Fly personal airplanes long enough and you’ll eventually have to deal with an open door or window. Usually it’s a cabin entry door that someone forgot to fully latch. Usually. Sometimes it’s a baggage door, and there goes your luggage, sliding down the runway at 70 knots. The thing is, inadvertent door or window openings typically occur at or shortly after lifting off from a runway, because that’s when the changes in air pressure in and outside the airplane tend to find any weak spots.
As I’ve written, this happened to me a little over a year ago. I was departing full-length from a 9000-foot-long runway. As the airplane accelerated on the takeoff roll, it was noisier than I remembered. I noted the difference, but continued the takeoff. Within seconds of the mains leaving the runway, my Debonair’s cabin-entry popped open. With something like 7500 feet of runway remaining, the decision was easy: Land. Which is what I did, clearing the runway at the same taxiway I used when landing 30 minutes earlier. It was my fault—for some reason, I didn’t fully latch the door when settling in and failed to check it in the run-up area.
When a door pops open, each airplane type reacts differently. For the vast majority of them, there’s no change in handling. It’ll still climb, turn and descend. The biggest danger is the pilot’s reaction to the sudden noise and the (non-)emergency and one of the common reactions is to reduce power to prevent any further damage to the airplane. That’s a bad idea.
It’s a bad idea because you really shouldn’t be doing anything different from your normal procedures. Yes, it can be loud. Yes, you may have lost some luggage. Presuming it didn’t hit anything, the only real problem you have is maneuvering back around the pattern and landing. In other words, fly the airplane as you normally would.
On July 8, 2016, at about 1617 Central time, a Piper PA-32R-300 Lance impacted terrain following a loss of control in the airport traffic pattern shortly after takeoff from the West Houston Airport (IWS) in Houston, Texas. The private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured, and the airplane was destroyed. Visual conditions prevailed.
Numerous witnesses observed the airplane during its takeoff from Runway 15. Several saw the forward baggage compartment door in a fully open, vertical orientation shortly before the airplane rotated for liftoff. The pilot continued with the takeoff, and the airplane climbed on runway heading to 100 to 150 feet agl before it turned left, eventually completing a 180-degree turn at a 30-to-45 degree bank angle. It briefly rolled to a wings-level attitude before entering an aerodynamic stall/spin to the left, descending nose-down into terrain. None of the witnesses reported hearing any engine anomalies during the flight.
The accident site was in a wooded residential area about a half mile east-northeast of the airport terminal building/ramp. A 100-foot-long debris path extended on a 330-degree true heading. The majority of the main wreckage had been destroyed by a post-impact fire. Flight control continuity could not be established but all observed separations were consistent with overstress. The mechanical flap control lever was found in the fully retracted position and the landing gear was extended.
The forward baggage compartment door was found about 15 feet from its mounting point. The door latch mechanism was observed unlatched, and its corresponding keylock assembly was unlocked. A functional test of the latch mechanism did not reveal any anomalies. The forward baggage door frame latch catch/receptacle also appeared to be undamaged. There were no observed anomalies with the forward baggage door latch mechanism, key-lock or the door frame latch catch/receptacle.
The two-blade propeller exhibited torsional twisting, trailing edge S-shaped bending and burnishing of the blade faces and backs. Internal engine and valve train continuity were confirmed as the engine crankshaft was rotated. Compression and suction were noted on all cylinders in conjunction with crankshaft rotation. There were no obstructions to the fuel injection servo or induction system, and the fuel inlet screen was free of contamination. No anomalies were observed with the mechanical fuel pump, fuel flow divider or fuel injectors. The oil pump discharged oil in conjunction with crankshaft rotation. The oil suction screen was free of contamination. Review of the airplane’s maintenance records found no history of unresolved airworthiness issues. Post-accident examination revealed no evidence of a mechanical malfunction or failure that would have precluded normal engine operation.
Manufactured in 1976, the airplane was not equipped with a forward baggage compartment door annunciator (nor was one required). According to Piper, beginning with its 1983 model-year PA-32 series, new airplanes were equipped from the factory with an annunciator to alert the pilot of an unsecured forward baggage compartment door.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed after becoming distracted by the open baggage door while operating in the airport traffic pattern, which resulted in the airplane exceeding its critical angle of attack and experiencing an aerodynamic stall at a low altitude. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to ensure that the forward baggage compartment door was closed, latched, and properly secured during his preflight inspection.”
It’s clear from the record that the forward baggage compartment door—situated between the cabin and the engine firewall on the PA-32 series—was not closed or latched when the takeoff roll began. Just before liftoff, it opened to a vertical orientation, well within the pilot’s line of sight and presumably stayed in that position until the end of the flight. The pilot continued the takeoff, even though approximately half of the 3953-foot-long runway remained on which to stop. It’s not at all clear what the pilot’s thought process was at this point. It is clear, however, that he failed to execute.
Eventually, you’ll face the same basic scenario and decision this pilot did: Continue the takeoff and fly the pattern or stop on the runway. Whatever choice you make, execute it well, including a climb to near pattern altitude. That way, you can make a “normal” pattern at a normal altitude, and a normal landing.
Training For The Open Door
When I was getting to know my new-to-me Debonair, I took a weekend-long course offered in connection with its type club, the American Bonanza Society. A morning of classroom work with the POH and other materials was followed by an afternoon in the airplane with an instructor familiar with the type. After a thorough briefing, one of the scenarios we explored was an open cabin door.
Even though I knew it was coming, it was something of a shock: There’s a lot of noise and wind, and it’s hard to communicate with passengers. Flying the airplane was easy; it’s relatively unaffected with an open door. Other airplanes perhaps are not so forgiving.
The key takeaway is that an open door is an inconvenience. Put another way, it’s an emergency only if you make it one, or allow one to develop. Don’t. Fly the airplane until it comes to a stop on the ramp, then close the door.
Aircraft Profile: Piper Pa-32r-300 Lance
- Engine: Lycoming IO-540-K1A5D
- Empty weight: 1968 lbs.
- Max gross TO weight: 3600 lbs.
- Typical cruise speed: 155 KTAS
- Standard Fuel Capacity: 94 gal.
- Service Ceiling: 15,400 feet
- Range: 748 nm
- Vso: 61 KIAS