A Perscription for Proper Preflight Featuring Big Island Air Flight 58

Proper Preflight

Unfortunately the cause of so many regulations is the direct result of an accident. Upon thorough examination of the cause of an accident, regulating bodies create rules in order to prevent a similar accident from happening. As a direct result from most aviation accidents, a pivotal federal aviation regulation becomes effective. Proper preflights of the pilot, the aircraft, and the weather can prevent many, many aviation accidents. It can be argued, then, that FAR 91.103 is the most important aviation safety regulation in existence. It states:

"Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include-- (a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC; (b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information: (1) For civil aircraft for which an approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual containing takeoff and landing distance data is required, the takeoff and landing distance data contained therein; and (2) For civil aircraft other than those specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section, other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft, relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and temperature. (Federal Aviation Regulations [FAR] 91.103)"


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Improper Pilot Preflight Accidents

One of the very first aspects of aviation taught to new applicants of a pilot certificate is when to fly and when not to fly. The IMSAFE checklist is a mnemonic device that stands for six different questions a pilot must ask themselves before conducting any flight. 'I' is 'do I have an Illness?'; 'M' for 'am I taking Medications?'; 'S' for 'am I Stressed?'; 'A' for 'have I consumed Alcohol?'; 'F' for 'am I Fatigued?'; and 'E' for 'how am I Emotionally?'. Once a pilot has determined that their physical well being will not hinder flight safety, the preflight may continue to the aircraft itself.

However, the IMSAFE mnemonic is nowhere mentioned in far 91.103. The information is still critical to the section where it states “Each pilot in command shall . . . become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.' (FAR 91.103) Which does include knowledge of the pilot's well-being and their physical capabilities to complete that flight. For example, the FAA has, on many occasions, addressed pilot-error accidents and how they are exacerbated by fatigue of pilots. One in particular was in response to a survey conducted entitled Fatigue in Aviation. In this study G. J Salazar, MD from the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute asserts that “Fatigue is a condition characterized by increased discomfort, reduced efficiency of accomplishments, loss of power or capacity to respond to stimulations, and is usually accompanied by a feeling of weariness and tiredness' (Salazar, 2008). Invariably studies can be found and accidents can be reported being caused by pilots continuing to fly even though they cannot in all good conscience pass the IMSAFE checklist.

Improper Aircraft Preflight Accidents

On occasion, aircraft parts can fail causing everything from minor inconveniences to loss of entire wings. Although some of these can be pilot-caused, other failures are more benign, easily overlooked and disregarded. A walk around of the aircraft is one of the best ways to ensure an aircraft can be airworthy. Extensive regulations demand that an aircraft meet certain capabilities to be airworthy. Minimum equipment lists, required equipment lists, required inspections, and even proper paperwork tell the pilot if that airplane is safe to fly or not. Often when pilots recall horror stories of close calls due to equipment failure, one of the most popular follow-up questions is 'Well, did you do your preflight?' A valid question, and it makes one wonder how some can make the same mistake twice.

In October of 1996 an Aeroperu 757 with seventy souls on board crash north of Lima, Peru because masking tape that was put over the static ports of the airplane was overlooked and never removed during the preflight. After takeoff, the pilots became confused at the unreliable indications on their instruments took incorrect corrective action and ended the flight on the side of a mountain convinced the whole system had failed.

The accident report concludes:

"A common failure mode of the three B757 pitot-static systems has been discovered by Investigators of Flight 603's accident: masking tape covering the LHS static ports. This failure mode is deemed sufficient by itself to explain the known phenomena associated with the aircraft's demise; and this failure mode is not at all computer-related. We await the CVR and DFDR transcripts and the possible discovery of other potentially contributing failure modes. (Ladkin, 1997)

It cannot be denied that a thorough preflight inspection about the aircraft itself is important, but too many pilots cut corners and forget to check everything on their checklists. Standardization in a preflight about the aircraft is a common way to make sure everything major that can go wrong is looked at and verified safe for flight. Complacency can explain why, even though a walk around is complete, that an accident still occurs. Some pilots believe that because a preflight has been done so many times by them that they will not forget to check something and that just looking at it is a good indication that something is in working order. There is no doubt that if one was to walk around flight 603 with a checklist and verify every part would have caught the masking tape over the static port and allowed seventy people to die of other causes."

Improper Route Preflight and Flight 58

Big Island Air flight 58's NTSB report outlines and adequately illustrates how a perfectly qualified pilot with an impeccable record can still make a mistake of complacency due to experience. The pilot had logged over 11,000 hours in his flight career and according to all accounts his performance was adequate enough to pass the competency and recurrent training required by the company. Although the pilot made the grave mistake of breaking his VFR flight plan and regulations, the bigger, and arguably the fatal mistake, was failure to complete a route preflight by checking the weather and canceling the flight due to below-VFR weather minimums. Not only would this route check make for a proper and safe no-go decision, but it also would make breaking company standard operating procedures impossible; that of flying in IFR conditions. It would also have allowed for the pilot to visually stay above 2000' AGL (as was company policy on the tour flights.) An aircraft that stays above 2000' AGL will never hit the ground. Clouds obstructed the pilot's view to the ground and ultimately caused the plane to crash on top of the mountain. Although many indications of how the flight could have ended were burned or destroyed in the impact, the NTSB report states:

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of thisaccident is the pilot’s decision to continue visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) in an area of cloud-covered mountainous terrain. Contributing to the accident were the pilot’s failure to properly navigate and his disregard for standard operating procedures, including flying into IMC while on a visual flight rules flight plan and failure to obtain a current preflight weather briefing. (NTSB, 2001)"


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Conclusion

There is no dispute that if a proper preflight is done before every flight that would include the pilot, the aircraft, and the route, aviation would be safer. Of course there are factors beyond anyone's control that can bring a flight down, but ensuring risk is minimized greatly reduces this chance. The most experienced pilot does not always meant the safest pilot. A safe pilot gets enough rest before a flight, removes masking tape from a static port, and checks weather and obeys federal and company regulations.

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