Busting Loose

It doesnt pay to assume that things are just as you left them the last time you went flying


I own a Cessna 170 thats a great plane and has received a lot of attention of would-be buyers. I am not interested in selling the plane but have received a number of unsolicited inquiries. I believe some of that interest led to what turned out to be a new lesson for me in the value of a thorough pre-flight inspection.

My wife and I had decided to take a quick day trip to Wendover, Utah, for brunch and a little gambling. My airplane is kept at Salt Lake International Airport, where access is restricted through a gate with an electronic access code.

When we arrived, everything appeared to be in order. We began removing the tie downs, chocks and windshield cover and then I conducted my normal pre-flight walk around. I opened the engine cowling on the right side and checked the oil level and made sure to re-latch the engine cowling carefully because the latches on this plane are a little tricky.

They can appear to be latched when, in fact, they are not secure. The spring clip that slips inside the latch handle can slip outside the handle on one side. I know this is an important check for this plane and always made a detailed check of the latches whenever I have opened the cowling or was aware that it had recently been opened.

Unfortunately I only glanced at the latches for the left side cowling. I believed that they had not been opened since the last flight and expected them to be properly secured. What followed would prove this assumption to be a significant error.

The start-up and preparations for take-off were uneventful. The run-up was normal and I requested my turn to take off on runway 35. It was a rather slow and quiet morning on the general aviation side of the airport and I was immediately cleared for takeoff. The takeoff roll began normally and we were airborne quickly.

As I began to trim the airplane for the climb I noticed that the left engine cowling was vibrating much more than normal. It was clear to me immediately what was about to happen, the cowling was coming unlatched.

My wife was oblivious to the problem as she was looking out under the wing. She enjoys watching as we break the bonds of gravity and pull away from the pavement and buildings. However my next call to the tower caught her attention.

Salt Lake Tower this is Cessna 12A, I need to declare an emergency, I have an engine cowling coming loose and need to return to land immediately.

Right at that point the cowling came completely unlatched and began flapping back and forth across the nose of the airplane.

Roger 12A, winds are 340 at 6 knots, would you like to make a downwind approach to 35 or would you prefer to make 180 degree turn for a downwind landing on 17?

Recognizing that the continuing gyrations of the cowling back and forth across the nose could eventually break the hinge, I requested the 180-degree turn and downwind landing, which was immediately cleared. Fortunately there were no other airplanes waiting to depart on 35.

I made a 30- to 40-degree right turn to get me far enough east of the runway so that when I completed the 180-degree turn to the left I would be lined up with the runway. As I began the left 180-degree turn the cowling sort of folded inward in its next left travel across the nose and the edge of the cowling caught on the cooling fins of the cylinders and stayed there.

Later inspection showed that when this occurred it all but severed the top spark plug wire for the #2 cylinder. Fortunately, power was not an issue at this point. I was lined up with the runway and had the throttle at idle. The landing was not one of my best but was adequate to get us safely back on the ground without further damage to the aircraft.

After taxiing off the runway and off the taxiway I shut down the engine and secured the cowling as well as I could before completing the taxi to the hangar.

Airport security showed up as we were securing the airplane tie downs. They inquired if any parts had come loose that might still be on the runway or taxiways. Close inspection of the damage indicated that there were no missing parts or pieces. They wanted to take a picture of the damage but did not have a camera in the vehicle.

With a little further discussion about what might have caused the problem their curiosity was satisfied and they left and we finished securing the plane.

The cowling had beaten itself so hard in its gyrations back and forth that the natural curve of the cowling was now almost straight. It took several hours of work with the cowling removed from the airplane to return it to the correct curvature.

The latches were still in good shape and worked fine once the cowling was reformed. A lot of paint was chipped off and required repair. The spark plug wire for the #2 cylinder had to be replaced.

All of this experience and repair could have been easily avoided with a little more thorough pre-flight check of the cowling latches. I can only guess that someone who was interested in buying the plane had decided to check the engine and was not familiar with the sensitivity of the latches. Since I did not carefully check these latches on this pre-flight I got my first experience in dealing with a bona fide emergency.

You can bet that these latches are carefully checked on every flight now and that my overall pre-flight check is done with a little more attention to the details. The other lesson to be learned is that even though we as pilot/owners may be the only ones flying our planes it doesnt pay to assume that things are just as you left them the last time you went flying.

When we assume without checking for ourselves is when we are vulnerable to a surprise such as this one, or possibly worse.


Waking Up to Turbulence
Last summer, I was a newly minted VFR pilot whose home airport is a Class C airspace with moderate commercial traffic, mostly commuter turboprops and medium jet airliners. Flying in this airspace is a great opportunity to mix in with the pros and master radio work in a sometimes hectic environment.

One Saturday afternoon I was doing some pattern work in a rented Cessna 152. Visibility was 5 miles in haze, but there was a crosswind component of about 8 knots – interesting, but safely below the maximum demonstrated of 12 knots for the little Cessna.

Crosswind landing was an issue during my check ride, and that summer day was the perfect opportunity to practice refining the technique. After 45 minutes or so, I was thinking about another landing or two.

The tower directed me on an extended downwind to make way for an MD-80 jetliner on a 5-mile ILS approach. I responded on my radio, and picked a large white building in the far distance to help minimize drift in the strong crosswind.

I scanned above the horizon for the MD-80, hopeful of picking up its landing lights. With no visible target, I alternated my attention between maintaining pattern altitude and heading at 80 knots with a notch of flaps, but I was also becoming a bit preoccupied with the dollar-a-minute rental cost of the airplane.

Eventually, the tower called my number to announce Id be No. 2 on final behind the MD-80. I didnt have a visual on the MD-80 yet, so I requested an update on the aircrafts position. By now I was far out from the field and overflying the white building that was my original heading marker.

The tower replied that the MD-80 was at my 8 oclock, and at that moment I saw the stretch MD-80 emerging out of the haze. I prepared to turn as the jet passed my left wing tip a mile distant, but at lower altitude than Id originally anticipated.

This far out, I wasnt too concerned about flying a square pattern anymore, and I was anxious to get back to the field. The frugal renter in me kept thinking that time is money. My turn to base and final was more like a J-hook, as I retracted flaps and throttled up to about 110 knots. The MD-80 was a mile or so ahead, and obviously I wasnt going to gain on it in the trainer.

Ahead and below, I watched the MD-80 flare to touchdown just past the numbers, while I reduced speed, dropped full flaps and crabbed into the wind. When I was about 1,000 feet from the runway threshold, I saw through my upper windshield that the MD-80 had used almost all of the 8,000-foot runway.

My flare to touch down was on the centerline, just past the numbers, perfect for another touch and go. But as my nosewheel touched pavement, the downwind left wing lifted violently into the wind. I reacted instinctively with full opposite aileron, but it had little effect. My little Cessna was scooting toward the runway edge lights on one wheel, into the crosswind – and I had no idea why.

I kicked in opposite rudder along with the ailerons, but my plane seemed intent on traveling sideways – upwind. As I saw the approaching runway edge lights whizzing by, perhaps 10 feet away, I began thinking about what it was going to feel like when they struck the landing gear.

When I was about five feet from the edge of the 150-foot-wide runway, the right wing suddenly lifted violently, rolling me on one wheel in the opposite direction. Again I reacted with opposite aileron, but at least it made sense now.

Opposing rudder correction stopped the drift just as I returned to the runway centerline. The plane really felt loosey-goosey and I was still going about 40 knots.

I decided to stop flying on the ground and do it in the air. In a few seconds I was airborne, crabbing into the wind again, and back in control. I flew a normal pattern and made a neat landing a few minutes later in the same spot.

On the drive home, it finally occurred to me what had gone so terribly wrong. The MD-80s wake turbulence was waiting for me on the ground. I knew enough to know that I never should have messed with wake turbulence from an airliner. I began to analyze what Id done wrong.

First and foremost, I had let a few extra dollars in rental cost drive my decision to follow the airliner too closely. Second, I landed in about the same spot as the big jet, not farther down the runway. Third, I never used my brakes to cut airspeed and stop the high speed roller coaster ride that ensued. Finally, the wings would have been less buoyant in the zigzag of crosswinds if I had used less flaps.

I saw my instructor a week later and told him of my experience. He replied, Hey, you were lucky. At least your wing tips could touch the ground.

I didnt really understand his point and replied, Scraping the wing tips on landing doesnt sound too lucky to me. The instructor smiled and chuckled, If you had hit wake turbulence like that on final approach, you wouldnt have the ground to prevent your wings from rolling your aircraft completely upside down.

I got the point.


Deafening Silence
I was flying a Piper Cherokee down the Runway 28R ILS at Niagara Falls, N.Y. It was a VFR day and the runway was in sight.

I reduced power to land and remembered the carb heat, which I sometimes forget. I reached down and pulled out the knob, then continued monitoring my descent to the field. I started to drift a little below glideslope, so I put in a bit of throttle.

Nothing happened.

I didnt panic, because I thought I could glide to the 10,000-foot runway, but I set about troubleshooting the problem. Remembering the adage to undo what you last did, I pushed the carb heat knob back in.

It was then that I realized I hadnt been working the carb heat knob, but the mixture. I had shut off the fuel supply to the engine. No wonder the descent had been so quiet.

The engine roared back to life and I continued the landing without incident – this time with the carb heat ON.

With the approach going smoothly, I guess I just wasnt paying attention and yanked the wrong knob. I promised myself Id be more careful in the future, and since then Ive never forgotten the carb heat.


Talk to Me, Ill Listen This Time
Prior to entering the Class D airspace around Charlottesville, Va., I obtained weather and airport information and called the tower. I suspected the tower controller might be inexperienced when he didnt ask my type of Cessna or any other particulars, but I didnt really give it another thought.

I was advised to set up for a right base and to report two miles out. I was monitoring the radio and scanning for traffic, and at two miles out called the tower to report it. I was told Id be No. 2 to land and was asked if I had the traffic in sight.

There was a twin on short final, about -mile from the threshold, and I reported the traffic in sight. I visually cleared my turn to final and called to report it. To my surprise, I was immediately issued a right 360-degree turn. Without hesitation, I banked right 30 degrees. As I rolled out of the turn, another pilot thanked me for my help.

I was cleared to land, and flew final a little shaken and a lot confused.Later, I discussed the episode with my instructor, and he suspected there was another aircraft inbound to land that was in communication with Washington Center. When that pilot acquired the runway visually, he was switched to the tower frequency – which just happened to be the same time I was turning final.

Since then I have adopted the strategy of monitoring the appropriate Center whenever Im approaching a Class D airport to land. If Im VFR and dont have the IFR charts, I just ask the tower for the frequency.


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