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Why You Need A Flight Controls Check Before Every Flight


The Cessna 172 started its takeoff roll, but just a few seconds in, the pilot knew he had a problem.

He tried aborting the takeoff, but just seconds later in a light crosswind, he departed the right side of the runway. The aircraft went through the grass, and eventually into a group of trees.

Fortunately, the pilot only had minor injuries, but the same couldn't be said about the plane he was flying.

Here's the NTSB's analysis:

The pilot reported that during the takeoff roll, he tried to abort the takeoff because he had not removed the bolt he had placed in the yoke for a gust lock. He reported that the crosswind pushed the airplane off the right side of the runway into the grass, the airplane impacted trees, and sustained substantial damage to both wings and the empennage. The pilot reported that the accident was due to him not removing the bolt in the yoke.

The pilot reported no pre-impact mechanical failures or malfunctions with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation.

Non-Standard Gust Lock

In most Cessna single-engine aircraft, the gust lock is connected to the control wheel, and it protects the flight controls from fluttering during high winds on the ground.

A metal flag covers part of the ignition switch, making it hard, if not impossible, to start the airplane when the gust lock is installed.

Unfortunately in this accident, the pilot was using a bolt to gust lock the controls, and there wasn't a plate to prevent the aircraft from starting before the bolt was removed. But the solution was simple: a flight controls check before takeoff would have prevented the accident from ever happening.


The Checklist

It doesn't matter what you fly, whether it's a Cessna 172 or Boeing 777. During one of your pre-takeoff checklists, there's going to be a flight controls check.

Depending on your aircraft, the flight controls check might be listed in pre-flight, run-up, just before takeoff, or within multiple checklists. And when you get to it, here's what you should be looking for:

  • Check free and correct motion (flight controls are moving up, down, left, and right as they should).
  • Make sure no unusual force is needed for movement (this means either abnormal pressure or looseness).
  • Is the autopilot disengaging correctly, and are there any malfunctions?
  • Listen for unusual sounds from cables, linkages, and pulleys.
  • Make sure no foreign object debris could jam your controls, both outside the plane and in the cockpit.

Forgetting The Gust Lock Isn't Isolated To Piston Aircraft

On May 31, 2014, a Gulfstream IV accelerated to rotation speed during takeoff in Bedford, Massachusetts. Both the PIC and SIC had been flying the Gulfstream IV for 7 years at their charter company, amassing thousands of hours of experience in the aircraft. At 162 knots when the airplane failed to rotate, they tried to abort the takeoff with just 1,373 feet of runway remaining. Full braking and reverse thrust was not enough to prevent their airplane from overrunning the runway, and it crashed into a ravine, and killing all 7 aboard.

Prior to takeoff, the gust lock was not disengaged. The locked position should have prevented the throttles from being advanced to takeoff power, but for some reason, the system failed. The NTSB stated that "A review of data from the airplane's quick access recorder revealed that the pilots had neglected to perform complete flight control checks before 98% of their previous 175 takeoffs in the airplane, indicating that this oversight was habitual and not an anomaly."

A Simple Solution: Follow The Checklist

Procedures can make all the difference in the outcome of a flight. It seems obvious, but follow your checklist through every step, and get in the habit of checking your flight controls thoroughly before you taxi on to the runway.

After all, they're the last things you want to fail when you're in the takeoff roll.

Ever had a flight control problem? Tell us in the comments below.

Colin Cutler

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder and lifelong pilot. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed the development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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