As the pilot in command you are responsible to ascertain that the aircraft is an airworthy condition. As such you are required to check all papers as weight (mass) and balance, logbooks, licenses and limitations. And part of any flight is a thorough visual inspection of the airplane.
The visual inspection or walk around is done by the pilot as the final airworthiness check. In this section we describe were and what to look for when inspecting your aircraft. Any pilot who has build an aircraft will look much deeper and further than normally is required, as builders/pilots ourselves we will discuss this important part of the preflight and help you looking deeper and further.
Before the inspection starts make sure that the aircraft paperwork like insurance, weight/mass and balance, radio station license, airworthiness documents and registration papers are all valid. And do not forget your own pilots license, passport (if required) and medical of course.
The walk around is a visual inspection for the general condition of the aircraft and it is intended to make a final check for its airworthiness. Especially important during the winter season, is to remove even small accumulations of frost, ice or snow from the wings, tail and control surfaces. Be on the lookout for clear ice! Make sure that control surfaces do not contain any accumulations of ice or debris which could hinder the movement.
Prior to the flight, check that the pitot heat (if installed) is warm within 30 seconds. With a night flight ahead, check to make sure that all the aircraft lights are functional and do carry a multi-color (red and white at the least) LED flashlight with spare batteries in your flight bag. Two flashlights would even be better!
There are a number of items that need to be checked on the exterior of the aircraft during the walk around (this order can be slightly different but this one would work for any high wing aircraft like Cessna's, Murphy's or Pelicans):
While walking toward the airplane look at how it is sitting on its wheels. Is it leaning toward the left or right? This could mean a soft main tire or just a hole in the grass. Take a look at the airplane as a whole, is it missing things and does it look right? This will give you a general idea of its condition.
In the cabin we need to check for a number of items, most importantly are papers like: the Pilot Operating Handbook or Aircraft Flight Manual, Weight (mass) and Balance and insurance papers. Don't ask me why but at this point I also check the movement of the stick/yoke and listen for any odd sounds and check if elevator/ailerons move in the correct direction without problems.
After making sure no one is standing near the propeller/engine and the ignition keys are placed on the dashboard, switch on the master and check indicated fuel level (later on we look into the wing tanks for visual verification).
For aircraft with fuel tank sight gauges (my favorite type of fuel gauge), this is great as you can see the level. Leave the master switch on and check the external lights. Having someone with you to verify that they are operating (careful strobes are bright!) is perfect. Remove the control yoke lock (if any). If electric flaps: set full flaps, otherwise put them down manually. Then: master switch off. In winter time it is wise to check the electric flaps afterwards when the engine is running.
While you are in the cabin: check for any sign of mice or other rodent which may have turned the airplane into their temporary house.
Now leave the cabin and walk around, while looking at the fuselage for anything out of the ordinary (missing antennas, dents, loose bolts, missing rivets, remove any bird droppings, you get the picture), moving towards the tail feathers (empennage).