Tuesday, October 2, 2007

When something goes wrong

I am not afraid to fly; I don't believe I'm a bad pilot. My failure to get my certificate years ago on my first checkride has, I think, made me want to prove that day wrong. So I think a lot about flying, I read as many articles as I can, I go to safety seminars, and I constantly think about what I would do in various situations.

I read a lot of blogs by RVers and I realized I'm not the pilot they are; I'm not the pilot I want to be. But I try. And so I go on reading and, hopefully, go on learning so that when a problem presents itself, I can react quickly.

Tonight, I was reading through some recent NTSB reports on RV accidents, and came upon this probable-cause finding, on a crash that happened in Wichita in February 2006.

The pilot said that he did his run-up check and took the runway for takeoff. The airplane rotated, took off, and was climbing when approximately 80 feet above the ground, the canopy opened. The pilot said the canopy went to the full open position and the airplane subsequently yawed 45 degrees right. The pilot lowered the airplane's nose, applied full left rudder, and reduced the engine power to idle. The pilot said he then switched hands on the control stick and with his right hand, reached up and pulled the canopy closed. He said his airspeed was just above the stall speed and his wings were level. The airplane was approximately 20 feet above the ground when it "pancaked perfectly flat to the side of the runway." An examination of the airplane canopy latching mechanism and other airplane systems revealed no anomalies.

This is the airplane version of the Dale Earnhardt accident. It probably didn't look so bad -- what's 20 feet, really, when you're in a large foam seat, strapped it with seat belts? And yet, it was enough to kill a person -- in this case, the pilot's wife.

But every pilot knows what the problem was here because we have it drilled into our heads all the time: Fly the airplane! An open canopy or door, as we have also been instructed time and again, will not bring an airplane down. So you continue your flight in the pattern, and land. Only this time, the pilot did what we are constantly told not to do, and someone died.

The thing is: I'll bet the pilot had heard the instructions too, and yet, when it came time to remember it, he didn't.

It's amazing, really, how many voices I hear when I fly. At various times in a flight, I'll hear the voice of my first flight instructor, Greg Wahlmeier. I'll hear Rod Machado. I'll hear John and Martha King. I'll "hear" the words of a blogger, even.

A few years ago I took off from Osceola airport in Wisconsin in a beat-up Cessna 172. And, sure enough, the door popped open. I heard the voice say "fly the airplane," and yet I found myself reaching over to try to close it. Fortunately, I caught myself after a few seconds and left the problem alone, climbed to altitude, flew the pattern and landed.

While reading these occasional reports, I've never said "that can't happen to me." But I have almost always said "that shouldn't happen to me." Still, I can't get over the notion that many of those pilots in fatal accidents, probably said the same thing.

I sure wish the FAA would hurry up and issue my medical certificate renewal, so I can get up there and practice.

By the way, this accident was highlighted in an issue last May of Over the Airwaves.

Even slight distractions can produce a temporary brain freeze. This is why instructors should routinely create in-flight distractions like opening a cabin window while on short final or popping an inflated balloon that's tucked away in a flight bag.

One of our legendary designated pilot examiners (Jack Prior, now retired) used to blow cigarette smoke under the hood of instrument candidates as they slithered down the ILS!

Dealing effectively with distractions during critical stages of flight is a mark of a proficient pilot.

I think it would be great to share our stories of those incidents when something went wrong.

1 comment:

  1. First, Fly The Airplane! My wife and I lost an(the) engine over dense fog in 1999. I flew the airplane to the ground on instruments and we both walked away basically unhurt. Lessons learned:

    First: Fly the Airplane
    Second: Think carefully about night / low IFR in a single.