A bad way to learn about aerodynamics

Many decades ago, my flying career was just getting off the ground when it nearly ended. It was August 1976 to be more exact. I had the opportunity to ferry a PA-23 that a new owner was restoring that had the full Geronimo conversion from Albuquerque to Cincinnati for radio and autopilot work at my father’s shop.

I airlined out to ABQ and was met by the owner at the gate. He took me to the plane, which was parked and fueled at the FBO. Being just 19 at the time, and looking younger, I’m sure he must have had misgivings about turning his new pride and joy over to a kid. We did the preflight while I went through a hundred questions on my experience. He dragged on and on and told me everything he could think of about how to fly the airplane and then asked if I wanted some lunch before heading east. Having had a good meal on the airline (Remember when that was the norm?), I graciously said no thank you and said that I needed to get started back. He watched me fire up, taxi out, run up, take off, and I just knew he would watch until I was out of sight.

PA-23
The PA-23 is a great airplane, but that right side door is notorious for popping open in flight.

Well, during the climb out, I realized the top latch on the door was open even though I knew I had closed it. My first thought was to return and close the door on the ground. Then I thought of the owner maybe still watching his precious plane fly away. I decided that I didn’t want to alarm the owner and have him see his plane return for a landing and have to taxi back to the FBO to answer a lot of questions.

I figured I would just close the latch in the air after I was away from the field and cruising. With the beautiful weather and the sad state of the radios, I was VFR. I leveled for cruise at 7,500, talking to no one, well east of ABQ heading for some midpoint fuel stop. This was a good time to close that latch.

I opened the little window on the pilot’s side window to help equalize pressure and then unbuckled and slid over to the right seat. Since the autopilot did not work, I trimmed up the airplane the best I could and I set about trying to close the top latch. Just pulling in and trying to close it was not working. I tried several times and figured that the lower pressure on the outside of the door was still preventing it. I then thought I would open the bottom latch and try to secure the top latch first, each time pushing out on the door a little in an effort to get a good run at it. Still no joy. I tried top, bottom, both at the same time, and a little farther out and in. Nothing was working and I was getting frustrated.

That is when I came up with the plan for my final try. I would hold the top latch with my right hand, the bottom with my left, and shove the door as far open as I could with a shoulder lunge and catch the latches as it slammed shut from the slipstream force. What could go wrong?

I took my position and shoved.

Well, I’m not sure what happened, but it seemed in a split second I was sitting out on the wing of the airplane with a death grip on the door, my feet barely in the right side footwell, and my heart beating about 180 beats-per-minute up around my Adam’s apple. I scrambled back into the airplane over to the left seat, buckled up, and said to myself, “#&%w the door! I’ll land at the next airport and close it on the ground.”

That is what I did at some hole-in-the wall non-towered airport that I don’t remember and found that the top latch was broken and never was going to close. The owner, in telling me everything about the plane, failed to mention that little fact. The rest of the trip was a little noisy, but uneventful, and I had a lot of time to think about what happened and could have happened.

I had shoved the door out far enough to temporarily disrupt airflow over most of the horizontal tail. Being negatively loaded, this caused the tail to suddenly pitch up and therefore the plane to pitch down. The drag on the right side of the airplane from the door opening, amplified by the loss of stability from the vertical tail being blanked out for a second, caused a sudden yaw to the right. Now, being unbuckled, my number one mistake, I followed all of Newton’s laws. I remained in steady motion, augmented to the right by the lunge, and relative to the plane went up and to the right.

I still shiver today each time I think of that flight. If, by chance, I had been totally ejected from that plane, the news story would have been: “Young pilot commits suicide by jumping from plane in flight. No one can figure out why. He seemed so happy and had the world on a string.” Outside of having door parts in my cold dead hands it would have taken a very good crash investigator to come up with anything else.

I learned two very important lessons that flight that I still live by today. I have not and will never occupy a seat in any vehicle that moves without first having the seatbelt firmly buckled across my lap. Secondly, if the airplane is flying fine, there are few problems you may have that are not best addressed on the ground.

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

8 Comments

  • William. Good grief! That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of something like that happening before. Shocking how one can so suddenly find himself alone in the ‘smoking section.’ You mentioned something toward the end of the article that all should take note of: “#$%w the door!” Exactly right. In my lessons for primary students I include one or more scenarios where the door comes open in flight. I tell them the same thing. “Screw the door. Fly the airplane.” Very good story.

    • Thanks Dave, I hope to write some more. It seams that my best learning has always come from doing it wrong once. My bucket of luck is pretty light while my bucket of experience could put me over gross.

      Tailwinds

  • Nothing terrible, very close to disaster but thankfully only valuable lessons.
    The owner asked many questions and your answers convinced him that you can handle the broken latch.
    He might have mentioned the latch issue over spicy chile relleno lunch but you turned him down.
    Nowadays checking all small details is called ” advanced pre flight inspection”.
    Thanks for your honesty !!!!
    Cheers.

    • Lol Ed, It seems with me though that instant fright shuts all those functions down. I may not have gone the rest of the way home!

  • William, What a way to learn a lesson… Your story brought back memories from my first days in the aviation profession when I worked for an aircraft interior company that rented space in Hangar #3… I always enjoyed your father and his colorful stories from within aviation. I still fondly think of donuts as “fat pills” as your father called them! Fly safe!

    • Thanks Randi. You must have worked for Dennis. Sad to see Hanger #3 now. But you’re right, there sure are a lot of memories there and stories that could fill a book.

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