Rod Machado had the tent roaring when I saw him at Oshkosh. He’s a gifted speaker with an ability to tell a story. Occasional reader “Scary” mentioned falling meat bombs in the previous post. It reminded me that things can fall from, and out of, planes as captured in Rod’s article (below) which initially appeared in the AOPA magazine.
It’s falling—the sky is falling. Well, not really. It just seems that way sometimes. Unless you’ve been in cold storage the past few years, you’ve probably heard about at least some of the items that have fallen from airplanes. Landing gear, funeral urns, jet engines, and other odds and ends have made the list. I don’t know about you, but I get the willies when things drop from or off of airplanes, especially when the pilot was counting on using the newly liberated item later in the flight.
Take the story of a student pilot who recently departed John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, in a fixed-gear Piper Warrior. The rental airplane, just released from a major inspection, appeared to be in good working order. With preflight complete, our young aviatrix completed her runup, then taxied onto the runway and departed. The subsequent conversation between the tower and the student went something like this:
“Piper Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo, this is John Wayne Tower. Ahh, ma’am, you appear to have left your main landing gear on the runway, over.”
“Huh? Please repeat for Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo.”
“Ma’am, your landing gear is on the runway. It fell off the airplane when you rotated, over.”
Imagine how unsettling it is to glance down at your airplane’s shadow and see two tiny shadows in the shape of tires leaving the mother ship. But that’s what happens when the mechanic forgets to reinsert the gear pins after performing maintenance on the airplane (and the pilot fails to notice). Apparently the gear wasn’t fixed at all, was it?
Now you know why some pilots ask these three questions before renting an airplane: Has the airplane just come out of an inspection? If so, has anyone flown it yet? If not, what type of work did the mechanic do? The last question allows you to double-check the mechanic’s work during preflight. It’s doubtful that you’d bruise your mechanic’s ego by asking these questions. Besides, you shouldn’t be as concerned about the mechanic’s ego as you are about your derrière. Ask away. This young lady handled the experience beautifully. She landed—I believe it was a short-field landing—with minimal damage to the footless Piper. After speaking with her, it was obvious that the experience hadn’t affected her sense of humor, either. When she becomes an airline copilot and the captain calls for her to lower the gear, she will no doubt lean over and say, “OK, but how far down would you like it to go?”
The in-flight loss of your landing gear would certainly raise an eyebrow or two. If, however, you’d like a complete face-lift, just imagine what happens when the pilot falls out of the airplane! A headline in the December 3, 1980, issue of our local newspaper, The Register, read: “Pilot sucked out, but hangs on—copilot lands with man dangling by feet, arm.” According to The Register, a military version of a Beech King Air was en route to the Army’s Aberdeen (Maryland) Proving Grounds when its pilot fell out. Apparently, the captain noticed a cockpit light warning of a problem with the retractable stairway located near the rear of the airplane. He decided to check it out, leaving the copilot to fly the plane. When the captain pushed on the door, it popped opened and sucked him outside. Thinking that returning to earth without the plane wouldn’t look good on a résumé, he clung to the door by an arm, a leg, a wing, and a prayer. Unfortunately, his unslated exit occurred within full view of the passengers, who surely thought the pilot had come up with a new way of confirming his VFR checkpoints. The newspaper reported that the copilot made an emergency landing with the captain perched inches above the runway. Yes, events like this have happened on more than one occasion.
As a general rule, the captain should always avoid stumbling out of the airplane during flight. This prevents the passengers from thinking that it’s OK for other things to go out of the door. This was precisely the problem my friend Tom had with his passenger in a Cessna 172 several years ago. Tom, one of our school’s more senior CFIs, was hired to help a lady disperse the ashes of her deceased husband (Bob). It seems that Martha brought Bob’s ashes to the airport in a gold funerary urn. Tom, not being used to flying with the deceased, failed to adequately describe to the living the proper dispersal procedures. Without further discussion, Tom cranked up the 172 and headed for the blue Pacific waters off Newport Beach, California, while Martha (and Bob) occupied the right seat. After slowing to the appropriate speed, Tom unlatched Martha’s door and asked if she wanted to say a few words. According to Tom, Martha said, “May my Bob rest in peace.” Then she pushed the door open and tossed out the funerary urn—Bob and all—followed by the phrase, “There ya go.” Tom raised an eyebrow and slowly turned his head toward Martha. “Where’s the urn?”
“I pushed it out.”
“You pushed the urn out?” quipped Tom.
“Yeah, yeah. Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, no,” cried Tom, “just Bob, not the urn!”
Tom urned an important lesson about passengers: If you don’t tell them what to do, the odds are they’ll do it the wrong way. And sometimes they’ll do it the wrong way regardless of what you say.
Several years ago, my friend Larry and his pal Ken were flying over the boardwalk at Santa Cruz, California, admiring the sunbathing, bikini-clad girls below. Suddenly, Larry noticed several large sharks swimming among the wading beachgoers. Acting quickly, he gave Ken his pad and pen, then instructed him to write the word sharks on individual sheets and toss each one out of the open door of their Piper J–3 Cub. This apparently stirred up quite a commotion below, especially when Larry dropped to less than 500 feet to better target his message to those on the beach. Upon returning to base, Larry discovered that his actions were reported to the local FAA office. A few days later, he was summoned to the flight standards district office to explain his behavior. Confident that he’d be honored for his quick thinking, Larry proudly told his story, then folded his hands and awaited his praise. At which point the crusty inspector looked up at him and said, “Do you really expect me to believe that?” Larry replied, “Of course. It’s the truth.” “Why, then,” the inspector said, “did the notes say: Hi, babe. I’m Ken and I’m single. Call me at (408) XXX-XXXX.”
I’d say that this just about covers the most common IFOs (identified falling objects). Well, there is one more category. It was best described in the April 28, 1978, issue of the Los Angeles Times under a headline that read: “FAA Identifies Town’s Flying Green Blob.” Apparently, an airliner with a leaking lavatory valve was responsible for a 25-pound blob of frozen waste that fell into the town of Ripley, Tennessee. The sheriff, not knowing what the blob was, took it home and stuffed it in his freezer. While I’m not sure what the FAA said when they found out where he put it, I’m sure the discussion included the words, “…pass on the leftovers.”
As the FAA tells it, a leaking lavatory valve is often responsible for blobs of ice that grow along the side of the fuselage. If a large blob of ice falls off, it might find its way into a constable’s refrigerator…or the intake of a jet engine. The latter is precisely what happened a few years earlier to a Boeing 727. A lav slab was sucked directly into a jet engine, causing the engine to break off of the airplane. Fortunately, the captain made a safe landing and all was well. Yes, I get the heebie-jeebies when I hear about anything intentionally or unintentionally departing an airplane. To be sure, some of these events are amusing. More often, they lead to an assortment of unwelcome difficulties.
I think the following excerpt from the Los Angeles Times article mentioned above best summarizes pilots’ feelings about things that drop from airplanes: “National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined that a leaky valve had trickled fluid from the front lavatory along the outside of the plane to the air intake of the jet engine on the right rear. Ice began to build up and was ingested into the engine’s fans. The engine stopped so suddenly that the change in forces ripped it from the plane. Investigators found that human feces had hit the fan….”