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Preflighting Students

by Scott Gardiner
Article reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

My first flight lesson (1968) began with the walk around inspection. My instructor pointed out all the things to look at and explained why they were important to check. Lesson number two started with me doing the walk around inspection, explaining as I went, while my instructor asked questions. When I had trouble answering a question, he would provide additional explanations. By lesson number three, I could answer all of his questions. So, for lesson number four and for all subsequent dual flight lessons, back at the FBO he would hand me the keys to the plane, tell me to go do the preflight, and added that he would be following me out shortly. Then he would stay in the air-conditioned office, chat with his buddies, and join me at the airplane in about 10 minutes.

When I became an instructor, I started my students out in the same manner. "You go do the preflight and I'll join you shortly" became a very routine statement. I didn't know what I didn't know.

After about 3,000 hours with students, one day I told a student to go do the preflight and I would join him shortly. Then I found there was no one in the flight school to talk to. I didn't need any more coffee, the logbooks were all up to date, and the temperature outside was really nice. So, I followed about a minute behind my student. He walked straight to the airplane, untied it, opened the pilot's door, climbed into the front seat, fastened his seatbelt, and waited for me.

When I got to the airplane I asked him why he had not done a preflight inspection. "Oh," he said, "I never do a preflight. You wouldn't put airplanes out here if they were junk. Besides, the preflight has already been done on this airplane two or three times today by other students. If there was something wrong, we'd know about it by now." I was shocked that anyone would take responsibility for his own safety so lightly. If we are going to fly any aircraft higher than we can afford to fall, surely everyone would want to know it was airworthy before taking off! I was amazed at his answer and vowed that it would never happen again with any of my students.

I stopped wasting time sitting in the office while my students did the preflight. I began accompanying all of my students when they walked out to the airplane. I am there to make sure they do a thorough job, partly for their education and partly for my own self-preservation. Then, when they are back at the tail checking nuts and bolts and trim tabs, I climb into the cockpit and "mess something up." Simple things like unlocking the primer. Not pulling it out, just turning it to the unlocked position. Then when the students get to the engine start checklist and it says, "Primer as required and locked,' and conditions are such that primer is not required, we soon find out whether or not they check to insure that it is indeed locked.

Other times I might turn a radio on (or the radio master switch on). The airplanes' battery switch is off at this time so the radio makes no noise, but the radio switch is turned on. When the student gets to the pre-start checklist and it says, "Radio off, - there are many times students just assume the radio was off because it's not making any noise. It doesn't take long and they are actively insuring that the switch is indeed off.

Other times I might turn all of the light switches on. Again the airplanes' battery switch is off at this point so we're not draining the battery or overheating the lights. But when the student gets to the pre-start checklist and it says "Lights off, - it is amazing how many will look at the switches, see all of them pointing in the same direction, and assume it is correct. This little exercise soon fixes that.

If the airplane is equipped with fuses, it's fun to remove one, like maybe the fuse to the fuel gauge. Then put the fuse in your pocket and replace the cap to its proper place on the panel. When the engine starts and the engine gauges come to life, it is amazing how many people take a look at them but do not see that the fuel gages read empty. They are looking, but they are not seeing. They might not see it the first time, but I guarantee they will see it the second time you do it. And that after all is the goal of this education job we're doing.

Well, it didn't take long before the students learned to enjoy this little pre-flight exercise. They would come into the cockpit knowing that something was amiss and took great pride in finding it. It is always something covered by the checklist. They become quite proficient at running checklists and actively checking and insuring that things are correct. They stop assuming things are correct and start thinking like a pilot in command should think.

Once they get to this point it's really underhanded, but fun, to climb into the cockpit and mess up nothing. We get all the way to the runway, all of the checklists have been completed, and the student has found nothing wrong. Before they take to the runway they invariably remark, "Okay, what did I miss?

Obviously there are other things you can "mess up,' but I think you get the idea by now. One caution in using this learning tool. Never mess up more than one thing at a time. That way it's easy to remember what it was and make sure it's fixed before takeoff!

This technique has, for me at least, proven successful in keeping me involved, in motivating students, and in helping them transition to the point that they are actively involved in making sure things are correct rather than simply assuming. It also provides for the self-preservation of both the student and the instructor. And who knows, it just might someday prevent a pre-solo student from stealing a general aviation airplane and slamming it into the side of a high-rise office building.

Scott Gardiner is the Safety Program Manager at the Seattle (WA) Flight Standards District Office.

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