For want of a spring an airplane was (almost) lost

Back in the day, Apple Valley Airport was a nice destination for a rare CAVU flight on a warm summer day in Southern California. I would be riding as a passenger and copilot with a friend of mine in the Cal Tech Aero Club’s Cessna 172.

I arrived early and decided to pre-flight the plane before my friend arrived. I finished what I considered my usual thorough inspection just as he showed up.

Flaps down on Cessna
Flaps down for preflight – but did they go back up?

The mild Santa Ana winds, not having had a chance to build up in the cool morning air, made the flight out unusually smooth. The view outside the cockpit windscreen was spectacular. A special bonus from the usual summer haze and smoggy air of the Los Angeles Basin.

The approach and landing at Apple Valley Airport’s newly blacktopped runway was deceptively normal.

Following a typical airport restaurant lunch, I again volunteered to pre-flight the plane. I performed what I thought was another thorough inspection.

The takeoff appeared normal at first, although it took longer than usual; presumably because of the airport’s higher density altitude. Just as we lifted off, the plane suddenly lurched upward. The airspeed rapidly decreased. We both instinctively reached for the control yoke and pushed it forward to prevent a departure stall. The plane, now vibrating and shaking like a wet dog, began descending towards the rocky desert floor.

“What the hell’s happening?!” I yelled.

“I dunno, won’t climb,” he said.

My mind started racing as I tried to find a solution to the situation we found ourselves in.  I looked out at the wings. There I saw the reason for our dilemma. The barn door-size flaps were fully deployed.

“Your flaps are all the way down,” I yelled.

“What the…?” his voice matched the perplexed look on his face.

“How’d that happen?” he yelled.

“I don’t know, I didn’t touch them,” I yelled back.

As the flaps came up the plane stabilized and we started climbing again. An uneventful but not too talkative trip home ensued.

So what had happened?

Aviation is no unstable
Truer words have never been spoken.

The control spring on the flap lever had broken. This meant that the slightest movement of the flap lever would start the flaps going down and they would continue going down until they were fully extended. Since I was sitting closest to the lever, I may well have bumped it with my knee. But the biggest mistake I made was during the pre-flight inspections.

Twice I deployed the flaps so I could inspect them. Both times I held the lever until they were down 20 degrees and then manually moved the lever back to the stop position. I never noticed or imagined they would have continued going down, uncontrolled, to their full extension. Also, this problem was recorded in the aircraft logbook under squawks from the last flight. For some reason, when I looked at the logbook, the squawk about the flap lever sometimes sticking didn’t register with me as a serious problem.

Well, I ‘fessed up to everything and although we remained friends, he told me he was going to do all of his own pre-flights from then on.

As has been said, “Flying is very unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.” That’s the rub, up there: even the simplest of problems, like a tiny broken spring, can be the precursor to a seriously bad ending to a good day’s flying.

4 Comments

  • Confession is good for the soul, David. Thanks for sharing.

    The most important lesson in your story is that pilots who fly shared, club, or rental aircraft really need to carefully scan the aircraft maintenance logs for squawks before going wheels up. True, other pilots may not always be diligent in recording squawks, but reading what is recorded is a key part of the aircraft pre-flight.

    The other factor here is, while Cessna pilots seem to be fierce advocates for their airplanes, as a Piper owner and pilot who used to fly Cessnas I am reminded over and over again of the superiority of the Cherokee “Johnson bar” manual flap control over the Cessna electric flaps. It is just way too easy to NOT see the position of that small flap switch (as compared to that big ole bar sticking up betwixt the seats in my Piper) … and unlike the manual bar, electric flaps can fail rather easily.

    It seems that there have been quite a few accidents over the years in Cessnas during attempted go-arounds where the flaps, left fully extended, prevented a safe recovery from a go-around, or were simply forgotten as part of the final pre-takeoff cockpit check by a distracted PIC. If you fly a Cessna single, one of the most important parts of the pilot’s scan during any take-off, landing, or maneuvering flight is that little flap switch.

    • You’re so right Duane. I started out flying Cessna 150’s and 172’s I then switched to Piper PA-28’s for my commercial. The manual flap lever was a great improvement to the actual operation and tactility of flying the airplane.

      • I trained in Musketeers with Johnson bar flap control, which I liked a great deal because of the ability to fine-tune flap extension and retraction. Especially on a go-around, being able to nurse the flaps up while building airspeed gave me the “tactility” David Bauer mentioned.

  • Ah but the early 172’s did have the Johnson bar so I guess they at least were superior!!! You should also be able to do a go around even with 40* of flaps. My 1958 172 can.

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