I returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed. A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.
Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections. The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.
On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious. The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.
When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously. The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.
I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane. I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines. Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.
Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight. They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection. I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection. I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.
I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections. But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea. Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival. We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs. Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.
I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist. The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane. A good physical examination does the same thing. The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.
Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years. While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us. But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.