I didn’t look in the right place

I was a 4000-hour Mooney pilot (all in the same Mooney) several years ago when a friend, a well-known sculptor who was having three pieces fabricated in Princeton, New Jersey (39N), asked if I would fly him from our home base in East Hampton, New York (HTO), to check on how they were progressing. My friend was eager to fly, so we looked forward to our adventure on a chilly, blustery spring day.

To appreciate what happened, you need to know that Bill was very thin, very tall, and in his 80s. He actually got into the right seat pretty easily, but his legs were a little tight – even with the seat fully back.

While it was a VFR day, I filed IFR as was my practice, particularly flying around the busy New York/Newark airspace. Our flight to Princeton was uneventful other than some bumps and bounces.

Mooney door
Once that door opens in flight, it’s very hard to close it.

Unfortunately, our return trip wasn’t so easy. About 10 minutes after takeoff, we discovered that the door wasn’t fully closed. It was difficult to explain to Bill how to try to close the door… a procedure I admittedly hadn’t practiced in a long time, and, with winter coats on, it was difficult to reach the POH. We were unsuccessful. Knowing it probably wouldn’t work, we tried opening the door and slamming it… anyone who has tried that knows it doesn’t work.

While not a dangerous situation, it was uncomfortable and cold and windy and I wanted to land to close the door. ATC asked if I wanted to declare an emergency and I explained that I simply wanted vectors to a nearby airport where we’d cancel IFR, land, fix the door and take off and report back in. “No Problem” was the gracious reply, with vectors to an airport almost underneath us.

As promised, I cancelled IFR and announced our intentions at the small airport. But, as I lined up on final, the plane was almost uncontrollable. I couldn’t figure out why. Having the door open might create a little drag and noise but shouldn’t be affecting the plane like that. I did a missed approach and did a longer downwind, base and final. Still the plane was difficult to control. I couldn’t figure it out, but had no choice but to try to wrestle it to the runway, which I finally managed to do.

As we started to slow on the runway, I asked Bill to try to properly close the door. It was only then that I realized he had both hands on the door to try to keep it as closed as possible and to avoid the cold draft. To brace himself as he pulled, he had put his left foot on the rudder peddle and was pushing as hard as he could. It’s so easy to diagnose a problem once you see it.

Door closed, passenger feet on the floor, we headed home with no problem. And for any of you who live in the Council Bluffs area and have seen the aluminum sculptures of the girl with the streaming hair near the interstate (the piece is called Interstate), or the two pieces near the performance center…. those were the pieces that Bill King was fabricating.

8 Comments

  • Don’t you just hate it when this happens? It’s one of the “emergencies” I used to throw at my students when I was instructing: Reach behind and pop open their door while they were involved in something that demanded their full attention – like during an instrument takeoff or during clearing turns… Some of them would casually try to shut the door while maintaining their focus on the airplane, and then subsequently shrug their shoulders and give up on the door after a time. Some of them would lose their focus and let the airplane go chasing after daisies while they wrestled frantically with the door. Some of them would come completely unglued and lose all focus – especially if I sat there too long like a glassy-eyed, suicidal dope without doing anything at all except pretending to be crazy Dr. “Frokenshteen” and laugh uncontrollably. (Boy! Their eyes got big…). But after all was said and done, they’d all calm down and realize that an open door is usually no problem – with the exception some possible tail fluctuations while adding flaps, which should be noted and dealt with carefully and judiciously. But we’d practice that, too. The whole thing came to be known around the flight school as, “Dr. Frokenshteen’s open door policy.”

  • I had my Dad flying with me recently (6’2”) in my Gumman Cheetah and despite my preflight safety briefing (“do this don’t do that/don’t touch this/in case of emergency”), Dad, on this 3 hr flight, stretched his long legs twice and slammed each rudder pedal (separately). Here I am proud of my straight and level hand flying getting pretty wonky for just a surprised moment at 8,500. I think the only solution is extra emphasis on some of these matters in preflight but it sounds like you handled it better than I would.

  • I had a very confusing experience in a Mooney 201 earlier this year. I took off from our home base in Northern California O85, Benton Airpark for a short 30 min flight down to Orland O37 to take my Brother-in-law for a flight over to Shelter Cove on the coast 0Q5 to enjoy their famous fish n chips. Just after lift off the door popped open. My efforts were unsuccessful in getting it rewatched but; just a short flight by myself, no problem. As I let down on downwind, base, and turned final I sensed I was sinking despite holding 80 knots and kept adding power, more power, and More Power! Plop! I flopped down in the weeds about 25 feet before the edge of the pavement and nicely bounced up over the threshold lights smoothly onto the runway. I was amazed at how smooth I rolled down the runway past a public works employee cutting back the tall grass who looked aghast at me. I quickly pulled the straw out of the landing gear doors and gassed up before my Brother-in-law arrived. As this was his first time conceeding to fly with me after 5 years of invitations i wanted him to feel as secure as possible for the 45 minute jump over the Coastal range to the Shelter Cove runway that is surround by their 9 hole golf course. The marine layer was about a mile off shore when we landed and walked up to the market for our lunch. The fish n chips just taste better when you fly in! We had hoped to walk down to the tide pools for a while but barely got our chips eaten when we raced back to the plane and quickly buckled up, just in time to lift off and climb up through a ragged hole as the marine layer moved back in. The flight back to Orland was uneventful and he seemed to really enjoy the experience. I hope he will go again. The flight home was to Redding Municipal RDD to put the plane into annual. I confessed my short landing to my friend our mechanic and as we talked thru it we lit on the idea that something in the pito- static system might be in array. Sure enough, a break in the pito-static line under the panel was discovered and repaired during the annual. So while flying with door open, a vacuum was created that caused a false – higher than actual airspeed reading that had led me into the weeds.

    • I am just a student pilot hence my question. If one really gets to know their airplane and I mean really really gets to know it, shouldn’t one know the decent attitude on approach in a given configuration by heart and just know not to hold the nose up too much without reference to ASI?

  • Our first family plane was a Piper Cherokee 180. During the first cross country flights, I was mystified why the airplane would not stay trimmed in yaw/roll very long in cruise. I determined it was not related to unsymmetrical fuel burn, as it sometimes went opposite from what you would expect. Then my wife mentioned over the intercom on the third flight how nice it was that Piper included footrests for the front seat passenger. Footrests?? Those aren’t footrests, those are rudder pedals! Trim mystery solved. And future pre-takeoff briefing modified.

  • I did this to myself the first time I took my plane up for solo touch and gos. The carb heat control was sticky, so after landing I jabbed at it with force, pushing my opposite foot hard against the floor to gain leverage. Not the floor, it turned out, but the rudder. Off goes the plane toward the edge of the runway, field fast approaching. My instincts pushed in the throttle, and ground effect was my only friend for a few hundred feet, as I cleared the field just barely. I caught it all on camera, so I cringe every time I watch it. Split second save. Now I am quite cognizant of how I deal with the carb heat knob.

  • In my Mooney I do not let the right seater close the door without specific instruction from me. I also state in the pre flight briefing that there are rudder pedals on the floor and they are not to be used by the right seater unless specifically requested to do so by me. On occasion, during flight, the right seater will place their feet on the rudder pedals accidentally. As my feet are always on the rudder pedals I can easily sense the effect and I ask the right seater to remove their feet. I have not had any problems in over 1500 hours.

  • I generally feel if someone has feet on the rudder pedals. It’s so important that you have control of the rudder pedals and keep your pax off them unless otherwise instructed.

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