Pre-Flight Checks – What to Look For – Airframe

Pre-Flight Inspection

In this series of posts we’ll look at the important task of checking your aircraft before flight.

You’ll have been taught to do this from day one of your training. By the time you’ve gained your licence it has probably become second nature, but you’ve also probably become a bit blase about it; after all, nothing has ever gone wrong, other people check the plane regularly, and it’s bound to be fine anyway.

But do you know why it’s important to go through the pre-flight checklist, and what kind of things you’re looking for?

It’s important to remember that the checklist is a guide, but it doesn’t beat your eyes and knowledge of the aircraft. Inspect it in a logical way and think about each step and each area you look at.

In this first post we’ll look at the aspects of checking the airframe – that is, the fuselage, tail and wings.



Checking the flaps and ailerons is not just about making sure they’re there and seem to be undamaged, it’s important to check the linkages that connect them to the wing and allow them to be moved from within the cockpit. You’ll obviously check the controls before flight, but externally you’ll be able to spot any links that are damaged or about to come loose by closer inspection. Losing these movable surfaces will severely affect your ability to fly the plane – particularly in the case of the ailerons.

Wing tips need to be inspected to not only make sure the navigation light is both present and secure, but that it is the correct colour. This is a legal requirement and could be a safety issue to other pilots if not correctly showing which wing tip it is.

Wing surface. Wings are vital to flight, and so inspecting the surface in detail is imperative to your pre-flight checks to make sure there are no cracks, dents, debris or ice. This includes checking the top surface AND the underside of the wing, where we rarely look!

As I’ve covered before, ice is often fatal to aircraft, so it must be removed before flight. However, cracks can also damage the integrity of the wing, and could grow under strain leading to a loss of the wing surface or worse! If you find anything like this, you should not fly.

Similarly, the leading edge is checked not just to make sure it is present, but that it doesn’t have any dents or cracks. Air hits this surface first, and it is an important part in providing lift. Therefore the performance of your aircraft could be severely limited if the leading edge is damaged.


Fuel Tanks

As part of checking the wing, you’ll no doubt lift the fuel cap, glance in, and then put it back in place. However, take a bit more time to understand just how much fuel there is, and check there is no debris visible inside. You should also strain the fuel to check for water or particles within it that can cause your engine to cut out – strain water until it has gone, but if there are dirt particles you should investigate further and consider not flying.


Windscreen and Cowling

Next, at the front of the aircraft you’ll be checking the windscreen first. Yes the nice big window, but also your protection from the outside world. If it has cracks and chips in it (maybe another pilot hit a bird, or a stone bounced into it), you want to consider doing something about this and not risking it shattering into you during flight. That would be distracting and dangerous!

We’ll cover the engine in another post, but the cowling area should be undamaged and secure. If it flips open or separates during flight it can damage other parts of the aircraft and expose your engine to damage.


Rear Fuselage and Tail

All around the fuselage there is the potential for damage to have occurred. A stone or bird hitting it could cause a dent, crack or hole which leaves the skin prone to disintegrating under the stresses of flight. There are also rivets and screws which could have come loose around the airframe (or even signs they are about to come loose, such as wear marks or dark circles around them).

There are also static vents and drain holes which you must check are not covered or damaged. If they are, your instruments could read incorrectly, putting your flight at risk.

Like everywhere else, when it comes to the tail plane you’re looking for cracks, dents and other damage which should not be ignored. If the aircraft has been using grass runways, this part is particularly prone to stones and mud being thrown at it, and if the previous pilot had a less-than-graceful landing there could be damage related to that.

With the rudder and elevator (and trim tab if you have one), like the ailerons and flaps, you need to check the linkages to make sure they’re not loose or disconnected. Look INSIDE to visually confirm they are connected, and move the surfaces to watch the connections move. Do not fly if there is a problem.

Pilots will rarely check underneath their aircraft, but it can pay to do so. As I’ve already mentioned, damage can be caused when using runways by debris hitting the aircraft. This is most likely to occur underneath, and you’re unlikely to spot it easily. Plus, you should be checking for any oil or fuel leaks visible underneath the aircraft as a sign that something is wrong.


Don’t get caught out by being in a rush or assuming the aircraft will be fine because you glanced over it.

Light Aircraft Crash


Matt Falcus is a private pilot and aviation writer. He has been flying since 2006, taking the opportunity whenever the British weather allows to explore the local area and other airfields. He is author of a number of aviation books.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. My dad recently bought a small plane and I think that preflight maintenance checks are extremely important, so I am glad that I found this article. It makes a lot of sense that you say to check the fuel tanks to make sure that there are no particles inside that could cause the engine to cut out. I had no idea that dirt particles can cause so many problems for the engine, so I will make sure to share this tip with my dad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *