Don’t assume you left nothing behind after working on an aircraft.

When restorers of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis found a pair of pliers in the belly of his airplane, they thought the tool had been left behind during one of the aircraft’s restorations. After some careful investigation, as I cite in a 2022 Spotlight on Safety article, it was determined the pliers had been left by Lindbergh himself on his famous 1927 transatlantic flight.
While this may not be the first instance of a tool having been lost in an aircraft, it’s likely the most well-known early example. Lindbergh had many fuel valves he had to manipulate during the course of his 34-hour trip from New York to France. The single-engine airplane was laden with fuel, and pliers would have made moving the fuel selector valves much easier on his hands and fingers.

A Job Well Done

The Internet is loaded with examples of aviation accidents related to poor tool control. Of course, a lost or misplaced tool doesn’t always lead to an accident, but it happens frequently enough that tool control has become a top priority over the past couple decades, to the point that aviation tool companies now sell toolboxes with tool shadowing already in place.

Recently while performing some maintenance in the area of the rudder pedals and flight controls, I went down into my aircraft’s “bowels of misery,” contorting my body for hours while entering and exiting the fuselage.

For those of us who’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Machines are often built around a single widget where it seems like someone held up an item and declared, “Hey, let’s build an aircraft around this thing,” and bam, just like that, they build the machine without regard for the people who’ll have to repair or service it.

I was nearing the end of the job and thought it would be wise to run a magnet around the floorboard area and ribs to see what it might pick up. I had been careful not to drop any hardware or anything else I was using while working in the aircraft, so I was pleased to find no magnetic debris after sweeping the area with the magnet.

After climbing back out of the aircraft for the final time, I quietly celebrated my maintenance victory. You know the feeling—thinking about a job well done. But then, at that moment of bliss and accomplishment, I thought to myself, “You know, you should really contort yourself again and put your head in there to make sure everything is correct.”

There ensued the personal mental battle we’ve all faced at one time or another. “I just got out of there,” I argued with myself. “I didn’t drop anything, and the magnet didn’t pick up anything.

“Dammit,” I countered to myself, “I need to get back in there to double-check, or I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

Trust Your Intuition

Heeding my inner voice, I curved my body into the aircraft again like a circus professional and wedged my head into a tiny hole, leaving no room to spare so I could get my eyes on the target. And holy cow, lying there was a screwdriver from years past, wedged right between the rudder pedals, that the magnet couldn’t pick up. I was able to get my fingers into the space and pluck it out.

Afterward, I couldn’t help but feel thankful that my conscience hadn’t allowed me to rest until I had rechecked the area where I’d been working to verify that I had left behind no foreign object debris.

Thinking back over my many years as a pilot and maintenance technician, how many times have I been strapped in the cockpit ready to perform an engine start and then worried I hadn’t secured a compartment? How many times have I thought a panel was closed, fastened with several screws, only to open it back up again to verify that everything was as it was supposed to be?

Bottom line: we must listen to our inner voice. Often it’s just a passing thought, but sometimes you have that “aha” moment after following up on something when you say to yourself, “I’m glad I checked that,” and a flight goes on without incident because you did.

Did it cost you more time? Maybe, but the confidence—and security—you gained was worth the extra effort.

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Zac Noble

Zac Noble

Zac, HAI’s director of maintenance and technology, joined the association as its deputy director of flight operations and technical services after 11 years of flying in the air medical sector. A US Army veteran, Zac’s aviation career spans more than 35 years. He is a dual-rated ATP, a dual-rated CFII, and an A&P with IA privileges.