What’s your preflight routine?

For pilots, state of mind is as important as engine health or electrical power. Accident reports are full of stories about pilot error: fatigue, inattention, distraction and, yes, chatting about crew rosters and missing their destination altogether.

When it comes to single-pilot GA flights, your mental state is even more important. There is no ‘spare pilot’ to catch your mistakes.

It’s a big topic but I’d like to focus on one area where we have the greatest level of control. It’s often overlooked but I think it is very important. It is the time between leaving the house to go flying and the time you start up the engine and begin taxiing.

Your preflight routine can make a big difference to the safety and success of a flight and yet it is almost completely overlooked as a critical stage of flight. So, what can go wrong?

  • Stress. Traffic delays, passengers who don’t show up on time, planes that have been left in a bad state by previous pilots etc. I read one accident report about a British student pilot who was a doctor. At the airport before a solo cross-country flight, he was called over to help with someone who had fallen ill. The poor chap died and yet our doctor continued with his flight despite having experienced a very stressful event.
  • Forgetfulness. On my second flight into Amsterdam Schiphol, I arrived at the airport without the approach plates. Ouch! Luckily, TAA UK were able to print out the basic plates in time for my flight. But this kind of thing is best avoided.
  • Plane problems. I fly a shared group aircraft. This means that I often find it low on fuel, strewn with garbage or with small tech problems that require a check in the MEL or POH to be sure I’m legal and safe to fly. Just taking the wing and body covers off can take a while.
  • Passengers. Nervous or first-time passengers need extra time and help. I’ve also taken some friends flying who thought that they could arrive any time they liked since it was a ‘private plane’. They were nearly two hours late and I had to repeatedly refile my flight plan etc. for the Isle of Man.
  • Weather. I occasionally find myself sitting in a crew lounge or the flying school at Denham waiting for fog to lift or rain to stop. My home base is VFR-only and just inside the Heathrow control zone which puts special restrictions on my ability to fly there, even with an instrument rating.
  • Slot times. Eurocontrol and ATC can play havoc with a well-planned departure. I’ve been sat on the ground several times at French airports waiting for a delayed departure slot or for a controller to find a ‘missing’ flight plan. For VFR trips, fast-approaching night time can also be a restriction. Nobody enjoys night landings at Denham. I think carrier pilots could use it for night training.

How avoid the problems?

  • Leave earlier. Just as there are fuel margins for a possible diversion, I like to give myself a time buffer. I like to be at the airport an hour before my planned departure, especially if I have an airways flight and slot time booked.
  • Park passengers. I prefer doing my preflight inspection and cockpit preparation alone so that I don’t get distracted by questions or interruptions. Passengers prefer staying in the lounge until the flight is ready. Frequent flyers who can help or who know how to sit quietly can join me but generally, I like to park my passengers until I’m ready for them.
  • Leaving home checklist. I have a pre-flight planning checklist that I use to make sure I’ve done everything I need to do with the flight plan etc. But it also includes items such as: passport, Euros, camera, charts etc. so that I don’t leave home without them.
  • Go bag. I like to repack my flight bag after each trip so that it is ready for the next one. I also get my charts – I print them out from Jeppesen Flightstar – bundled up with all my other flight documents such as the weight and balance schedule and put them in the pocket of my flight bag the day before. That way, it’s very hard for me to forget them.
  • Risk analysis. I put together a risk analysis table that takes account of currency, weather, airport familiarity, type of approach etc. to give me a quasi-objective ‘read’ on whether the proposed flight is routine, requires extra care and planning or whether I should just go back to bed. Because I can easily get myself in an indecisive funk about the weather, this helps me take the stress out of the decision.
  • IMSAFE. This acronym – illness, medication, etc. – is built into the MFD on the Cirrus and it’s a useful reminder to check in with yourself before committing to a flight.
  • Remember, it’s just a hobby. My biggest problem comes from the feeling that I need to complete a flight once I have committed to it, especially if I have passengers. However, the flight must be safe, legal and FUN. It’s very important to remind yourself that you can always go flying another day.
  • iPhone. My lovely iPhone has changed the way I fly. With Homebriefing.com, I can amend flight plans or send delay notices. With Avbrief.com and meteox.com, I can get accurate, up-to-date weather and rainfall radar information. When I’m overseas, easy access to this information is invaluable especially in that short window before you take off when you really need to be up-to-date with the latest information.
  • Timetable. For each flight, I compile a single sheet with the timetable for the day with everything in Zulu, London and local time. This makes booking restaurants and taxis easier. In the past, I’ve been on too many trips where I haven’t planned carefully enough and found myself turning up at restaurants for lunch at 2.30pm or having to rush back. I also put the main phone numbers for the day on the sheet – passengers, handling companies, restaurants etc. This means that I have everything to hand when I need it.

By using checklists and procedures in the hour or two before the flight just as we all use them in the air, you can reduce stress and enhance safety.

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