Why Meticulous Preflight Preparation Saves Time

By Richard Sherrill
COO Member & 172N Owner

The other day I was planning a spaghetti dinner. No big deal, right? That’s a simple meal. I didn’t have all the ingredients so I headed off to the grocery story. Pasta, tomato sauce, sausage, some basil, garlic and a little salt. 

I know your mother used a different recipe that is as sacred to you as…well…your mother, but let’s skip that for now.  

I get home and start to cook making sure I don’t skip a step. I don’t want to skip a step because I want to prevent the situation later that I forgot something, thus ruining the meal. In addition, I would be frustrated with myself for not being focused enough to follow through with each step. Each step, in its self, simple. This, after all, is just spaghetti.  

I would finish this event by washing the dishes and being thoroughly disgusted with myself.  

What should have been a pleasant experience would turn out not to be. I would have wasted an hour at the grocery, an hour cooking, 15 minutes eating, 30 minutes washing up, and not happy, all due to skipping one step in the process.  

I’m not saying I’ve ever done this or not, but I can tell you it didn’t taste good.  

How to Ruin a Flight

Here’s the analogy. I spend one hour planning a flight (navigation, weather, destination airport information, etc.), 45 minutes doing a walk-around and run-up preflight, in which I skip a simple step,

Fifteen minutes in-flight, and it’s cut short due to skipping that aforementioned step. Then 30 minutes in a post-flight review.

Even though I got in the air (maybe), it was short-lived, because I was not focused and disciplined enough to check each item on my checklist. Therefore, the whole event was ruined due to my lack of attention.

Sound familiar? I just wasted the whole day and possibly worse; I may have put myself and others in a life-threatening situation. In addition, I missed out on the joy of flying that day. Isn’t that the reason we do this? 

Here’s the takeaway. We can do many things right, but if we skip just one simple item on the preflight checklist, it can be a bad day. 

We’ve all read the dozens of articles where a pilot forgot that one item on their checklist which resulted in a bad situation. Sometimes the article is written by the pilot who lived to tell his story. Sadly, sometimes the article is written by someone else because the pilot and sometimes others didn’t survive.  

Upon taking off, I realized my error and instead of concentrating on takeoff, I focused on closing the window. Wrong decision. 

Maintaining Discipline

I’ve pulled a few preflight boners in my flying life. Once I left my pilot’s side window unlocked and open. Upon taking off, I realized my error and instead of concentrating on takeoff, I focused on closing the window. Wrong decision.  

Incidents such as this are totally avoidable and are part of the checklist that I glossed over. After all, I’ve taken off thousands of times, I know how to do this. That’s our ego, our over confidence that tells us it’s OK to quickly review the checklist, if at all. 

Do you know a pilot who doesn’t perform a checklist at all? 

After a breakfast fly-in I saw a pilot and his passenger get in their airplane, taxi to the runway and take off from the non-towered airport, all within a couple of minutes. No walk around the plane, no checking to see if a bird or squirrel had camped out in the cowling, no seatbelt, no checklist, just go.  

Then there are the items not on most checklists but are definitely preflight items. Have you ever filled your high-wing plane with gas, gotten in the left seat, and staring at you is the ladder you used to reach the gas tank? I’m not saying I’ve ever done that or not, but I can tell you it didn’t taste good. That’s one that us high-wingers especially need to be aware of.  

Even though we’ve gone over that same checklist numerous times, we have to develop the habit of thoroughly reviewing it for each flight as if it were our first time.  

So, what can we do to avoid overlooking preflight list items? 

3 Things to Remember

Over the years I’ve used three things that help me be more thorough: 

  1. Void your mind of all things except focusing on that checklist. Forget about the argument you just had with your wife, especially frustrating this time because she said you spend too much time at the airport, forget about the bad school grade your kid just made, forget about Covid, forget about politics, even forget about something good that happened, like you just got a new car and can’t wait to take it for a spin…forget about everything except that darn laminated checklist in front of you! You must have the self-awareness that speaks to you, that taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, slow down, pay attention, this is important.”  We should have the good judgement and discipline to not fly at all if we can’t concentrate at the level required to preflight the airplane, let alone fly.  
  1. This may sound simple and dumb, but I put my finger on each checklist item. Until I’m mentally satisfied that I have completed that item I don’t move my finger to the next item. I try to visualize what that item represents. What could happen if I don’t perform that item or that item isn’t functioning like it’s supposed to? No radio, insufficient oil pressure, my passenger’s door isn’t secure, a blown fuse. What’s the down side if that one item doesn’t function properly? It takes just a few minutes more to perform a proper preflight as it does to perform a poorly executed one. And speaking of each item, are you still using the same checklist that came with the airplane when you bought it years ago? Nothing has changed since then? No new equipment?  
  1. Don’t let your ego or overconfidence prep the plane. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve flown, checking every item on that list should be treated as if it’s the very first time you’ve done it.  

Has this happened to you? You have a new passenger and you quickly go through the checklist, if at all, thinking maybe he will think I don’t know what I’m doing if I still have to use a checklist? I don’t want him to think that about me. He knows I’m an experienced pilot and have lots of hours. You still need a checklist? 

Quite the opposite, I’ve had passengers who hadn’t flown before and were a little apprehensive. They commented that my preparation and checklists gave them confidence that I was being thorough. 

If this still bothers you, as you’re going over the checklist, just casually mention that the “big boys” use a checklist too. Then give your passenger that all knowing Barny Fife look.  

Timewise, performing a thorough check-list won’t take much longer doing it right than doing it wrong. It’s the same aviation phenomena as taking a safer alternate route that adds only 5 minutes to the flight. 

Let’s get back to the spaghetti dinner, hopefully the one that tastes like you expected. The worst thing that can happen if you skip that one step while preparing spaghetti; it doesn’t taste like you had planned. No Big Deal. 

Let’s get back to the preflight checklist, hopefully the one that you mentally thought through each item. The worst thing that can happen by not thoroughly performing a preflight check can be   harmful, even fatal. Big Deal.  

How can one screw up fixing a simple spaghetti dinner? The same way we screw up a flight by not doing a thorough focused preflight.  

There’s an old English proverb that says, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. 

I want both, a good spaghetti dinner and a good safe flight.

Click here to see a high-resolution version of the author’s checklist.

Richard Sherrill is a 172N owner and member of the Cessna Owner Organization. His article “I Bought a Used Airplane” ran in the November 2020 issue of Cessna Owner Magazine.