How to Avoid Missing Critical Items (and Other Learning to Fly Tips)

This is it. You’re gonna fly.

You’re belted into the left seat with the headset on – ready to fly! Your instructor pulls the wheel backward and forward and says, “This is your airspeed.” She touches the throttle saying, “This is your altitude.”

You think, “It’s a bit early in the morning. She’s got it backward.”

It all starts five minutes earlier when she shows you the walk-around. Next time, it’s your turn so you pay close attention.

Starting with the cockpit, you check the log books, note the time on the Hobbs meter, check the full gauges, pull the gust lock off and systematically check everything you can from the cockpit. Then… to walk around the airplane, checking each thing as you come upon it… all in one circuit of the airplane.

Kick the left tire… too soft?

The fuel gauge said the tanks were full but you open the fuel cap and check just to be certain. Left tank is full.

Remove the left tie-down chain.

Damage to leading edge of left wing?

Is the left navigation light red? It should be.

Left aileron. Move smoothly? Nothing scraping or dragging? Jam nut on push rod tight? (Hold the aileron up with one hand while to check the jam nut to protect your fingers.)

Static air vent on left side of fuselage clear? No wax or other obstruction?

Leading edge of left horizontal stabilizer damaged or nicked?

Elevator move smoothly?

Remove tail tie-down chain.

Elevator trim secure?

Now the right side of the airplane checking the same things systematically as you go.

You work your way  to the engine nacelle. Open the cowling and check the oil… wipe the oil off the dipstick with your fingers, not with an oil rag. Why? Because you want to feel the oil for grit, metal shavings anything that shouldn’t be there.

She (your flight instructor) tells you not to screw the dipstick back in too tightly on a Lycoming engine because it may be impossible to remove when the engine is hot. She shows you how to use the oil from the dipstick to lubricate the fuel caps… sometimes they are so dry that they are hard to open.

Drain some fuel into a sampling cup from the fuel trap near the bottom of the engine nacelle. Is it contaminated? Is water pooled at the bottom of your sampler? You ask, “Why is water contamination not a problem with cars?” She explains that car gasoline (called mogas in aviation circles) contains alcohol. When alcohol is present in gasoline, all three substances mix together so they pass through the engine without a hiccough. But alcohol evaporates on a warm day at high altitudes forming bubbles in the fuel line starving the engine … so no alcohol or water in avgas.

You have the ignition keys in your pocket so you know the magnetos cannot be ‘hot.’ Finally you run your fingers along the leading edges of the propeller.

You ask your instructor, “What’s a ‘hot’ magneto?”

She explains that even a single-engine airplane has three separate electrical systems. One is like a car’s electrical system. When the engine turns over it rotates an alternator powering all of the airplane’s lights and electronics. But for safety’s sake, every cylinder has two spark plugs. Each set of plugs gets electricity for its spark from a very simple device called a magneto. Each magneto is powered by the engine and is timed to produce a spark at just the right time in each cylinder’s compression stroke. Since they produce a spark when the engine turns over, you could accidently start the engine by moving the propeller. To prevent that, the magnetos are shorted out by the ignition switch when it is put in a position that allows you to remove the key.

You think, “Wow! there is a lot to learn and I’m not sitting the the pilot’s seat yet!”


  1. Ettore on October 27, 2018 at 07:49

    Nice article, useful not only for beginners, like me. Thanks

  2. bob Hannigan on October 27, 2018 at 17:04

    Good reminder and I learned something new. (checking oil using your fingers)

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