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Thirteen Lucky Ways to Prevent Your Aircraft from Coming Apart in Flight

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, July 2003

A few of the most important things are never taught in flight training.  Many are blissfully unaware of the many ways an aircraft can fall apart.  Here's your chance to clear up any confusion, to remove any doubt, and to understand the many ways the bits of an aircraft can fall off when you're flying it.

1.  Most aircraft have wimpy brackets holding the vertical stabilizer to the airframe.  The most common way for those brackets to fail is to perform a high speed slip with the flaps extended.

2.  Preflight action:  check all the cables, pulleys, hinges, bolts, and cotter pins of your favourite flight control surfaces.  The loss of even one can make you miserable.  Remember the a coke can is not very strong with a dent in the side.  The same can be said of the wing & fuselage.

3.  Landing with a high cross wind component.  Check your POH for the maximum demonstrated cross wind component and remember who it was who demonstrated it.   Don't know?  It was the factory test pilot who had 30,000 flight hours more than you.  Think you can measure up to his skill?  Exceeding that number is a great way to prove how much better a pilot you are than he.  Doing so, however, may earn you extra pennies at the local aluminum recycling plant.

4.  Failure to look both ways before turning offers a great opportunity to meet another pilot mid-air.  Remember, no one survives a mid-air collision and the aircraft are particularly vulnerable to falling out of the sky with bits missing.

5.  Flying below the traffic pattern or climbing on downwind in high wing aircraft is particularly dangerous.  Flying above the traffic pattern or descending on downwind in low wing aircraft are equally dangerous.  Definitely another opportunity to meet other pilots in unique places.

6.  Not looking down both ends of a runway, especially the approach course when you enter the runway for takeoff or turn base to final for landing is another way to have a mid-air collision and accounts for some 28% of all mid-air collisions.

7.  Ensuring that annual and 100 hour inspections are completed is a great way to ensure that all the parts stay connected as they should.  Assisting your mechanic with such inspections is a great way to learn more about your aircraft and build your preflight inspection skills.

8.  Aerobatic maneuvers in aircraft without the appropriate certification can lead to early failure of important parts, such as wings and flight control surfaces.  If those don't fall off, inverted flight will most certainly cause engine stoppage providing you new challenges.  Obviously, spins are not suggested in aircraft not certified for such maneuvers.

9.  Incomplete re-assembly can usually cause bits to fall off in flight.  How does this happen?  Typically this kind of thing occurs after a visit to a mechanic.  Particularly important to ask your mechanic is:  1.  What do you do if you have extra screws after you finish a job, and 2.  What do you do if you're missing a tool after you finish a job. 

10.  Flying in bad places.  This can be as simple as flying into turbulent air while in the yellow arc or as complex as flying into a thunderstorm (which doesn't seem nearly so complex to me).  Other bad places that also qualify: Presidential TFR zones, Military training routes, or "hot" MOAs where F-16s are dog-fighting.

11.  Airframe fatigue is a big cause of parts coming off during flight.  Metal Remembers.  It means every hard landing, loud bang in turbulence, ground loops, exceeding Vne causes the aircraft to remember you in a very special way.  If you knew how small the bolts are that hold the wing on, you'd never be rough with an aircraft.  You never know when it can happen, but promise... its just a matter of time with an abused airframe.

12.  Landing on the nose wheel.  The nose wheel is arguably the weakest part on an aircraft save the armrest you use to pull the door closed.  A few good nose wheel landings nearly guarantee that pesky nose wheel will come off on its own accord.

13.  Putting out flaps at an airspeed higher than Vfe is a good way to get rid of them.  When was the last time you practiced a no-flaps landing?  Better brush up if this is one of your bad habits.

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