The ops manager asks me to come from the office into the hangar to look at something. That's not a really unusual occurrence, but what I see is a gouge under the wing of the airplane I flew back to base last night. The metal is creased in. Not sharply just enough to make it abundantly clear that this is not a mere paint scratch. I feel sick. This is the result of taxiing or towing the airplane such that the wingtip passes over an object, except that it doesn't pass over, it scrapes over. Obviously it's something that shouldn't happen, but when it does, the pilot should notice and report it. I have no memory of any incident on my just-returned-from rotation that could have caused this.
I look around the hangar at the equipment under the path that wing would have taken into the hangar. Nothing has paint scraped on it. I'm sure the ops manager can see my horror. I don't remember what I said. Either I did this or I missed seeing it on multiple preflight inspections. Either way I bear some responsibility. I care much less that a deer bashed in the side of my own vehicle the week before. This gouge, or some other wingtip damage I failed to spot could have been serous damage that I shouldn't have taken into the air. I'm very sure it isn't, but I'm not a structural engineer. It's not my job to make that call. Had I found it on a preflight there would have been iPhone pictures going to someone with a maintenance certification before I flew it.
I go back and look at the gouge. It is a little difficult to see, just because of the shape of the wing, and the colours of the paint, and my height. I always check wingtips for damage, because that's a common place to get damage on the taxi, in the hangar or while parked on the ramp. I always look at the underside of the wing, looking for blocked vents, signs of bird or insect entry and fluids from the engines splattered under the flaps. I'll look from the wingtip, under the wing and along the length of the spar for signs of airframe stress, but then my focus is not on the near underside of the wingtip. I have to duck down and look at it from a slightly different direction to see this gouge. So embarrassing as it is, I prefer to think that I missed seeing this as opposed to missed doing it.
But I fly this airplane a lot. Did I do it sometime in the past and the difficulty I have just argued for in seeing the gouge means that no one has caught it in months? I look even more closely to see if I can pretend to know the age of the damage from its appearance. And then I see something almost hilarious. Part of the reason the gouge is hard to see is that it has been painted over with touch up paint. I almost laugh. It's an old problem, one that has been inspected, written off and fixed up. It's even more embarrassing that I didn't see it, ever, but it's now certain that I didn't do it last night.
One of the regular maintenance staff says he thinks it's been there since we got the airplane. I think the ops manager is still suspicious that it represents mishandling of the airplane in the hangar, and a cover-up by someone in maintenance. Unfortunately at the time this story takes place we were having some issues there that made this not paranoia. I trust the guy who said it had been there all along, and not just because it conclusively gets me off the hook for having done the damage. He's a trustworthy person, but more than that, and I told him this myself so he knew I wasn't suspicious. "I've seen paint jobs that you have done and you would never have done such a crappy job." You can see every brush stroke and the colours are poorly matched.