When the pilots do their pre-flight exterior walk-around, how often do they find anything, considering it a is a cursory look?
– Dan Hill, Las Vegas
It is actually much more than a cursory look. And yes, pilots do find discrepancies. It is not frequent, but it does happen. Usually, the finding is a tire that has become worn, a brake that is near its limit or a hydraulic actuator that move a flight control (such as the flaps on the wings) that is leaking.
Once the discrepancy is found, a call to maintenance results in a licensed maintenance technician inspecting the component and determining if it is within limits or if maintenance must be performed.
Airplanes are designed for some maintenance to be done at the gate. An example is a tire that is worn to the limit. A crew of technicians can change that tire quickly, usually within half an hour while the airplane is at the gate. Oftentimes, passengers are not even aware this is taking place unless it results in a takeoff delay.
The maintenance process is very thorough, and works well to keep the fleet safe. It depends on maintenance technicians and pilot being vigilant during their visual inspections.
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