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Missing the Forest for the Trees

With my takeoff checklist complete, I lined up on runway 14 at Dove Airstrip (MO81) in Christian Wings for the World‘s C150 with my instructor, Lionel Smith. I applied the brakes while pushing the throttle full forward, then released the brakes and began accelerating down the narrow, short, and tree-lined airstrip.

As the little airplane began bouncing around on the fairly rough asphalt strip, I noticed something jiggling around on the nose cowling right below the windshield. Whoops! I suddenly realized I had placed the fuel tester on the nose cowling after using it to check the fuel during my preflight inspection and had forgotten all about it. Since we hadn’t lifted off the ground yet, I quickly reduced the throttle to idle and began applying the brakes. Not seeing the fuel tester, Mr. Smith assumed I was aborting the take off due to my concern for the take off performance. He quickly reassured me that we were doing fine and that I could continue with the take off, but I just grunted and continued with “flying” the airplane until it stopped. Once we came to a complete rest, I explained that I could see the fuel tester lying on the nose cowling. So, I shut down the engine, climbed out of the cockpit, and retrieved the “loose item.” How had I missed something so obvious? It was “right in front of my nose”!

I think we can agree that attention to detail is critical in aviation. So, why are there so many stories of pilots missing seemingly obvious items that normally don’t cause any harm but can certainly result in embarrassment — and at times — an insurance claim? If you’re curious as to whether or not this is really much of a concern, let me list a few of these type of occurrences to which I could personally tag a pilot friend’s name and, yes, even my own to some of them.

  • Trying to taxi while still tied down or with wheel chocks still in place
  • Starting up with the cowling plugs still in inserted
  • Taking off with the pitot cover on
  • Taxiing with the control lock still in place
  • Taking off with fuel caps unsecured
  • Taking off and flying around with the oil cap off (not dangerous, but it makes a big mess!)
  • Taxiing with ground cable still attached
  • Taking off with a thunderstorm 10 miles away (check the radar, particularly during the summer months)
  • Starting up, taxiing, and taking off with the tow bar still attached
  • Leaving items such as fuel testers, clipboards, charts, and headsets on the wing or nose cowling
  • Landing with the gear up (multiple instances even in high-wing aircraft where the gear is visible from the pilot’s window)

There may be multiple reasons for missing these seemingly obvious items. Common causes are things such as being in a hurry, becoming complacent, or assuming the “other guy” like a student, CFI, or lineman is responsible. There are common distractions that could cause you to “lose your place” on the checklist or to save some of it for later. These distractions look like phone calls, human interaction, waiting for passengers, using the facilities between preflight inspection and boarding, etc. When feeling rushed or otherwise emotionally imbalanced, make yourself slow down and do the right thing. A very safety conscious instructor once taught me to step back from the nose of the aircraft, and verbalize this memorized checklist immediately prior to climbing in the aircraft, “Pins and panels, chains and chocks, grounding wires, tow bars, fuel caps, loose items, and the wind.”

In my opinion, there are two basic things you can do to help reduce these rather embarrassing stories. One, strictly adhere to a checklist that is complete and yet practical for you and your aircraft. Second, when you know you’re ready to climb in the aircraft, walk a complete circle around the aircraft to make sure you haven’t “missed the forest for the trees”. You may be surprised at what you’ll find, and hence be very glad you took an extra few seconds to put a little common sense into your detailed experience.