Pre-flight distraction—it’s easy to get caught out!

Pilots in cockpit
image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Name withheld on request

My aircraft is of the ‘low and slow’ variety, a tail wheeler with STOL performance. It’s usually hangared at home base but on this occasion was tied down at a bush strip in a valley, with steep hills in close proximity to one side of the strip.

That morning I had untied and preflighted the aircraft as per my usual—a habitual routine—and had flown to collect a passenger at another local strip for a property inspection. On return I parked the aircraft in its previous spot and tied it down, fitting control locks in the process.

Late afternoon, I returned with another passenger for a local scenic flight of the district. She was quite excited at the prospect, having previously flown in a small aircraft, and very keen to see her valley from the air. As I untied the aircraft and removed the control lock from the centre stick, she was already settling into the right seat and adjusting the seatbelt, keeping up a steady stream of questions about the aircraft. I completed my passenger briefing, ran up the engine, taxied to the end of the gravel strip and lined up. There was a crosswind component of approximately five knots with slight gusts.

As usual the take-off roll was quite short and when climbing out I automatically applied aileron and rudder against the slight crosswind drift off the runway centre line. That’s when I discovered that I still had gust locks securing the ailerons. First thought (of many in quick succession!) was to land on the remaining runway, but the drift negated this option.

Explaining to my passenger that we had a problem and would be landing again, I concentrated on investigating how controllable the aircraft was without ailerons, while maintaining approximately 200 ft above ground. Aggressive application of opposite rudder produced the desired adverse roll to keep the wings level, but significantly changed the desired flight path. Quick stabs of the rudder simultaneously with a short burst of power swung the nose without too much roll. Yes! With immense relief I knew I should have sufficient control to complete a circuit.

The close hills to starboard dictated a crosswind leg into the wind and a wide, circling turn put us on the downwind leg. Turning base took considerably more effort as a gap in the upwind hills allowed the gusts to affect roll more than previously. With the wind now behind us and carrying us more rapidly towards the hills, the sweeping turn onto final required constant rudder and throttle inputs to minimise the turn radius. Even so, the large turn radius took us past the final alignment and more correction was required to eventually line up the runway, allowing for the expected drift. I do recall thinking that my feet were as busy as a tap dancer.

Landing was anticlimactic and my passenger didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. After a short spell on the ground, we took off again for a delightful late afternoon flight over the mountains.

Having difficulty sleeping that night, I relived that circuit over and over and resolved to share what I had learnt that day.

The obvious contributing factor was allowing my passenger’s enthusiasm to distract me while pre-flighting, to the extent that I missed two vital steps—removing the aileron locks from the wings, and checking controls for ‘free and correct sense’. My own complacency was in my assumption that as I had flown the aircraft only a few hours before it was still good to go.

Helping me resolve the situation was my past experience in flying this aircraft, where crossed control approach slips are my usual crosswind landing technique and large rudder inputs come naturally.

I consider myself fortunate that my initial training and the majority of my flying is in tail wheel aircraft, where rudder use features prominently.

I have resolved in future to demand that passengers remain quietly some distance away from the aircraft until I invite them to come closer. I also have added tell-tale flags to the aileron locks to provide a visual reminder, particularly as I only use them infrequently when away from home base.


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