Your connection with the sky

It's a drag to find a rag … inside the cowling.

One of the things I find consistently more difficult as I gain experience flying is maintaining the diligence I know is required to maintain safety.  I believe in standard operating procedures.  I practice them and I teach them.   I’m a full time professional CFI, after all, so most of my flight time is in an instructional environment and yet I still find that my procedures continually need tweaking and improvement. I most often fly in the training environment, one in which we have the luxury of always choosing the safest option.  There is no training mission that HAS to be flown ... there are very few external time pressures ... we follow protocol every single time (as a matter of training as much as maintaining safe operating procedures).

It’s beautiful really ... always flying the ideal.  It makes it easy to know when you stray from the formula.  None of us are perfect and we can only aspire to fly the ideal flight every time. Half the challenge is knowing what the ideal is. It’s satisfying (on some level)  (but also humbling) when I find some of this diligence proving it’s worth.  Just last weekend I found a rag in the cowling of an airplane during the preflight.  There I was, checking out in a new make and model that had just returned from maintenance.  I found it during the preflight ... barely.  Now, every time I teach a student to preflight for the first time I say ... “make sure to look inside the cowling for rags ... or wrenches ... or anything else a mechanic might have accidentally left inside the cowling.  ... yes, you’d be surprised, it can happen” .

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The humbling truth is ... if this wasn’t my first time in this make and model ... and it didn’t have retractable gear ... I probably would not have seen this oil soaked rag, wrapped like perfect kindling around a motor that was about to see temperatures in excess of 240 degrees.

It was only noticeable when you were flat on your back looking up through the open gear doors.  You would have had to have been looking for it if the only access you had was through oil door or air intakes. After the cowling was removed the rag was clearly visible.  How much time do you really spend looking through the oil door, or through the cooling air intakes?  I learned last weekend that I will be spending more time from now on.  Not just for mechanic’s error but also for birds nests or anything else one can think of.  Then it’s time to behave like an airline.  When they have an close call, accident or incident they evaluate their standard operating procedures to ensure mistakes are not made and caught when they are.  It’s a call to action not just to a better preflight but to all of your SOP’s.  It’s a shot across the bow.  A warning to remember your training.  As cliche as it is remember to ‘turn around and walk away ... live to fly another day’.  Find your inner skeptic.  Look for the reason you shouldn’t go flying.  And the hardest part ... as I learned on Sunday ... don’t get slack!  Your procedures, as rote and mundane as they might be, will be your safeguard and assurance that you are being safe and flying your best.


One Response to “It's a drag to find a rag … inside the cowling.”

  1. David Eberhardt Says:
    December 26th, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Excellent article. Checking the engine compartment is easier on a Piper Cherokee 140 than many Cessna models. The Cherokee engine cowlings opens easily for checking everything inside. On one preflight, I found that the tube that holds the oil dip stick was loose and that the safety wire securing it had broken. Normally, I do not find major problems on prefilght but I don't allow complacency to set in.

    I use my preflight time wisely. I have a careful routine which adds something at the completion - I walk back out in front of the aircraft and take one last look for tie downs removed, fuel caps and engine cowling secured, and just a overall look to see if I can catch anything that doesn't look right, in general. I also look at the ramp area for FOD and make general observations about what is happening around my ramp area and the airport in general. This only takes 1-2 minutes extra but it allows me to slow things down and focus on the present. Then I get in the airplane and strap in and get organized inside.

    A well thought out preflight doesn't take too much time and helps get you in the right mindset to follow procedures and checklists. Prefilights can be a time to get you relaxed and focused. Your mind needs to be calibrated correctly before engine start.

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