Hands off another pilot’s airplane: always the case?

This happened several years ago as my wife and I were returning from Oshkosh. We stopped in Ames, Iowa, to spend the night with our daughter-in-law. It was 5:00 on a hot, sunny August afternoon. No clouds in the sky, no sign of an impending weather change.

As I tied my light sport airplane down, I couldn’t help noticing the Ercoupe sitting adjacent to me. Not only is an Ercoupe a rare craft, this one was notable because it wasn’t tied down–it just had two straps hanging loose from the wings–as if someone started to tie it down and stopped mid-process.

Ercoupe flipped over
Could this have been prevented?

As I tied our plane down, I thought perhaps I should tie the Ercoupe down also. Then I thought, “No, you shouldn’t mess with other people’s planes.”

We left the airport about 5:30 pm and headed off to dinner with our daughter-in-law. When we left the restaurant at 8:00, the difference in the weather was stunning. Thunderclouds, lightning, huge winds (69 mph we later learned). As we drove to our daughter-in-law’s house, the winds increased, bending small trees over until they were nearly horizontal. All night I worried about whether the ropes I had used were strong enough to withstand the load.

Next morning we drove to the airport and, as it drew into sight, my wife screamed in surprise. Our plane was intact and upright but the Ercoupe was upside down, lying directly in front of our plane. The winds had been a quartering tailwind and the Ercoupe had been flipped over, narrowly missing our aircraft but landing immediately in front of us. It was totaled, bent and twisted.

This experience raises the question: what are your responsibilities toward other aircraft owners and how firmly should the hands-off rule be adhered to?

With the benefit of hindsight, I made three wrong decisions. First, I should not have parked next to a plane that wasn’t tied down. Second, if I was going to park there, I should have risked the ire of the owner and tied his craft down for him. My maybe getting bawled out is not nearly so bad as his losing his plane, perhaps destroying mine in the process. And before leaving the airport, I should have opened ForeFlight on my iPad and looked at the radar picture which probably would have shown the storm on course for Ames. All around, I blew it.

In short, always tie your plane down, no matter how mild the weather. And don’t park next to an aircraft that isn’t tied down.

Is Jim being too hard on himself? Was he right in not tying down the other fellow’s airplane? When does one pilot cross the line when it comes to the safety of another pilot and their airplane? Share with us what you would have done in this situation.

56 Comments

  • If he had tied the other plane down, and those ropes broke and the plane was still damaged, the other guy’s lawyer could argue that the damage may have been less if the plane didn’t bounce against the ropes for awhile before breaking. The wind MAY have just pushed the plane to the side a bit without damage and/or flipping. IOW … damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    That being said, if I KNEW bad weather was coming, I would tie it down and hope for the best.

    • Nothing open, no one in sight? I agree with the others to help and would have tied it down. Yes the lines get blurred – but if we are always afraid of a lawsuit, a lot of good gets left undone. Thanks – I learned to be more watchful.

  • I don’t like messing with other people’s stuff. I would have moved. Left the other plane alone then mentioned it to the FBO. They might have known where the pilot was or who they were.

    • I agree with this one as well. It’s not your place to touch someone else’s property, but at the same time it’s not a bad thing to be helpful either. The FBO would be able to handle the situation properly and be better-justified in their doing so rather than someone else.

  • Jim is right. Never touch another pilot’s airplane. The rule about not parking near a free plane is a good one but does not protect you from the guy who parks his plane next to yours and walks away without tying down. Still, it’s better than nothing.

    Perhaps a word with the FBO would’ve helped. Perhaps they know the pilot and could make a call. The pilot community is a welcoming one and the extra eyes would have been appreciated.

    Still, hands-off other pilots planes is a good rule and one that I’ve always followed. But, we need to look out for each other and speak up when we see something amiss.

  • My saying I would tie it down if I knew bad weather was coming was under the assumption the FBO, if they was one, was closed and/or there were No Line Guys running around. If FBO was open, I’d advise them for sure.

  • I would certainly have notified the FBO. When I worked on the line, one of the jobs I took quite seriously was ensuring that everything was secure before a big blow. I wouldn’t have been as comfortable with other pilots securing *your* airplane, mostly because folks have different ideas about what they consider to be “secure”. Heck, I’d follow behind some of our instructors and re-tie the trainers when they left ’em slack, used a slipknot, etc.

  • My flying club had our beloved C182 flipped in a storm, not tied down or put away in the hangar as requested, and I wish another pilot would have done something before bad stuff happened.

  • Was taught never to walk away from my plane without it being tied down, but I was in windy Oklahoma. I think I’d told the FBO about the plane.

  • Colin, yes, I know the incident you’re referring to. IIRC, the FBO stepped up to acknowledge their culpability, and you have a “new” 182RG as a replacement!

    I think that the ropes hanging give indication that the intention was there to tie down. At OSH we’ve seen tents and awnings blowing in the wind and have acted to secure them first and later explain to the owner what we’ve done. I think we live too much in fear of lawyers and the legal process.

    Were the FBO open, though, I would have definitely told them about it and handed the responsibility to them, as was previously mentioned.

    That said, maybe the owner left it untied specifically so he would be able to make an insurance claim? Nah, that would never happen.

  • I think you are being very harsh on yourself – maybe you still shouldn’t have touch the aircraft but made sure those in authority were informed?

  • Put yourself on the other side of this picture. You’ve had a nice afternoon flying and you get back to the apron and get your gear out of the aircraft and position the tie-down straps. About that time your cellphone goes off and your wife is sick, the cat died, your kid left his baseball glove in your car and the game is about to start, the bathroom is shouting your name; whatever. Bottom line, you didn’t secure your plane. The next morning you get a call from the airport that your plane has a broken back. You get there and hear from a transient that he saw your plane was not tied down but was afraid of litigation and, for whatever reason, chose not to touch you plane and didn’t know how/who to contact… If you are in my position this would mark a substantial postponement (if not curtailment) of your flying career ($$$).
    How many of us would thank that observant pilot for not touching your aircraft ?

  • I would not tie down the airplane. If the plane was damanged, an argument could be made that I had hidden an unsecure situation by making it appear that the airplane was adequately secured, when in fact I had not secured it properly. Would notify the FBO…if there is one. There is another choice in this day of smart phones … try to look up the owner and address in the FAA registration database, and search the internet for a phone number that name/address, and call. Maybe, as was suggested, they just forgot…

  • Tie it down. Then go into the FBO or look up the T/N on the FAA database and attempt to contact the owner and let him/her know that I’d done that.

    Then beat the daylights out the lawyer that tries to say you caused damage to the aircraft. While it’s true some moron would try to sue you, the fact the straps were there leads me to think they wanted it tied down. Can’t imagine flying with them there.

    • Great attitude, I hope some one will re-secure my Champ if found in a similar situation. Lawyers and liability are like terrorists, if we stop doing what is right due to fear of the lawsuit they win.

      • It is very sad that people are more woried about the lawyers, what other people would say etc before doing the right thing. What happened to “nice folk”, who look after one another and do it for the love of aviation and fellow aviators? I for one would be more than happy to buy you a beer (and accept the implied headslap) if you secured my aircraft for me’ but that is probably just because I’m an Australian!

  • dont touch the thing. it is not yours to touch. what would happen if you gave the tiedown a tug, and the plane was damaged. it is not your property.

    that being said, i would go and find the fbo and alert them to the situation. if they do something about the tiedown, they should have the insurance to cover their actions.

    and as far as putting yourself in the shoes of the other pilot, you dont answer the phone until the plane is tied down. take some responsibility and quit putting the phone to ear. almost like answering the radio and not flying the plane.

  • There seems to be a lot of chatter in the comments about what Jim should’ve done, would’ve done, could’ve done. I learned to fly a Cessna 140 at Woodring Field, Enid, OK. Weather conditions in Oklahoma, indeed, the entire mid-west, can change very quickly. I was taught by my CFI to NEVER leave my plane for any period of time without tying it down.

    Ultimately, it is the pilot’s responsibility to ensure his or her a/c is properly tied down and secured against wx changes. It is not the responsibility of the FBO or the line crew to ensure the pilot has properly secured their plane.

    In my humble opinion, Jim bears no culpability in this incident. In fact, I believe it reflects credit on his integrity for even sharing this experience with those of us in the aviation community.

    I’m sure it was a bitter and expensive lesson for the Ercoupe operator, but we all learn from experience.

    Bill Scott

  • I own a small airport and although I adhere to the rules of don’t touch. However, I can also say that all of the airplane owners expect me to take a lap if bad weather is coming and tighten up any ropes that are loose or not attached. Although I may not have tied down a ‘strangers’ airplane, I sure would have made sure a local knew about it. I would want someone to make that effort if it was my plane that I had forgotten to tie down. As my Mother said, treat people like you want to be treated.

  • The only thing I can say for absolute certain is that I would do what it took to notify someone (FBO or the pilot directly) of the situation.

    I don’t know exactly how I would handle the rest of this. I’m leaning toward fixing the problem (i.e., taking the risk and tying it down). That said, I have to ask, where do we draw the line? This particular plane was obviously not tied down, but what about planes that aren’t ‘properly’ tied down? I’ve seen more than my fair share of slack ropes and poor knots. Should I (or someone from the FBO) be running around redoing all those ropes?

  • We all need to look out for one another, we are a small community of pilots and aircraft owners. If I see a potentially bad situation about to happen to my airplane or someone else’s I would have tied their airplane down and hoped they would have done the same for me….

  • Tie it down. I would not want an unsecured airplane smashing into my properly secured plane. I would certainly use that claim if an incident led to litigation.

  • An additional fact: the FBO knew the Ercoupe wasn’t tied down because when the storm began, the owner called his lineman and sent him back to the airport but he arrived too late to save the plane. I’m intrigued by the number of people who would have felt constrained for fear of legal consequences, not because they’re necessarily wrong but because it’s such a sad commentary that we are deterred from doing the right thing in fear of a lawsuit. I still think I was wrong not to tie the other guy’s plane down. I would have wanted someone else to do the same for me. I also think, especially for pilots who live in Tornado Alley, that checking the weather picture on your tablet computer before you leave the airport should be a regular part of your shutdown procedure. I live in Northern California where the weather is blessedly consistent but Midwesterners know how fast severe weather changes can occur. Was the plane’s owner wrong not to secure it? Absolutely. Should the FBO have tied it down before closing up for the night? Yes to that too. Does that excuse my failure to act? No. Rules exist for a good reason but sometimes there’s a good reason to break them.

  • I would err on the side of the pilot who forgot to tie down his “RARE” aircraft. Maybe he forgot to check the weather and assumed the conditions would be the same when he arrived. Or he just might as well forgot, people make mistakes.

    I do not find Jim liable for the complacent’s pilot’s mistakes. Had Jim tied down the aircraft and it still flipped over who would be at fault? It’s the other pilot’s responsibility to properly secure his aircraft.
    I would not find Jim liable for anything.

    I would file a claim against the owner’s insurance for “Neglection of Weather conditions.”

    That’s my 0.02 cents.

    Jake

  • Interesting and sad story, I love Ercoupes. I have a similar story, but I probably saved the poor owner some grief. This year at Oshkosh, I was on the bus back to my plane up on North 40. I own a Cessna Cardinal and we passed a nice looking Cardinal on the way to my plane. It was only about 5-6 rows from mine. I noticed the pilot side door was open. It wasnt windy, but being a Cardinal driver myself, I know those 90 opening doors love to catch wind and door hinge damage is very common in cardinals. So after i got off the bus, I walked over to the other cardinal to find nobody around, so I closed the door and left a note explaining that I saw the door open, was a fellow cardinal owner, and didnt want to see their precious (and expensive) door broken or bent in the wind. About 30 min later, a strong blow came through, threatening to storm but we just got some mild rain. Sure glad I saved that guys door!

  • Tie it down, let the fbo know if they are there. Luckily only the untied plane was damaged. Could have been the whole flight line. We all should make a greater effort to take care of each other. We all can have brain farts and do something dumb. So please, be aware and have the attitude that you should be your brothers keeper. Just the right thing to do.

  • It isn’t just bad weather that can cause a problem for a loose airplane that is parked. I have seen helicopters fly low over the ramp and airplanes levitate completely off the ground in the updraft. If they hadn’t been tied down who knows what could have happened. ** ALWAYS TIE DOWN THE PLANE, BOSS. **

  • I agree with the author – the obvious answer is to tie the other aircraft down. You’re not “messing with someone’s airplane” when you secure an unsecured aircraft in the immediate vicinity of your own aircraft.

    To heck with any supposed legal liability, because nobody has a legal obligation to “properly” tie down a negligent pilot’s aircraft. Any “damage” that purportedly results from “bouncing” on the straps or such is negligible compared to the damage resulting from not tying it down at all. And furthermore, every pilot and aircraft owner/operator has the right to prevent another nearby aircraft that is untended and not tied down from turning into a hazard to your own aircraft, or someone else’s aircraft.

    It’s called common sense, even moreso than common courtesy.

    As for calling the FBO, sure, on your way out of the airport stop and tell the FBO that you tied down your neighboring aircraft and that if they want to notify the owner or check the security of the tiedown themselves, fine.

  • Too bad there are lawyers in the world, but there are and the sad part is that the judges agree with them. All lawyers are not bad…. but there are bad ones who just chase after the almighty dollar. If Jim would have tied down the gentleman’s plane and the same thing happened. He could be liable. Let the FBO know and let them deal with it. I am the same way…. I want to help others out, but you can’t nowadays.

    • David – if you tie down the plane, the “same thing” won’t happen. If the wind is strong enough to destroy a tied down airplane, there is no jury in the world that would find on behalf of a plaintiff against a good samaritan who also was protecting his own aircraft (meaning, his own insurance company would defend him), since we’re talking here about an Act of God.

      If people are so frightened of attorneys, perhaps they should simply refuse to get out of bed in the morning.

      Oh, and anyone who flies without liability insurance is an idiot.

  • Maybe each FBO should post a sign reading ” planes must be tied down before leaving airport. $15 fee if we must tie your plane down.”

    • I agree with Jim. Post the sign. Also, I would tie it down. If there’s no one around to seee you do it and you don’t admit doing it, how are they going to know who to sue?

  • I would tie it down. Damn the lawyers!! (sp?)

    I refuse to be intimidated by sue-happy folks!

    If they win, the most they can git is my old 1959 Ford pickup.

    Good luck with that. Cpt. Logger A&P, PP.

    • Great attitude! We cannot let them win! I’ll take my chance with the jury and just maybe they will agree that it was an effort in good faith for the common good.

  • I’m from Alaska and, like every other Alaska pilot I know, I would have tied that little airplane to the earth. Moreover, if his tiedown straps didn’t look tough enough to fight lift, I would have provided lines of sufficient strength. Of course, Alaskans are known to be sort of nuts anyway, and a little verbal abuse from the other plane’s owner would have run off most of us like rain runs off a duck. More than that, we have a way for goofy attorneys: we take ’em fishing, and then forget where we left them ………………

  • The problem here is that you are all correct in all the opinions expressed. As pilots, and as so aptly put by Richard Collins in countless writings (paraphrased) – there is no such thing as a risk-free endeavor – we learn to manage risk in order to mitigate the likelihood of any potential negative consequence and to promote safety. Ok – if you are an experienced aviator and do not know how to tie a knot that will hold a tie-down, you probably should be standing on the other side of the airport fence. However, most of us do. As a good steward in our flying community, you may want to help a fellow pilot who, for whatever reason, did not follow through and handle his responsibility. The problem is – the minute you touch that aircraft, you are part of the process, and you are accepting some of the responsibility for the outcome, whether good or bad. The right thing to do is bring your findings to the FBO. If they are closed, and you do have access to the FAA registration database, and feel so inclined, look the owner up and reach out. I’ll bet that more times than not, you are going to fail to reach anyone unless the pilot is at his home base. What then? Call the local authorities. Report it. See if they can help track down the owner. Beyond that – just like a lot of what we do as pilots – this is a judgement call. Your decision can increase risk or prevent disaster. Are the tie ropes of sound integrity? You don’t own them, but if you apply a defective tie-down rope or chain or whatever to another owner’s aircraft, you just made a decision that could have a negative impact on that aircraft, whereas if you just kept your hands to yourself and made every effort possible to contact someone who does have the authority and/or liability umbrella to make such a decision (FBO), you have done more than enough without risking your own financial neck. That sounds terrible, but like I tell my kids when they complain about rules – fairness is a hypothetical construct. We live in a world where exploitative opportunity can be gained through the misfortune of Good Samaritan acts. However, we each have to trust ourselves to some degree or we wouldn’t sit in the cockpit. If, for example,you fly a C182 and you regularly anchor that bird, you likely know how to tie down a similar craft. If you apply your experience to something larger than you are experienced with, you may not have the same luck. Best regards, and fly safely.

  • Be helpful. Tie it down while no one is looking. But then if the storm destroys it anyway, keep your mouth shut. Don’t run up and say you tried to help. LOL

  • I’ve had similar experiences in marinas, where people do a poor job of securing their boats. When my boat was new, I did a poor job of securing it to the dock at Mackinac Island–didn’t know any better. Over night, a monster storm came in, and I worried all night about the boat, because I couldn’t get to it. The next morning, I was elated to find that a nearby boater had taken my anchor line, and without cutting it, used it to properly secure my boat between pilings so that it wouldn’t bang against anything.

    On another occasion, I was stuck in a marina in BC during a 3 day blow which was tossing the boats around like they weren’t tied down at all. Two other fellows and I went to every boat in the marina and re-tied them, snugging them if they had worked loose, double-tying them if their lines were too light, properly tying them if they were inadequately tied, etc. Not a single boat broke loose, and whether anyone was PO’d at our invading their territory, I didn’t hear about it.

    Moving now to tying down aircraft: An FBO operator at Evanston, WY, 40 years ago taught me how to tie down with what he called a running lock knot, but which many call a hurricane knot. He made the point that no matter how tight the knot was, it wouldn’t do any good if the line itself wasn’t taut. I have since taught others that know, and given his advice about snugging tie-downs so that they are taut.

    His advice was reinforced when I was instructing and SE charter-flying out of Laramie. There we used chains instead of ropes (Laramie can get really windy!). A man flew in and tied his restored 170B down, letting the chains hang loosely. When he walked into the FBO, I suggested that he might want to snug the chains better, because we had a blow forecast for overnight. He used some choice 4-letter words to chastise me, to which I could only reply, “Well, it’s your airplane.”

    That night, there were 60 mph winds. The next day, I was at the airport again, and that poor little 170B sat there with a bent left strut and wing–the force of the bouncing against the chains had bent everything including the spar.

    I was at Roche Harbor, WA, some years ago in my boat and walked up to look at the airstrip, for future purposes. A Cherokee was tangled up with a properly tied down 172–it was easy to see in the grass where the Cherokee had been parked and had drifted downhill into the 172, and there was no indication that the Cherokee had been tied down at all.

    I am a lawyer–and I would tie down any airplane that I saw in danger of being blown away, especially if in the process it was going to blow into someone else’s airplane.

    • Your comment is right on. I was going to make a similar comment. When I started sailing in the 70’s, I noted a boat moored near the rental that I was sailing with its canvass cover blown half off and flogging in the wind. After some hesitation, I rowed over in my dingy and fixed it. I then went in and told the grizzled old harbor master (probably 10 years younger than I am now) what I had done. He said, “You did the right thing; we take care of each other in this harbor.” I wish we still had that attitude. Today, as an attorney, my advice to a client would probably have to be that you have no liability if you don’t touch it. Personally, I would probably take the chance of fixing the problem, if there was no one at the FBO — and hope that a human being owned the plane, rather than a — well, I better leave that unsaid.

  • I should add: I have tied down others’ airplanes, and I’ve closed doors, turned off master switches, etc. I think the Golden Rule applies, and if it upsets someone, so be it.

  • I would have tied it down. If not for the aircraft and owners own good, for the safety of everyone else. That plane could have been blown off the airport and possibly into auto traffic, a home etc. A lot of people use lawyers and lawsuits as their excuse for not using common sense and doing the right thing. An untied airplane is a clear safety hazard. A lawsuit for correcting a clear safety hazard wouldn’t last 3 minutes in court.

  • Step 1. Don’t park near unsecured planes (mine suffered a very near miss from an unsecured plane the day after I brought it home after buying it and I’ve been a fanatic for tying it down ever since).
    Step 2. Tie the other guys’ plane down.
    Step 3. If someone gripes, look them straight in the eye and say: “I never touched your plane and you can’t prove that I did!” and walk away. If the owner is that lawsuit happy, he deserves nothing better.

    • Plenty of twists and turns on the Liability question in this thread.

      I am surprised that nobody pointed out the fact that Security Cameras – and DVR’s to record their output – are cheaper now than they’ve ever been, and they’re popping up everywhere. The average person is now captured on at least 30 Cameras, during their normal daily movements – and that number is likely much higher, for those around ‘sensitive’ places like Airports.

      So odds are that, whether or not you acted to tie down the other guy’s Plane in this situation, there IS Video of it. But if so, there’s also Video showing that THEY didn’t do it.

      Either way, Courts love Video evidence, and hate Liars. HONESTY has always been the best policy – and even more so today, with all those Cameras out there to ‘keep us honest’.

      So if you DO tie it down, DON’T turn around and Deny doing so – as some suggested here. If there is Video to the contrary, the Lie opens you up to both potential liability AND perjury charges.

    • RE: suggestion that video camera would cause a problem in court after denying that you tied down a plane: half the cameras are defective at one airport I frequent. As for a problem in court, look the lawyer right in the eye and tell him “You are mistaken, that isn’t me.”

  • All good advise….Note the ERCOUPE is hardly rare, but alive & well. According to the Owner’s Club, 2000
    still fly world wide, out of the 5700 produced. Here in Florida, there are 88 registered.

  • Many years ago I flew a Citabria 7eca into Dyersburg,Tn with my wife aboard. Had to stop here due to numerous thunderstorms in the area. Due to massive stupidity on my part I just chalked the aircraft. While we went to lunch to await the weather to clear to the south two storms converged on the area. We rushed back to the airport and found the FBO had securely tied down the plane and all was well. I offered to buy the entire staff dinner,said many many thank-you’s. This was a Navy Flying Club aircraft and I am enternally thankful someone covered my six and if I ever get the chance I will repay the favor.

  • The difference between a leader and a follower is that a leader would have seen what needed to be done and tied the ercoupe down.

    A follower would not.

  • Wow! As a result of reading this discussion, and all the “I would not touch it without the owner’s permission” responses, I’m thinking of printing a small card to place in the window of my airplane that says “If you see this airplane is not tied down, I give my explicit permission to any pilot or airport employee to tie it down as best you can.” I will probably also include my phone number so they can contact me if necessary.

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