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The open door

It was a good sunny day with mild temperature and medium winds.  I planned to fly in a small plane from my home airport to another about 70 nautical miles away. From St. Augustine airport in Florida (airport code SGJ) to Orlando Sanford international airport (airport code SFB) also in Florida. The weather forecast was good enroute and I filed my flight plan with the ATC (Air Traffic Control).

Although I have been flying for the past two decades as a private pilot, most of the flying was done in New Jersey. A little over a year in Florida to which I moved to.  Most of my flying experience has been in the Cessna 172, a four seater plane. In Florida, I got an opportunity to learn to fly another airplane called Piper Warrior, which is also a four seater. It is slightly different from the Cessna. The placement of the myriad switches and the procedures for take off, cruise and landing are different in some ways.

Unlike driving a car, wherein a shift from a Toyota to a Honda does not involve any relearning, planes are different. Shifting from one manufacturer to another entails flying with the instructor for a few hours and getting comfortable with the newer plane, controls and the procedures. I paid my dues for the Piper Warrior and was flying by myself for a few months.

For the larger planes like Boeing and Airbus, it is a matter of relearning for several weeks in a simulator and getting a separate certification called type rating. Fortunately for smaller planes it is somewhat easier. I got cleared by ATC for takeoff and got the altitude and direction to fly to. I climbed to 4000 feet and everything seemed to be going well. I was monitoring the instrumentation and applying slight changes in controls apart from looking outside and enjoying the beautiful Florida coastline and the numerous lakes inland. And then it happened.

The door on the passenger side suddenly opened. Not too wide, but significant enough. And the air started gushing in. It did cause some instability to the plane as it all happened all of a sudden in a matter of seconds. However there was no danger of falling out of the sky. There was no passenger in the other seat. I just tried to reach across and pull the door back. It would not budge an inch as a lot of air was blowing over the wings outside. And some of it was rushing in.

I was trying to control the plane maintaining the altitude and the direction. It was difficult but not impossible. In spite of my headset, the wind was very noisy. Rule number one in my mind was to stay calm. Never to panic even if it is an emergency. I remember reading earlier that it is not easy to pull a door back in flight unless the plane slows down a lot. Flying under ATC control, I could not slow down a lot without telling them about the problem. Besides, slowing has its own instability problems. Like balancing in slow cycling. After flying the slightly crippled plane for a few minutes, it occurred to me that it may not be a good idea to fly the remaining 30 nautical miles to my destination and then fly back home. What if the door has a permanent damage ? Coming back would be tedious. It would mean flying with a handicap for a much longer time.

Being a defensive personality, I called ATC and told them of the problem and the need to land at the nearest airport. I saw a small airport called FIN (Flager Executive airport) in a few miles. Fortunately, the eastern part of US is littered with hundreds of such airports available for emergency landings. ATC told me that this airport was closed for construction and not available for landing. They offered me Ormond Beach (airport code OMN closer to the famous Daytona beach) instead. They guided me to the airport for a landing.

I was bracing myself for a tough landing as I feared the open door to cause some aerodynamic instability as I approached the ground. I noticed that as the plane slowed down for landing, the open door was less of a problem. The air flow slowed down and so did the noise. I was able to make a smooth landing. As soon as the plane came to a full stop, I reached across to the door and was able to easily slam it shut. I tried to push it a few more times, just to make sure it would not open again in the air. The flight back to St. Augustine was eventless.

It is good to get challenged at times in life. Also, like in life, sometimes we dont reach our destination but gain some valuable lessons in attempting to do so.

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Prasad Ganti

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1 month ago

Very interesting and thank god that you landed safely but the question of safety precautions comes to mind. How is it that such an important aspect has no double-check or fool-proof system in place to ensure that it can’t happen? Even the cars have the door open indicator and in some cases, even audio warning system also. The planes I think because of the very nature of risk involved should have at least a warning light on the console. You were luck that the door didn’t fly off.

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