I was flying with my student in his Cessna 150 on a routine cross-country flight. It was a beautiful day: blue skies, calm winds and great visibility. On the return leg of the flight at 4500 feet, the aircraft started bouncing around, pitching up and down. I asked the student what he was doing. He responded, “I can’t control the plane!” I immediately took over and, looking around, I noticed that the left elevator was flapping up and down uncontrollably. At this point the aircraft was about seven miles east of Brookhaven Airport (KHWV), our home field.
The Cessna control system for the elevator is very simple. A bolt connects the elevator to the horizontal stabilizer. The bolt passes through a bushing and is tightened into a self-locking nut plate and torqued into place. There is no way it could come loose! In this case, the elevator came loose and was flapping like a bird’s wing. The aircraft would pitch up and down with any movement of the control wheel.
My immediate concern was that the elevator would bend and pitch the aircraft into the ground. I elected to not move the controls. No flaps were used because lower flaps in a Cessna 150 causes the nose to pitch up.
Luckily the aircraft was almost aligned with runway 24 at Brookhaven airport. Making a small power reduction lowered the nose slightly and the aircraft began a slight descent. At 4500 feet I estimated the aircraft could get close to the runway. Varying the power ever so slightly, I could start and stop my descent. Sunrise Highway was close to the airport and I thought I could land on it, but there were too many cars on the road and any mistake could possibly hit a car.
I elected to continue to the runway and, at worst, I thought that I might land in the trees or the runway clearway on the approach. As the aircraft got closer to the runway, we hit some slight turbulence at about 500 feet, causing the aircraft to start pitching up and down and I thought we were going into the ground right then and there.
Luckily the turbulence subsided and the aircraft became stable again. On short final I elected not to move the yoke to flare the aircraft because I did not know what it might do. The elevator could bend and pitch the aircraft uncontrollably into the runway. The aircraft touched down on the nosewheel and I let it slam down on the runway. “My God!” I thought. “We are down!”
I have talked about this incident at pilot and instructor meetings. Questions were asked about using trim to control the elevator, but, in this case, the elevator itself was disconnected and moving the trim wheel would cause the elevator to move from “trail” position behind the horizontal stabilizer and rock the aircraft up and down. Banking the aircraft or using flaps would require movement of the elevator, causing the aircraft to become uncontrollable. I found that as long as I did not move the control wheel, the aircraft would stay stable and fly straight ahead.
I thought how close my student and I came to becoming a fatal accident statistic. Had the elevator disconnected in a climb, I would have lost control of the aircraft as it pitched into the ground. Turbulence was an issue on short final during the landing because the elevator would move. Had the day been windy or turbulent, I would not have been able to control the aircraft. Very gentle movement of the power is what brought the aircraft down safely.
I gently applied pressure on the rudder, slightly yawing the aircraft to the “right” on my long descent, successfully aligning the aircraft with the landing runway. Luck was with us and the wind was very light, blowing a steady, gentle 10 knots from the left of the aircraft, helping to align us with the runway.
Lessons? Always try and stay calm during an emergency. Don’t do anything until you assess the situation and then react slowly. (The only time I would deviate from the above recommendation is if the aircraft is on fire!)
It is agreed that the worst control to lose is the elevator. Lateral control can and has been deadly in flight. Fortunately, aircraft have few control failures in flight. I remember reading the accident reports where pilots have lost all control of their aircraft. The engine or engines were used to bring the aircraft within a position to land. Training is important and instructors teach their students to use trim and power to control the aircraft.
A rudder failure or aileron failure can be controlled with proper training. We all know someone who left a gust lock in place and had to land an aircraft. The failure of the elevator is the most dangerous and survival statistically is poor. I realized that the outcome of this flight could have been deadly and another fatal in the NTSB accident statistics. It was as close as one can get to not crashing an aircraft.
I have asked the NTSB to recommend that an Airworthiness Directive be issued against all Cessna 150 aircraft with this current control system design. I estimate that there are 3,000 possible aircraft affected from 1959-1970. It would require a hardware change to that used on the Cessna 152. Not a lot of money to fix and safer. I have yet to have any decision made.
So far the NTSB still has the case open with preliminary information available on their website. Cessna Aircraft has not responded and the FAA has closed their investigation.
The insurance carrier spoke with me after the investigation. The agent was an instructor also and experienced. He thought that it was amazing that I was able to bring the aircraft down in one piece. He was glad to pay the claim!
You can watch a video of the incident, shot from outside, below: