on the preflight.

There were good points—pro and con:

1. Our highly unscientific poll showed a positive margin that if everyone just followed the checklist as written (53 percent) or as modified by the user (42 percent), this accident wouldn’t have happened. If only we could get pilots to follow checklists to the letter. Of course, I’ve never missed a checklist item and I bet you haven’t either. New C172s require the flaps to be checked on preflight—old C-172s do not. Technically, the pilot added a step to the checklist, but some of you thought that it was OK to add items but not to take them away.

03-342 Checklist

2. Some thought that checklists should be designed by pilots, not the manufacturer’s legal department. Great concept but don’t hold your breath.

3. In response to my question as to why the flight school is liable for what is clearly a pilot lapse—one response was that aircraft, like automobiles, are “dangerous instrumentalities” and the owner is responsible if they rent to an unqualified individual. Pondered that one for a while, but accidents happen with rental car companies frequently, and I suspect that they are not held responsible if someone makes a mistake in a car. The legal system works in strange and mysterious ways. That’s a can of worms we’ll get into another time.

4. A high time CFI had a rather low opinion of the “trash heaps” he flew with a large flight school. If the maintenance is that poor on obvious items, what about the critical ones you can’t see? A different flying gig might be in order. I’ve rejected a few flight reviews in personally owned machines that just weren’t up to my standards, but my livelihood also didn’t depend on flying junk. Not an easy call.

Having spent a few years in the trenches teaching full time in some pretty old aircraft I acknowledge some, but not all, of his points. A wager was made about the number of crashes caused by full flap takeoffs. We should also look at the number of accidents caused by a mechanical flap failure in this category of aircraft. That would give us a better view. Bet that number is equally small. We’ll do a little research on that and get back to you.

5. Sterile cockpit was mentioned during takeoff with the speculation that the pilot might have been distracted. Sterile procedures during preflight and before takeoff are excellent practice.

6. Some lamented the complexity of electric flaps and liked “Johnson Bar” simplicity. There is beauty in simplicity, but the complexity genie has been out of the bottle for a while and it may be tough to get her stuffed back in—liked the sentiment though! Could we please apply that simplicity to avionics!

7. Got a private email from a reader who noted, “It was like I was reading my own words. I was the pilot on final who witnessed the accident and have been flying out of that flight school for the last 19 years. I’m an A&P by profession, PP SEL for pleasure. The bulk of my flying has been in Cessna’s.

“I never understood why there was this need for other pilots to run the flaps through on preflight or at the run-up pad. My first instructor had a philosophy which made sense with me about flaps and the type of aircraft you fly:

  • Do you need flaps for takeoff?
  • Do you need them to land? Can you land without them?
  • The aircraft, at a school especially, flies almost every day and the previous pilot would have squawked a write-up if the flaps were acting up.
  • Do you really need to put more cycles on a secondary flight control that is nonessential for a light aircraft?”

Since these obviously corroborate MY view—take them as the last word…just kidding.

One other point was well made about the importance of divergent views. Having devoted a lifetime to the art and science of safe flight I’ve had the benefit of learning from multiple mentors and by observation. There is real value in looking at things from different angles and perspectives—that’s also a topic for another day but we agree on one point: Flaps misused are killer items. Handle with care.

Thanks much for engaging!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Walt Woltosz

    When I went through my initial Citation training about 7 years ago, my instructor said there were three killer items that were important – flaps, trim, and speed brakes. I developed my own flow that I use whenever i’m cleared for takeoff: 1-2-3-2-1 Flaps, Trim, Speedbrakes, Panel clear except for ACM.

    The 1-2-3-2-1 is Pitot heat, igniters(2), lights (recog, strobes, nag – all together on the left), landing lights (2 switches next to each other on the right), and anti-skid.

    I have used a checklist up to that point through the end of taxi and takeoff briefing, so my V speeds and power dial are already set. But as I take the runway, I don’t have to read a checklist, and it’s easy to remember. Perhaps teaching a similar flow (specific to the aircraft) in addition to using checklists should be routine. Years ago it was CIGAR TIP and GUMPS for takeoff and final approach.

  • Walt Woltosz

    If you don’t have nag lights, they’re the same as nav lights, depending on your spell checker.

  • Tamara Griffith

    Its an interesting question. I often do not teach running the flaps full down on preflight, usually just first notch, but have one checklist that students used some that say to, another checklist that does not. I do teach that when renting a plane, even from another school, that it is required that the flaps work. This is because a school has recently been investigated for multiple issues one being training conducted in a Cessna which the flaps did not work, and was sent for a checkride, and also later ramped checked at another location while giving instruction.
    I also teach the students there is no requirement for flaps to be used just because they work. I also teach not using full flaps unless almost absolutely certain landing assured, as stuck flaps in full down means no go around.
    I teach checklists are not to do lists, and I teach in Cessnas with simple memory flow, which they back check with the checklists. might not prevent missing something on the list but maybe least not miss those major points.

  • Bill Babis

    Obviously the pilot involved in this accident missed many things. Even a cursory look out a window to check flight controls could not miss full flaps on a C172. More than likely this was a hurry up and go accident.

  • Cary Alburn

    Perhaps one of the many items that needs to be drummed into every pilot’s brain from the beginning of training is this: improper flap setting kills.

    That way, what to do with the flaps is not not airplane specific, just that as part of the pre-take off ritual, if the airplane has flaps, they need to be properly set. Maybe that means zero flaps, maybe that means 10 flaps, maybe for transport category airplanes that means 30 or whatever the checklist calls for. But the point is that some airplanes won’t fly without flaps deployed and others won’t fly with flaps deployed, but all airplanes with flaps need to have them set correctly.


  • Duane

    Intentionally taking off with full flaps is certainly not a safe, let alone standard flight technique. However, I read a lot of CFI comments on Bruce’s prior post that said “taking off will full flaps will kill you, period. ”

    Well, if that were true as stated, then it is never safe to do a go around on short final or after a bounced touchdown attempt, or even just do a routine touch and go, which is usually performed with full flaps on short final, and is, indeed a takeoff. The first item on a go-around/touch & go procedure is to apply full power, then the second item is to dump the flaps – at least halfway (or the first notch on manual flaps like the Cherokee). The aircraft won’t climb much beyond ground effect until the flaps are dumped, but the aircraft is at least under control and gathering airspeed with full power, and will start to fly even with full flaps.

    The point here is not to recommend full flap takeoffs … rather, it is that an engaged, knowledgeable pilot, even one who for some reason forgot to retract the flaps prior to completing the pre-flight, let alone starting the takeoff roll, will be able to discern almost instantly that the aircraft is not climbing normally after attempting rotation, and will quickly notice that the flaps are not retracted. It is no big deal to then retract flaps at least partially, begin to climb out of ground effect, and when well established on a climb at at Vy (or Vx as appropriate), gradually retract the rest of the flaps. This is the normal response on a low-altitude go-around or any touch and go landing, and is not nor should it be a “killer” takeoff.

    I learned to fly in a Cessna (150 and 172), but quickly switched to Pipers, and my first and only aircraft purchase was and is a Cherokee 180. I never liked the Cessna electric flaps – the old manual johnson bar flap control on Pipers is great because it gives immediate visual and physical feedback on flap position, it operates much faster than electric flaps, and you are not subject to the whims of an electric motor with limiter contacts that are out of adjustment, or just decides to quit on you.

    Finally, I want to test ALL of the flight controls on pre-flight, every time, to the limits. I may not need the flaps on normal landings, even though I nearly always use them to reduce stall speed to the minimum, except in strong crosswinds. But I sure want to know that I’ve got them if I suffer an engine out and the only landing zone is a short or soft field.

  • Dennis

    Some observations as a pre-solo PPL student, so my opinion is far from gospel (and yet so lengthy…). First, set flap check in preflight is in the cabin prior to exterior check, then flaps are retracted after engine start (newer Cessna 172’s). During run up with before takeoff checklist step 5 is controls free and correct and you have to look outside at the ailerons while turning the yoke, which are right next to the flaps. If flaps were not retracted at engine start you would catch it when looking at the wings. Finally, I do a sanity check prior to getting into the cabin to ensure flaps are up and tie-downs are removed and everything looks right. It’s not in any checklist, but it’s my last chance to look at the overall exterior picture to see if I missed anything stupid. NTSB doesn’t accept stupid as an excuse. So, full flaps were missed 2 times in the checklists prior to take off. Second, during touch-n-go I retract flaps (and visually check) prior to adding full power so the practice results in normal take off. Retracting flaps is part of the after landing checklist, so my rationale is simply bypassing the full stop checklist after clearing the runway and executing flap retract. If the flaps don’t retract I still have runway left for full stop. Also, the FBO should have checked out the new pilot, especially a new pilot. As Forrest Gump’s Mama says, “You never know what you’re going to get”. That applies to both PIC and plane.

    While flaps are not required according the W&B required equipment list, they could be considered personal minimum equipment.

    With all the attention to flap position in the checklist(s) and bold warnings that flaps beyond 10 ° are not approved, I am unsympathetic to the new pilot fresh from having this drilled into him.

    Great article and great comments.

  • Joe Hopwood

    This happened to me once as a result of changing checklist mid stream. The checklist (hand carried) I began with had me lower the flaps and the one I changed to was secured to clip board on yoke did not have me raise them. The 172G actually flew just fine with 40 degrees flaps but getting them up was a real effort. Even with full throttle I had to put in shallow dive to raise flaps and even just a nudge at a time there was a significant “G” change. Sinking feeling as it were. I don’t change checklists any more and I have slowed down my preflight as well.

  • Ken Hunnicutt

    My C310Q has split flaps, so they are not visible from the cabin. Preflight includes lowering flaps to full and checking them visually during walkaround. On one occasion, my preflight revealed that the left side flaps were only partially extended. I’m glad this was discovered before I went to full flaps on final, which I do most of the time. Of course, the planned trip was scrubbed and the flap motor replaced before the aircraft was flown again. Also, the flaps on the C310 provide mostly drag. Taking off with full flaps extended may result in the need to do some laundry afterward. You become airborne before VMC, and the climb rate is quite anemic. Or at least that’s what I’m told :-)

  • Rob Lantrip

    Years ago my primary instructor taught me to reach in the 172 before starting the exterior inspection and lower and raise the flaps. It would be pretty hard not to notice they were still down when you did the walkaround. A little drain on the battery, otherwise foolproof.

  • David Bevan

    As a student pilot, I am being taught to lower the flaps for the preflight and check them thoroughly. Where I came unstuck was during my touch and go training After landing, my flight instructor would flip up the flaps and say “let’s go” for the next circuit. When it came time for my solo, I didn’t have that automatic “flaps up” as part of my procedure. After my second and not greatest landing, I didn’t bring up the flaps on the 172 which was immediately obvious as soon as the plane lifted off. For whatever reason, luck or intuition, I maintained level flight, brought them up, accelerated and climbed out as usual. Certainly not my finest hour and I learned a BIG lesson from it. Don’t let the CFI do anything for you. Do it all yourself so it becomes ingrained.

  • Tom keller

    Opposite to this. I was landing a piper archer when i was told to go around. Not sure if everyone was trained to power up , pull up , cleanup? I was trained this way and to this day have no idea why i grabbed the flaps first. When i pushed that little button on the end of the flap stick WHAM! The stick flew out of my hand and i went from full flaps to none about 200 feet above the ground. i pushed to full power and rode the stall alarm to a foot above the ground. I feel i can honestly tell everyone i went skydiving once. Surely took some years off my life!

  • http://AOPA Larry

    I was blessed from hour one to be weened in a Bellance Decathlon, ie NO FLAPS. I also went on to become a Regional Pilot. In the one, no real checklist but we had one and used one; it was pretty simple in its own right. On the subject of the latter, CHECKLISTS were just like breathing, law-abiding and you owed it to your passengers and yes, your life. But with the Decathlon, landing was without flaps and therefore preflight covered the ailerons and elevators and rudder. I have many hours in a C172 as well as Flight traing at Flight Safety in FLA in Cherokees PA28s and at flight schools Checklists are the standard of training especially when theirs is used for a lot of fledgling future regional airline pilots. In the Decathlon, “slipping” is the way of it, tough I have slipped Cessnas and Cherokees AND SAABs in a “down and dirty” full flaps and “Three Green” configuration. All in all, I say teach them to land light a/c without flaps FIRST and then teach them the use of the application of flaps, as an ADVANCED” form of flight training as you would retractable landing gear. BUT in the end the safe operation of any a/c is the sole responsibility of the PIC, in this case, it was the Instructor.

  • G J Grant

    Glancing at the flaps and saying “flaps up” has become the normal routine for me as a do my last moment checks such as carb heat and mixture as I taxi onto the active. A johnson bar would be great, but electric flaps are the reality. I agree with testing them (what if only one is functional, you don’t want to find out in the pattern at base/final.

  • http://AOPA John Dinger

    I do believe in testing the flaps in a C172, but just a word of caution about one flap going inoperative; while working fine on the test, that does not mean that will be the condition when you actually need them.
    Like most mechanical devices, they only fail in operation. If you’re aware of this and suddenly bank on the first notch of flaps get that switch up pronto.
    A good case for putting in flaps only when the wings are level.

  • Rich

    If you wanna wear out the flaps, rollers, cams, switches and motor and all that , go right ahead.

    You local mechanic will love you.

    Anyone that can’t land without flaps need to turn in their ticket.

    Bump em down and right back up without going the full travel is reasonalble but running them all the way down and back up for no reason is just dumb.

  • Chris

    I learned in an old 150 that had full extension of the flaps as part of the checklist. I agree that checking flight controls as free and correct should easily clue a pilot in that something isn’t right, those flaps stand out like sore thumbs on the 150s and 172s.

    Another thing that should have been apparent was the sluggishness as the plane accelerated. I was doing stop and go’s on a long runway in the 150 back in my student days and noticed that she wasn’t picking up speed like usual. Not wanting to become one with the flora at the end of the runway, I pulled the power, hit the brakes, and turned off at the next taxiway. A quick glance around showed me the cause – the flaps were still at full extension and causing significant drag.

  • Dave

    What if you don’t lower the flaps on preflight and the first time you lower them is on downwind leg for landing on a short field, and only one flap comes down? How good are you with barrel rolls at low altitude? Also, what about a go around with full flaps on a short runway with high tension wires in front of you. Are you going to use a checklist, or your memory, to get the flaps up on this procedure? Point is, ALWAYS use your checklist……….everytime.

  • Nate

    In the Hawker HS125 we have a “FATS” check on line-up that stands for Flaps, Airbrakes(closed), Trims, and Speeds (V-speeds bugged). They are the “killer” items. I’ve modified that for piston flying to FFTS- Fuel, Flaps, Trims, and Speeds. That, in conjunction with the old “lights,camera,action” drill should eliminate most of the killer items in light airplane work, and most of the merely embarrassing ones as well.

  • Nicola

    Did touch and go, pulled up flaps before leaving the run way, but the c172 did not climb and speed was not picking up, ther was a switch error (0) on flaps, flaps was 30 and down, then set flaps to 30again and then went slow to 20 – 10 -0 And they finaly went up, After this i allways check flap extra, but got in the air with no problem.

  • Adam

    During my initial training on a PA128 I was never taught to run through the flaps, I was taught a visual inspection would suffice. I did once take off with full flap as a solo student, realised I was not reaching the corrrect climb speed and realised what the problem was and rectified it. Why did this Pilot not realise? Maybe there should be more education on working through a problem instead.

  • Henning

    This is where cockpit checkouts come in and developing flows for procedures to back with checklists rather than teaching checklist use as a ‘do list’. Pilot failed to properly familiarize himself with the aircraft. What was the W&B for the flight?

  • Mike Mongillo

    I fully agree with checking everything before and after each flight. It should be done. Yes. There are manufacturer’s checklists with good reason. Follow them without fail. In my book, a 172 doesnt need flaps on take-off… But we all know that. Actually are there any prop planes that require them on TO ? So, it all vcomes down to discipline. You check everything, and re-check what you have done. Gas cap, oil cap, flaps, pins, cowl doors, tie-downs, wheel chocks, etc… In hind-sight of course we know jwhat this pilot and many others should have done… Just be careful, thorough, and observant. Some new pilots are in such a rush in their excitement to get in the air, and take their friends up, that they overlook the basics… Its sad, because so many crashes could have been avoided if they just would have slowed down a little, and took the time to be sure of themselves. Always give yourself ample time to do checklists, and walk-arounds. No flight “has to be made!” i think that some instructors may assume that their student would find it obvious that they would look out the side window and check the flaps, and the ailerons – isnt that what you do anyway?
    Well, be careful my friends, happy flying! Be safe…

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  • Peter L Collins

    During my ab-initio training in a RANS S6 my instructor had me on late final with full flap then said “obstruction on runway – go round” adding, “flaps are jammed – now what do you do?” He also taught me how to deal with various other equipment failures. Sort of like partial panel practice. Yes, he already knew the S6 would fly okay on full flap.
    Since then I have made a practice, in every plane, (with an instructor, if in doubt) to go up to altitude and rehearse a variety of configurations and failure modes. Include jammed ailerons, dead flap motors, trim motors self-driving to either stop, prop pitch doing the same (and yes, I have had a prop drive to full fine and stay there while over tiger country).
    My present plane is an IBIS with Robertson STOL gear and on full flap (soft field) it leaps off the ground and climbs like crazy, but of course with negligible air speed. So you slowly ease off the flap until you are up to flying speed, or wait until you have plenty of height to recover from the resulting stall before you touch the flap switch.