There I was, bouncing around in the backseat of a Cessna 172 as my friend tried to stabilize the aircraft while our pilot was simultaneously shutting the door. Yet no amount of slamming seemed to lock the door in place. It would merely rebel by jerking open yet again. We were in quite the dilemma at several hundred feet. This experience was certainly not what I would have expected from an introductory flight!
If you were to rewind to the beginning of our turbulent flight you would view my friend and me eagerly waiting at the terminal. This introductory flight we were going to take would be my third in a small aircraft and my friend’s first. With eternal grins and giggles, we overlooked the aircraft and performed a preflight check with the pilot. After briefly discussing the flight, we were off. Our plan was for me to fly in the front seat from our departure airport in South Carolina, at the Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport (SPA), to a local airport near our capital of Columbia. Then, on the return the flight I would hop in the back seat and trade places with my friend. The trip was estimated to take about an hour.
Upon departure, we cleared the local facilities and gained altitude for our trek towards Columbia. It was a beautiful day with a piercing blue sky. Though we did have some clouds jockeying next to our Cesena 172, we still had some clear patches where we could view the ground. My friend and I pondered how indescribable and almost cartoon-like the rich whiteness of the clouds was. We continued our delicate dance between earth and atmosphere until we reached our stopping point. Luckily, when we reached the airport there was a break in the clouds and we started on final. As we approached the airport, I started to get a queasy feeling but quickly dismissed it as we landed.
When we arrived at the uncontrolled airport, I made sure to stretched my legs before switching places with my friend. The pilot quickly asked if we were good to go, then we were off once again. But this time with much more excitement then our first tranquil flight.
We had gone a little way when suddenly a curious thought entered my mind as I sat in the back. I pondered, “I wonder how many flights you have to take before something goes wrong?” Literally no sooner had the question vanished from my mind than the side door start to make some strange noises. Shocked, I watched as all of our attention flung to my friend’s side door. Unbeknownst to us all, she did not slam the door hard enough when we were preparing to take off. Amazingly, the door had remained closed as we climbed but it now decided to unlatch.
The pilot anxiously reached across my friend and tried opening and closing the door. Yet, instead of staying locked with the force he exerted it merely mocked him by bouncing back. The result was an extremely noisy cacophony of groans, smashing metal, and air. Suddenly, I felt the familiar but most unwelcome feeling of nausea overwhelm me. Our straight and level aircraft quickly turned into a wooden rocking horse with all the up and down movement the plane was creating. My head craned down only to stare dangerously at the naked ground which lay before me, because of the open door. I rapidly reached for a bag and was quite thankful for seatbelts.
While the pilot was busy wrestling the door, our lives were in the hands of my friend. Though 14 at the time and with no previous flight experience, she had to temporarily fly the plane. We must have been quite the sight to behold—with the pilot battling the door, my friend now in command of the aircraft, and me hiding my head in a shopping bag.
Finally, he successfully closed the door and regained control of the Cessna from my grateful friend. However, we still had 20 minutes to go before we reached our destination. I was completely sick at this point and our pilot easily spotted the tell-tale signs of motion sickness. He decided to help by opening his push-to-open window. But to his chagrin, as he started to crack the window our rebellious plane decided it had not finished tormenting us. Once the window was open it quickly slammed shut on his fingers. Immediately, he tried freeing his captive fingers but the window was reluctant to release them. At last, after a loud “OW!” battle cry, the window gave him back his hostage hand.
Still the motion sickness would not leave me and even after several attempts to cure the illness it merely grew worse. Finally, we were closing in on our local airport, which I could have never been more grateful to gaze upon. We briskly taxied off of the runway and came to a stop. Then, I shot out of the back seat like an injured bear out of a pen. I panted heavily as I crawled away from the plane on all fours. My mother and brother waved with large grins as they waited to hear how our flight went. Later on, I gratefully kissed the ground and thanked God motion sickness does not last forever.
Though not the most pleasant experience, this episode has certainly not changed my excitement or passion for pursing aviation. But this memorable introductory flight has taught me an important life lesson, which I will use as I continue to fly. I now understand how imperative it is to always be on guard and to expect the unexpected. Anything truly can happen and it is critical not to take anything for granted, whether it be an engine or even a side-door. As one of my mentors in the aviation world wisely stated, “Aviation is nothing but hours and hours of endless boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”
- An intro flight takes an unexpected turn - July 22, 2021
The accident archives are full of LOC or CFIT stories where pilots were wrestling with a door. On the Piper Aztec, and there was a recent low-level stall/spin fatality due to that pesky front cargo door’s popping open and the pilot not maintaining airspeed while he freaked out about the door. And the Aztec is particularly problematic, since the disturbed airflow causes it the airplane to handle funny, further causing panic.
If you are alone in a high-wing single, maybe try slipping toward the offending door if you have altitude to do so. If you have a newbie passenger, don’t mess with it. Just tell them “It’s not a problem – just noisy. We’re going to land and close it and get back to the fun.”
Thanks for sharing your story. Glad to hear you survived your motion sickness. Good luck with your career in aviation – wish you the best!
One of the things I did when I was instructing, as do most instructors, was teach my students to ignore doors that opened. I did it by first warning them that I was going to open the door, and then I did it. Later in their training, I opened the door without warning. I also taught them how to close Cessna doors—it’s not difficult. Piper PA-series doors are a different story, and I understand so are other airplanes, but I’ve never had a door open in anything but Cessnas and Pipers, so I can’t speak to others. The point to be made, though, is that doors opening are not a catastrophe. Most airplanes have little to no difficulty flying with doors open. Nose baggage doors in those airplanes that have them are a different issue, but that’s for another day.
When alone, it’s usually safer to just land the airplane. In fact, the first student I had who soloed failed to lock the passenger door after I got out for his solo. As I got out, I said “don’t forget to lock this door”, but he was so involved in making sure that he did everything else that it went in one ear and out the other. The door popped open soon after he was airborne, but all he did was fly around the pattern and land, stopped the airplane on the runway, locked the door, and took off again. No biggy. Just a slight embarrassment.
Keep all this in mind as you go forth to aviate!
I train in a 1958 172 and that’s something I have to constantly worry about because there’s normally a spring keeping the door latch from slipping down and preventing the door from completely shutting, but the aircraft is so old that the spring is worn out and I literally have to slam the door every time AND check it twice.
Awesome article, too.