Few myths are more enduring than the beleaguered, sleep-deprived pilot who laconically accepts the aircraft he or she is given and, without worry or fear, takes to the skies to have curious adventures. Something Dr. ATP mentioned a few weeks back combined with my own recent experiences to make me want to remind pilots that it's absolutely okay to decide to not fly an aircraft. We're not Jimmy Doolittle or Chuck Yeager and for good reason. We're civilian flyers and safety should be our goal, not proving our courage and fearlessness. As student pilots we learned to do a thorough preflight, but after we earn our certificates and ratings it's all too easy to breeze through the preflight inspection. Most of us arrive at the airport spring-loaded to fly and we may have passengers who are anxious to fly, too. Adding to the mix are aircraft owners/operators loath to address discrepancies as they walk the razor fine line between affordability and safety. Let's not forget our friends at the FAA who don't want us to do anything stupid, but lack the staff to do regular enforcement and rely instead on making examples of those caught breaking the rules. The real challenge for GA flyers is to look beyond the myth and mystique, keep these issues in perspective, and sometimes to conclude we will not fly an aircraft.
You learned in your primary training that to be airworthy, all of an aircraft's inspections must be current, all the required documents must be on board, all the items on the aircraft must be present and functioning properly or properly deactivated/removed and placarded. Yet as soon as the ink is dry on your temporary airman's/airwoman's certificate you begin to hear tall tales from more experienced pilots, stories about the chances they took, the risks they faced, and how they flew a plane that wasn't airworthy as if it was something to brag about.
If a required inspection hasn't been done, if maintenance has been performed but no logbook entry made, if an incorrect maintenance logbook entry was entered, if an airworthiness directive has not been complied with, or if inoperative equipment has not been properly handled, the plane is not airworthy. This fact may rain on your parade, but no amount of wishing, magical thinking or optimism can change the situation. Only appropriate action by an authorized mechanic can make an aircraft airworthy again.
An often asked question is "Do you take the word of an owner/operator that a rental aircraft's inspections are current or do you ask to see the aircraft logbooks?" The cases that have gone before the FAA/NTSB would indicate that it is the pilot's responsibility to check that the plane is airworthy, including examining the logbooks. If something goes wrong, the FAA will hold both the owner/operator and the pilot-in-command responsible, so you best ask to see the logs. If the owner/operator is not willing let you see the aircraft logs, you've just learned something very important. On a few occasions I flew an aircraft without inspecting the logs, taking the owner/operator at their word, only to learn the plane wasn't airworthy. And I'm not bragging either. Each time I chided myself for not being more thorough and thanked my lucky stars that nothing bad happened.
We all remember the acronym AROW, but how often do you actually look at all the documents? Do you remember that the airworthiness certificate is supposed to be visible to anyone boarding the aircraft (14 CFR 91.203)? And now that aircraft registrations expire every three years, the chance is introduced that you could fly with an expired registration. These may be technicalities that don't make the aircraft unsafe for flight, but not paying attention to technicalities is the slippery slope down which many a sloppy pilot will slide.
What inspections are required? A popular acronym is AV1ATES:
Annual inspection every 12 calendar months
VOR check every 30 days (for IFR only)
100 hour inspection (if for hire)
Altimeter, Transponder test every 24 calendar months
ELT functional test every 12 calendar months (and battery replacement as placarded)
Static system (every 24 calendar months for IFR)
Some owner/operators will forego the pitot-static system inspection if the plane is not operated for IFR, which is allowed by 14 CFR 91.411. The transponder inspection required by 14 CFR 91.413 is not an option if you're going to use a transponder with ATC radar.
Airworthiness directives are important and problematic because they identify safety issues that must be dealt with, but determining whether or not an AD applies to a particular aircraft or if that AD has been previously complied with (PCW) can be difficult and time-consuming.
If a piece of equipment is not functioning, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker if you follow the rules on handling inoperative equipment. If you go to fly a rental aircraft and notice the panel is festooned with "INOPERATIVE" stickers, this should give you pause.
Many aircraft owners like to add stuff to their plane and that can affect airworthiness. I'm not talking about fuzzy dice hanging from the magnetic compass or a yoke mount clamped to the control column, I'm referring to stuff that is "permanently attached" (screwed, bolted or welded to the aircraft, or wired to an aircraft system) without a supplemental type certificate (STC).
Seat covers not approved for aviation are something pilots get dinged for when being ramp-checked by an FAA inspector. If your seats are tired and you install sheepskin covers, be sure you get documentation on the flammability of the material used.
If you travel with your dog or with a bike, you may choose to temporarily remove the back seat(s). If you do, you just changed the aircraft's equipment list as well as the weight and balance. Why not have an authorized mechanic make you a temporary weight & balance so you're covered?
Condition for Safe Flight
All of the inspections can be current, all the documents present, and all required equipment accounted for and functioning, and the aircraft may still not be in a condition for safe flight. It takes experience with a particular aircraft type to know the kinds of things that break or wear out, but uncovering discrepancies is easier if you just take time to look. An overall view of the aircraft will usually speak volumes about the owner/operator's maintenance philosophy. If the paint is cracked and peeling, if there's significant corrosion, or if the windshield looks like a shower curtain, you may want to ask yourself what else could be going on with the aircraft, underneath the covers.
Missing cowl screws, a broken wheel faring, leaking hydraulic fluid, nicks in the propeller, broken door handles, primary flight controls that creak and groan when moved, rudder cables that rub or bind, elevator trim linkages installed upside down, leaking propeller seals, aluminum skin that pops or oil-cans when you apply pressure to a wing or horizontal stabilizer, a gear warning that sounds continuously should all give you pause. Rather than being brave and optimistic, ask yourself "What's the absolute worst that could happen?"
Two Heads, Four Eyes
Borrow a phrase from our security friends at the TSA: If you see something, say something. When you uncover a discrepancy, find out if it has already been reported. If it was reported several months ago, find out why hasn't it been addressed? Find a mechanic and ask them to assess. Talk to the owner/operator and find out what they know. Involve others in your decision making, learn from their expertise, but trust your gut.
If you have a bad feeling about an aircraft, listen to your gut. Honing your awareness may make us uncomfortable, maybe even wary. That doesn't make you any less brave than the risk-taking pilots, it makes you smarter. In aviation, as in many walks of life, it's good to be smart. A positive safety culture is one in which people are not criticized for pointing out discrepancies and problems. A positive safety culture, like aeronautical decision-making, takes in all available perspectives and arrives at the best, safest course of action.
Dare to Grow Old
An often repeated phrase is "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots." Have standards about the condition of the aircraft you're willing to fly. You may not make friends when you tell an owner/operator that you don't want to fly their aircraft, but be polite, be firm, stick to your guns. Accrue thousands of accident/incident free hours by making safety your primary goal and you'll likely grow to be an old pilot.
After countless hours of gathering photos, writing text, editing, re-photographing, and re-writing, the Concise Guide to the DA42 is now in the hands of the iBooks reviewers and should be available for download by September 15. You can download a sample or order the book now. This is the fourth aviation iBook I've published and in many ways, it was the hardest for a number of reasons.
The TwinStar and the DA42NG are at the top of my list of favorite aircraft and I wanted my book to be comprehensive. That meant lots of photographs of components and descriptions of systems: While the DA42 is pretty easy-to-fly, there's a lot going on behind the scenes. I wanted this to be a guide that would be truly useful to DA42 flyers or owners and I hope I've succeeded.
If you are planning to learn to fly the DA42, have always wanted to fly one, already own one, or simply want to know more about this fascinating aircraft, I hope you'll have a look at my latest book.