Once I began flying the line, I rarely thought about seat positions and calibrations. At a certain point, takeoffs and landings in an airliner are all about holding a particular deck angle. That generally means eyes more inside on the artificial horizon than outside. Plus the time pressures we were under to run our checklists, procedures and flows and get out of the gate on time pushed seat adjustments down the priority list.
Anyway, I rarely put anything up on the glare shield. And if I did, I’d see it, right?
During a commercial sightseeing flight over the Los Angeles Basin, I decided to demonstrate the “weightless trick” to my passenger. He was a friend of a friend and seemed pretty fearless. I diverted from the tour route and flew us well south of the local practice area. There I requested a 1,000-foot block altitude from ATC. That would give us plenty of airspace in which to create the perfect parabola required to achieve momentary weightlessness in a Cessna 172.
I instructed my passenger to pull out his cigarette pack and place one cigarette for each of us on the glare shield in front of us. Then I made a steep, 1 G climb before pushing us over into a zero gravity arc. Voila! The cigarettes floated off the glare shield and into our mouths. So did the headset case I had carelessly stowed on the glare shield!
Because of my lax seat position calibration (read “none”), I hadn’t seen that I’d left the headset case up there.
The embarrassing moment wasn’t the case smashing the cigarette into my face. It was having to ask my client to go down between my legs to retrieve the case, which had lodged behind the rudder pedals.
One pilot filing a report with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System had his own wake-up call. He was the instructor conducting an instrument proficiency flight in a Bonanza A36.
In this case the emergency gear hand crank was not completely stowed. The crank appeared to be tucked away on visual inspection during preflight, but must have been slightly askew and still barely connected to the gear motor mechanism.
When the pilot raised the gear on departure, the hand crank started spinning. The crank was still attached to the gear mechanism and the centrifugal force of rotation caused the crank to become unstowed, sticking out at a 90° angle. It caught a flight bag in the storage area behind the seats. The weight of the flight bag on the spinning hand crank put too much resistance on the electric motor, causing the gear circuit breaker to trip and leaving the gear only partially raised.
Realizing that the gear was not retracting normally, the pilot canceled his IFR flight plan. He notified ATC that he needed to return to the airport. He called the Tower and requested time to circle and resolve the issue.
The pilot had his passenger untangle the flight bag from the crank. The pilot then correctly stowed the crank, reset the circuit breaker and brought the gear up using the switch. He then cycled it once to confirm that all gear operations were normal.
Talk about a ghost in the machine! Imagine seeing an unstowed crank wildly spinning and slapping a flight bag around. That’s not something you want distracting you close to the ground, at low airspeed, in the high workload environment of an airplane departure.
Lessons learned from this incident seem like common sense, but are often overlooked. We don’t always give ourselves adequate time to perform all the pre-flight tasks meticulously.
I know I’m guilty of occasionally being too casual with how I stow my flight bag behind me. The reporting pilot determined that it was when he reached back for the flight bag before engine start that he jostled the bag into the perfect position to get caught by the spinning hand crank.
Avoiding stowing luggage and other gear near the hand crank is a good take away. Another is to confirm that the crank is completely stowed before starting on the checklist. Touch it, don’t just look at it. Make sure that the protective cover is onboard the aircraft and installed.
If you’re flying a rental and don’t know if there is a cover because it’s missing, ask. At the very least, secure the crank with something. Here’s a hint: Don’t put your flight bag on top of the crank.
“I had departed Santa Monica Airport, cleared by the Tower to proceed straight out to the shoreline and then northwest along the coast,” wrote another NASA reporter. “Suddenly a small airplane towing a banner appeared directly in front of me. I had to dive so violently that all of the loose objects in the aircraft were thrown against the ceiling of the cabin.”
Once the pilot recovered from the dive, guess where those loose objects ended up? All over. He then had to divert his attention from the task of climbing VFR into the sun, in busy Southern California airspace, to trying to prevent the displaced objects from jamming his rudder pedals and interfering with his other flight controls.
These experiences remind me of a cautionary tale I once read about John and Martha King of King Flight Schools. Apparently, they suffered loss of an alternator on an IFR flight in IMC.
“After an anxious discussion about alternatives, we decided our only option was another trip back down through the ice. Just seconds after seeing the ground in the dusk, we landed in a cornfield. The unsecured luggage and tool kit behind us came forward, sprayed Martha’s blood all over the cabin, and pinned us against the panel. This earned Martha a trip to the emergency room,” wrote John King.
An older CFI and a good friend of mine always wore boots, jeans and a leather jacket when flying. He used to admonish his students whenever they showed up for flight lessons in shorts and flip-flops or sandals. He’d always say to them, “Dress for the crash, not for the flight.” The boots and jeans were to protect his legs and feet. The jacket was to protect him from the elements. Morbid but wise.
That wisdom can also be applied to how we stow gear in our planes. Dress the airplane for the crash, not for the flight. Tied down, tucked away and otherwise secured go a long way toward preventing mishaps when turbulence, tomfoolery or other unexpected events come our way. Inconvenient as it is not to have everything right at your fingertips, it’s worth it.
Airport owners and managers generally do a good job of keeping their runway environments free of loose objects. Sometimes though, things fall through the cracks, as this NASA reporter learned.
After landing in Montgomery Field in San Diego, the captain overshot the assigned gate and made a turn back to the proper gate. His company’s procedure called for the #2 engine to be shut down when on the ramp. As a result, he had to apply extra power to maneuver back to the correct gate. In so doing, the “jet blast” blew loose lumber off a flatbed truck that was parked at the adjacent terminal.
According to the pilot, “The area was dimly lit and I was unaware of construction in that area.”
There was apparently no construction information relayed via Notices to Airmen or the airport’s Automated Terminal Information System to make pilots aware of the situation.
“Of course, I am emotionally upset to have damaged another’s property,” he wrote. “But as I continue to look back on the situation, I wonder why the construction supervisor or airport manager allows loose objects in a high risk area.”
Subsequent to filing his report, the pilot related that upon flying back into that same airport, he saw the trucks had been parked with the cabs facing the gates. Also he found that the lumber had been taken off the flatbeds and stacked behind a brick wall. Finally he observed that colored stanchions were now in place and the whole area had been cleaned up.
His chief pilot also conveyed to him a revised taxi procedure: His airline now taxis to the gate with both engines running, and there is no engine start until out of the alley. Two running engines allow for better aircraft control at overall lower power settings, thus creating smaller air disturbances.
Newly initiated as I am to boating, I am constantly reminded of how much of aviation derives from the nautical world. Perhaps the three NASA reports best exemplify yet another reason to borrow from seafarers.
By battening down our hatches, stowing our gear properly before taking off and establishing “no wake” zones while taxiing, we might better avoid denting ourselves and our aircraft.