How to preflight a plane

After another lesson spent in the sim practicing maneuvers, it was time for the real deal. My first flight lesson in an actual airplane! The first step to flying any airplane involves preflighting the plane. Preflighting the plane is the process of checking the plane for anything that might cause a problem in flight, such as low oil or a leaking hydraulic line.

Preflighting starts before I walk out to the plane by running through the I.M. S.A.F.E mental checklist. If I'm feeling sick, stressed or depressed, then I should postpone the flight for another day. Another item is checking the weather. With the weather, I'm looking first for any hazardous weather systems such as thunderstorms that might ground the flight. Then I check for other things such as windspeed to make sure the winds are not exceeding the limits of what the plane or I can handle.

Next is walking out to the airplane itself. Making sure to check everything on the plane is so important that the process has its own checklist. The details vary depending on the plane, but the process for me starts with checking fuel levels; the battery; and booting up the plane's avionics to check for any electrical problems. Then I'll take a walk around the plane. I'm untying the plane; removing those red "remove before flight" covers; and looking for any leaks, dents or loose screws. I'm also gently moving the control surfaces like the ailerons to make sure they are moving smoothly and that the cables are not loose or frayed.

Another step is sumping the fuel tanks. The tanks in the wing have little holes along the bottom where I can stick a fuel jar into them and draw some fuel out. This way I can make sure that the right kind of fuel is in the tanks (different fuels are dyed different colors) and check for any contamination like water. While I have gauges inside the cockpit that shows the fuel level, I still get up on top of the wing and check the levels inside the tanks to make sure I'm getting the right reading from the gauges. It's good to trust the instruments, but even better to verify that they're correct.

Towards the end of the walk-around, I'll check oil levels in the engine and look around the engine compartment for any visible problems. Then it's time to make sure all the lights on the plane works. Every airplane is required to have red and green position lights on the wingtips. Red is on the left side from the pilot's point of view and green is on the right. The way I remember which side is which is that the red light is on the port side of the plane, and that port wine is red-colored. Whoever said flying and drinking don't go together? :P

Airplanes also need to have either a beacon light or strobes and for night flights a landing light. One quirk of the Skycatcher that I've noticed is that the starboard strobe never lights up the first time, requiring a reset before it goes. Planes, like people, have their own personalities.

Finally, I'll get back in the plane and set up the seat, seat belts and rudders to fit me. Many planes have adjustable rudders that move back and forth to fit both tall and short people. Since I'm a towering 5' 2", I usually have to move the rudders all the way forward.

All this, and I haven't even started the engine yet! My first preflight with my instructor took around 45 minutes, although that was with her stopping to explain things. A few months later, it usually takes me around 20-30 minutes. But it's not about how long it takes- it's about making sure the plane is safe to fly.

In my next post, I'll talk about starting the engine and finally getting off the ground.


Gow December 3, 2012 at 11:50 am

What does the acronym IM SAFE stand for?

Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Eating. It's a checklist some pilots use to make sure they are okay to fly.