Published in August 2016 issue

Years ago, a friend and I kept a speedboat on the Hudson River, in New York State. After an engine failure, we hung a new one that was much too large off the back of our 16ft tri-hull. Our ship didn’t look like much, but other than a cigarette boat, there weren’t many others on the Hudson that would even take us on.

By Clay Taylor

One day, my buddy pulled the boat out of the water to do some maintenance. When he returned it to our slip, he failed to secure the little plug in the hole in the back through which water could be drained from the bilge while on dry land. The same plug that kept the water out when the boat was in use.

A day or so later, I took the boat out on a solo run. It didn’t take me long to notice that the boat was sluggish, sailboats were passing me, and the stern of the boat was sitting much lower than normal in the water. By the time I realized that I might be in trouble, I was quite a distance from shore. I wanted to gun the engine, but the back of the boat practically went underwater when I tried. I steered toward an area where I planned to beach the sinking monster, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it. As the minutes ticked by, I mentally prepared for my ride to slip beneath the waves at any moment.

I drove it onto the sand as fast as I dared, while trimming the engine to lift the prop out of the water. Once ashore, and with a rope over my shoulder, I dragged the heavy craft to get it completely out of the water. Once secure, I was able to drain many gallons of water from the bilge. After that experience, you can be sure that the little plug that almost sent my boat to the bottom became something I religiously checked every time I ventured out.

Years earlier, I was taking off in a small two-seat trainer with a young female student. Halfway down the runway, I got a surprise. By the way, did I mention that I don’t like surprises?

Once my students had had a few lessons under their belts, I would normally watch from inside the hangar as they conducted their preflight inspections. By not breathing down their necks, I suggested that I had faith in them. Of course, I trusted them, but safety dictated that I verify that trust. That particular day, however, she was my seventh or eighth student in a row, and I simply let the verification slip my mind.

The moment the airplane lifted off, the engine cowling came loose. More accurately, the right half of the metal engine cover instantly flew up into the slipstream and blocked our view of what was ahead. I grabbed the controls, chopped the power, and allowed the airplane to slowly settle back onto the runway. I asked my student what had happened and she told me that she’d had trouble securing the cowling and had meant to tell me, but had got distracted. The Zeus nuts securing the engine cowling instantly became something I have double-checked on every preflight since.

A year or so after that incident, I was sitting in the right seat of a light twin-engine Piper Seneca. My friend Patrick, now an American Airlines Captain, was at the controls. It was dusk, I don’t remember where we were going, but I do recall that it was just him and me. We were equals but, since he was starting out, he would be the Captain. Because of that, the preflight was his responsibility; at least, that’s how I remember it.

A moment or two prior to rotation, the forward cargo door flew open and a long, black cargo-securing strap flew out and began banging against the side of our airplane. Neither of us knew what it was. I couldn’t see the strap—I just heard it and assumed it was an engine problem. I stood ready, waiting for him to abort the takeoff, but then sat there and looked on as the Captain hauled back on the controls. A moment later, we were airborne with a very loud, yet unknown, problem.

Patrick ran the operation like a pro and brought our light twin back in for a landing. Afterward, I asked him why he hadn’t aborted the takeoff, since we had still been on the runway and had plenty of pavement ahead. He told me that it had never occurred to him. When I told him that I would have stopped, he seemed genuinely troubled. I could tell that he was internally questioning his decision-making skills. Later, during our flight, we spent some time talking about it. That minor emergency proved a great learning experience for us both. Since it had happened so early in our careers, it was bound to stick. It was yet another thing I added to my list of things to check.

When you’re rolling down a runway in a wide-body airliner that weighs more than 250 tons, you’re definitely aware that there is a whole lot of inertia behind you. A Captain has to be paying attention because he may find himself in a position in which he has to make a split-second decision— one that, once made, cannot be undone. The consequences of doing the wrong thing or of waiting too long to decide can be disastrous. If all involved do their jobs, however, it certainly helps to limit the surprises. So, to this day, when I walk around the airplane, I check the cargo door latches to see whether they are closed and, although the machines I fly now do not have Zeus nuts, I look to make sure that the engine cowlings are seated properly.

Oh, and so you don’t think I’m always right… one time, I was doing a preflight on an Airbus A320 in the middle of a Canadian winter. By the time I got back into the cockpit, I was frozen. When the tug driver hooked up and readied us for pushback, he asked the Captain, “Do you know there is a big dent on the inlet of the left engine?”

The captain turned and glared at me. Yes; he glared.

All of this talk about checking out an airplane—or a boat—before trusting your life to it got me thinking how doing a walk-around is sort of like picking a spouse.

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A Flight Attendant once told me that the first things a woman looks at when she meets a man are his shoes or his watch. I made fun of that but, when I checked that observation with a few other ladies, they confirmed that, believe it or not, it’s true. Had it been a test, I would not have listed either of those things in the top 100. And, since, as far as I know, I’ve never been a woman, I think I’ll stick with a man’s perceptions for the remainder of this article.

For the record, I’ve never once noticed a woman’s shoes or what kind of watch she might be wearing, but I do know what male Pilots look at when they look at an airplane. In fact, I believe it’s akin to what they look at when they eye a member of the opposite sex. After all, taking your airplane for a ride is a bit like a marriage commitment.

An older Pilot looks at his airplane much differently from a younger one. A younger Pilot wants the nose of the plane to be of perfect proportions. There should be no kinks or dents and it should definitely not be twisted. The landing gear should be long and straight. The size should be proportionate: not too big and not too small. It simply needs to be bulky enough to do the job. And, while studying those struts, he needs to take his time and check for any signs of hairline cracks. Undetected, an imperfection in the metal could spell disaster.

The bays that hold the air-conditioning packs are often located right between the two wings and, again, they should be proportionate. Some should be large, others small—yet adequate to do the job. The pack size is a function of the overall size of the airframe. It would not work to have a Boeing 747 pack installed on a two seater.

The tail of the airplane is something that gets a great deal of the younger Pilot’s attention. It’s an important component, so such attention is well deserved. If the airplane has a history of a tail strike, then a sagging tail is something that should be checked.

Certainly, the older Pilot views his airplane with a different set of eyes from his less-experienced colleague. The senior Airman, for example, knows that the cargo compartments have seen a lot of baggage, so he is careful to note that his airplane is properly loaded.

Although the things on the outside are important, to the elder Pilot there are more important ones. He or she is keenly aware that the computer systems, the brains of the operation, are probably the most important things in the airplane to which he is about to commit his life.

The senior Captain has been around long enough to know that, if the cargo door opens during takeoff, or the engine cowling flies off, or the oil plug falls out of the engine, what he really needs is a computer he can count on; one that will be there when the going gets tough.

Still, some of the over-60 crowd—you know, the guys who have flown quite a few airplanes over their career?—well, they like simple. These guys, the ones that flew the DC-9s and the 727s, don’t want anything that will complicate things. This group prefers to start it up, go someplace and then shut it down.

One thing is for certain. A good walk-around does go a long way toward keeping everyone safe and sound, and even, perhaps, happily married.