The Distraction Monkey

Don’t let him get to you

SOME PILOTS ARE METHODICAL and thorough when doing a preflight inspection. Some are not.

And some, like me, find it difficult to stay focused and are always feeling the urge to get the preflight over with and get into the air. It’s like a monkey on your back. He appears when I’m first moving the airplane out of the hangar, jabbering away and urging me to just hurry up and get flying.

Usually, he confines himself to, “There’s never anything wrong with that,” or “Look! Everybody else is gonna take off now.” Although I’ve drawn him here as a plain old monkey, he is a shape-shifter and can appear in any guise. An admittedly somewhat extreme example was provided by a guy I used to fly with back in the 1980s. He had moved to Texas, but word had reached me that he’d had a pretty spectacular control failure. At my request, he described what had happened in an e-mail.

He had been working on his homebuilt biplane near his home and had “removed, adjusted, and reinstalled the horizontal stabilizer/elevator assembly including the bolt and castle nut holding the pushrod to the elevator horn,” he wrote.

“At that moment a B-24 Liberator with a P-51 escort buzzed the field, and I ran out to watch, pocketing the cotter pin that secures the castle nut to the bolt. ” He then climbed into the cockpit and took off. About 15 minutes into the flight, at 4,000 feet, “the castle nut vibrated off the bolt, and the bolt vibrated out of the pushrod/horn.” The airplane nosed over into a steep dive. He killed the engine and pulled the handle of his ballistic parachute. The unit fired, and he and his airplane came down under canopy. He repaired the minor damage to his aircraft from the nose-first landing and afterward put more than 2,000 hours on it.

Setting aside what saved this pilot, let’s turn back to the cause of the incident, his failure to do a preflight inspection. Or, strictly speaking, any inspection. (Good work, monkey!) He had gone directly from installing the part to flying. The monkey had shape-shifted into an approaching B-24 and a P-51, providing the best excuse I’ve ever heard of to lose focus during the preflight.

WHAT YOU DON’T LOOK AT CAN HURT YOU

Most of the time, the distraction monkey operates in the zone of the too-familiar, the same-old-same-old, the been-there-done-that.

After I had been flying my Quicksilver GT400 for a couple of years in the 1990s,

I thought I knew every item that was needed. My standard practice is to go from point to point, item by item, sequentially as I go around the airplane before each flight. It’s a system that works perfectly well, if you do it right. In my case I begin with the left side of the nose wheel, then move to the pitot tube in the nose, then to the yaw string on the windscreen, then to right side of the nose wheel, and so on around the airplane. So long as you know your airplane and are acquainted with everything that has to be checked, nothing will be missed with this method.

On the GT, there’s a rectangle of heavy Dacron fabric, called the gap cover, that’s Velcroed in place to cover the gap between the two wings. The front portion wraps around the leading edge; the trailing portion extends back over the highest part of the chord on top of the wing. The official checklist calls for ensuring that the gap cover is secured. But, since I couldn’t help but see the front portion each time I checked the functioning of the flap handle—it’s right in front of your nose at that point—I had long since stopped looking at it. In fact, there really was nothing to see there. I had forgotten about the trailing portion, which can only be seen from behind the wing.

If I had looked at it from behind the wing, I’d have noticed that the trailing portion’s Velcro edges were gradually unsticking along its length. “Whaddaya wanna look at that for?” the monkey asked. “There’s never anything to see. Get on with it.”

All that was necessary for it to get loose, evidently, was for the airplane to pass through a sharp patch of wake turbulence from another aircraft. Just after I hit the patch, the GT began to buck, with short spasms that could be felt through the yoke as well as through the seat of the pants—nothing so bad that I wanted to reach for the BRS handle, but enough to induce a desire to get this thing on the ground right away.

I landed, unbuckled, got out, and looked at the tail, expecting to find the horizontal stabilizer loose or the elevator unhinged or something.

Nothing appeared to be wrong. A flying buddy was called over and confirmed my impression that the tail was still solidly connected to the airframe. It wasn’t until I looked around, perplexed, that my eye fell on the gap cover. It was sticking up like a misshapen shark fin. Understanding dawned: The shark fin had disturbed the air passing over it, causing the strange behavior. Weirdly, it had re-Velcroed itself to the gap over the wing and was actually kind of hard to pry out of its peculiar new shape.

A tactile check of that item has since been added to my preflight sequence. I reach a hand up over the wing and feel that the gap cover is firmly stuck down.

The printed checklist is usually recommended as the way to go, and that may be best for those who like the reassurance that everything is there in black and white. (I’ve drawn the monkey’s victim—who doesn’t look remotely like me—with one, but just for illustration purposes.)

The problem with my preflight was not the lack of a printed checklist, but the failure to ensure that everything was included in the sequence. Either kind of checklist will work. Either one, in order to work, has to be followed zealously.

The monkey will insist that nothing ever comes up. The monkey is wrong. For example, I always give each spark-plug cap a tug to ensure that nothing will move, and nothing ever did—until the day when one did move. It turned out that the plug threads had stripped. If I had not caught that, my guess is, the plug would have blown out of the head on takeoff.

One week and one threaded insert later, I was back in the air.

LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT

Each aircraft has a specific preflight checklist, and this is no place to do a one-size-fits-all. But here’s an assortment of a few items that are not always mentioned:

Every nut must be safetied in some way. Nyloc nuts are not supposed to be reused. If a Nyloc nut has been in place for several years, put a wrench on it to confirm that it is still as snug as ever, and make at least a mental note of the torque it will withstand without moving. Replace any Nyloc that moves easily.

Safeties that look like rings or safety pins are okay for use only if they are high enough on the airframe that tall grass or weeds cannot snatch them off. If you do go into the weeds at some point, be especially alert to anything that may have been caught and pulled off.

Slide your hand along the propeller’s leading edges before each flight. A roughness will accumulate over time. It’s progressive, and must be addressed at some point before it becomes too rough. Try to be objective about just how much roughness you will permit.

Also slide your hand along each cable or wire. Any little meat hook that catches your hand is a serious sign that must be looked into.

Pay particular attention to Nicopress fittings, examining them closely for any sign of slippage. Thimbles also should be watched for elongation.

If you interrupt the preflight at any point, go back to the item before the one you were checking when you resume.

If you finish the preflight with clean hands, you didn’t look closely at everything.

It’s never okay to be cruel to an animal, but you can make an exception in the case of the distraction monkey. Don’t feed him, don’t pet him, and above all don’t pay any attention to him.

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