Cessna 180
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This was the first flight in my 1955 Cessna 180 after its annual inspection in 1968. I had been an instructor at Lane Aviation in Columbus, Ohio, before taking a job at Kent State, teaching industrial design. I bought the 180 from Lane when I left for Kent. Since I had not flown from the right seat for a while as I was no longer flight instructing, I decided to do the flight from the right seat.

The 180 was capable of very short takeoffs using flaps. As I was sitting in the right seat at the end of the runway, I decided to also do a short field takeoff. I pulled the seat up to normal flight position from where it had been moved back during the inspection. I raised the flap lever to full flap position using the long lever between the seats, pulled the yoke full aft, and gave the 180 full power.

The plane started its takeoff roll and went about 200 feet before pitching up and leaving the runway. It was about two feet above the runway when I suddenly found the seat and I were against the rear seats of the plane. The front of my seat was no longer on the seat tracks and had pitched backward as well. My left hand pulled the throttle to idle as I was pitched back. Since my feet were no longer on the rudder pedals the aircraft turned left due to torque and just cleared a runway light.

Cessna 180

The Cessna 180 is easier to fly when the seat stays attached.

Since the yoke was already full aft and I still had a grip on it, I was able to pull myself forward and push the throttle back to full power position and simultaneously haul myself past the upright flap handle into the left seat. I continued the takeoff using right rudder to get back above the runway instead of flying directly at the main airport buildings.

If I had flown from the left seat, a passenger would have later had the same adventure but would not have been flying the airplane. If I had not decided to do a short field takeoff from the off-track right seat, I think I would have pitched the airplane up and cut power as I slid rearward into the back seat and had no means to change seats quickly enough to avert a crash on to the runway.

The cause of this adventure was that the cotter pin preventing the seat from coming forward off the track had not been replaced after the seat was returned to the plane after its inspection. It came off the track when I pulled it forward for the takeoff. Since I am short it needed to be full forward. It was forward enough to be off the track and caught enough in the carpet that I thought it was secure.

I later sold that airplane and flying required rental aircraft for a while. I rented a Cessna 182 from the local FBO. I planned a flight to Atlanta and DeKalb-Peachtree Airport to visit my daughter and son.

The preflight was normal. I tested the fuel tank drains and found just a little water. The flight was IFR in IMC without problems until descending in northern Georgia as instructed by Atlanta Center. Just as I broke out of the cloud deck at 7000  feet, the engine began to run rough. I switched tanks and it smoothed out briefly. Then it started to run rough again. It seemed as though it was running on three of its six cylinders. I suspected water in the fuel, but the tanks had tested OK.

I started to slowly lose altitude. I informed the controller of my engine problem and he asked if I had an emergency. I said “affirmative” immediately and asked for the closest airport. I could see I was over mountains and woods. He gave me a heading to Gainesville, Georgia. The new heading put me right over the four-lane highway which went to Gainesville. Everything but the highway was woods and a bridge across large Lake Lanier. I wondered if anyone had made a landing on a bridge. I was slowly losing altitude but made it to a landing at Gainesville. I reported being on final to Gainesville to the controller, and then my safe landing to ATC by phone.

On the ground I wondered about my next step when a local pilot drove up in his pickup truck to ask what my problem was. I relayed what happened and to my surprise he said he owned a 182 and had a similar adventure that turned out to be water in tanks that did not show up when first tested. He said to check the tanks again. I did and found a large amount of water from both tanks.

Water in fuel

Water can hide in fuel tanks, especially older bladder-style tanks.

He said, “Fill both tanks, check the full tanks again and run the engine for about ten minutes on the ground.” He said that is what he did when he had similar trouble and felt it was safe to continue the flight. The engine ran fine for the ground test and the rest of the VFR flight to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. There was no further problem on the return flight to Ohio.

Shortly after that I was at an FAA Wings meeting and reported the event to two FAA representatives. They seemed to be puzzled about a solution but not very interested.

Later I read of these events occurring to others. The unsecured seat track was easily diagnosed and already known, but the problem of undetected water in fuel tanks took a while. Older Cessna wing bladders had started to warp and create low spots where water could accumulate and not drain when tested on level ground. In flight wings would not stay level and the water would get to the engine intake line. The remedy was to put in new drain points where the new low points in the tanks were, or replace the tanks. The temporary solution was to test fuel from the drains and then rock the wings and retest until no more water was found from the regular wing tank drains.

The startling news I learned was that there were fatalities from both problems before attention was paid and corrections were made. I knew I was the test pilot when I finished my homebuilt RV-6, but these sessions as a Cessna test pilot were done in total ignorance and with a whole lot of luck. My test reports were not taken seriously enough and others suffered disastrous results.

If you encounter and survive a problem be insistent—a real pain in the butt—until you know it has been taken seriously. We have to look out for each other. You could save a lot more serious pain for others in your band of flying brothers and sisters, and their often forgotten kin.

George Frost
11 replies
  1. Ken T
    Ken T says:

    On my very first solo, the 150 leapt into the air, free of a 250 pound instructor. Almost instantly, my seat slid all the way back in the track. I couldn’t touch the rudders or throttle but COULD barely touch the yoke with my finger tips.
    I pushed the nose to level about 100 or so feet off the ground. Then I quickly pulled the seat into position, resumed full control, and climbed on out. I completed my three full stops and called it a day. I went back out the next day and did touch and goes for an hour. (get back on that horse!)

    If I had not been tall, with fairly long arms, it’s likely I would not have survived that day.

    That was the summer of 1972. I’m still flying.

  2. George Johnson
    George Johnson says:

    Same thing happened to me in a Cessna 170B on EDO floats. I let go of everything and clawed my way back forward.

  3. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Speaking of making noise, has some one looked in to the feasibility of using doppler radar to warn pilots about large birds in flocks? I am thinking that the Sully incident could have been avoided if controllers had them turn to avoid the birds flight path.

  4. Phil Hertel
    Phil Hertel says:

    Never Trust a Cessna Seat Track!
    Cessna seat tracks are notorious for the slide-to-the-rear on takeoff trick. The tracks have a series of holes in them. Locking pins drop into these holes under spring tension IF all the linkages are not too badly worn and are adjusted correctly.

    The problem that causes the issue is that the holes become worn from the pins hitting the holes as the seat is moved back every time you exit the aircraft. This wear occurs on the rear side of the holes and forms a pattern with a slope tending to lift the pins out of the holes under the acceleration and pitch up of takeoff. Take a close look at the seat track holes the next time you fly a Cessna.

    Water in the Fuel Tanks is a Conundrum.
    Early in my flying career I was asked to test fly a piper Tri-Pacer that had been rebuilt from parts. It was a nice-looking airplane and the preflight inspection found nothing to be concerned about. Yes, I did thoroughly check all three sumps for water, both tanks were full, and I did a thorough run-up.

    Immediately upon takeoff the engine began to surge badly. I circled over the airport (which was relatively short and located in the middle of a congested area) until I had sufficient altitude to glide to a better airport nearby in case the engine quit completely.

    A large quantity of water was found in both tanks after landing. I have been confused about that experience for 50 years. The only possible explanation that I can think of is that there was a serious amount of water condensed on all the surfaces of the fuel tanks (which I expect had been sitting empty for many years). Did the vibration of the engine at high power and the airframe during takeoff cause these condensed water droplets to immediately form large pools of water at the low point? Or did the acceleration and pitch-up at takeoff cause the un-drainable water that was present in the tank to shift its position in the tanks?

    As a result, I’ve made certain that the tanks are topped off on any airplane I fly immediately after the flight. I have needed to have fuel offloaded only once because of a critical load situation. Fuel trucks are equipped to easily do this.

    It is my assumption that water normally migrates to the low point in a full fuel tank and water is not miscible with aviation gasoline. Can anyone enlighten me on what might have happened on that wall of gold flight?

  5. Phil Hertel
    Phil Hertel says:

    PS: Do the pelvis move vigorously to be certain the seat is properly locked into the track every time the seat is re-positioned!

    • fred Hogan
      fred Hogan says:

      The solution is to engage two fingers in front of the throttle lock once full throttle is applied. If seat lets go, you have a solid hold keeping you foward. This applies to any other aircraft manufacturer, not just Cessna…..

  6. Phil Hertel
    Phil Hertel says:

    PS: PS: “wall of gold” = “long ago”. Microsoft Word seems to have a bit of trouble understanding me!

  7. fred Hogan
    fred Hogan says:

    The solution is to engage two fingers in front of the throttle lock once full throttle is applied. If seat lets go, you have a solid hold keeping you foward. This applies to any other aircraft manufacturer, not just Cessna…..

  8. Erik Vogel
    Erik Vogel says:

    I agree that it takes too many deaths to fix aviation.
    My experience was with earlier ELT’s. The 3 position switch should be an ‘up and over’ switch for the ON position.
    I was barely able to reach mine and in the dark could not verify it was on. SAR was circling but not close so I assumed it was shut off. (I later learned that ELT signal is a 5 sq/mile area.)
    We cycled the switch every 30-60 mins in hopes it would help. I inadvertently switched it off as they got close. After a few cycles it was obvious to SAR that there was survivors but TC later scolded me in writing for this ‘technique’…
    Their reply to my report was that this model will be ‘obsolete’ soon so no action was necessary. I flew a friends Piper 14 many years later and I asked him to tell me if his ELT was armed. He couldn’t tell without climbing into the tail. I rest my case.

  9. John T
    John T says:

    Excellent reminder that we can go from a “Pilot” to a “TEST PILOT” at any time, and in seconds. It’s happened to me three times… All were engine issues. I am fortunate that to date I’ve not had any issues with controls. On a flight in 2002 or thereabouts I was in the rear seat when I spotted a thin tendril of smoke arising from the center of the glare shield… I stated “Smoke above the glare shield” and the pilot yanked the master switch, and rolled into a bank for the nearest clearing (we were about 1500′ AGL over forested mountains). Great response. After the Master was chopped the tendril disappeared. The rest of the flight was managed via a cell phone (mine) in the back seat. Interestingly, the plane went direct to an avionics shop where $5K and replacement of lots of panel wiring failed to turn up the source of that smoke. FWIW, I never heard of any other smoke incidents from that aircraft.


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