Just once, could everything go right?

Today I was able to take my second solo flight.

This time it started as a dual flight, my instructor and I went to the west practice area, did some maneuvers, then came back in. I showed him three perfect landings, and he got out and sent me on my way to the west practice area by myself.

At first it was a great flight. Everything happened according to plan. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not jump straight into the sky like I had the last time but climbed very comfortably at 70 knots.

At 900 feet I departed west, crossed over into the west practice area, switched the radio over and then I played around. I turned around “the turning tree,” I crossed over an adorable creek, I did everything by the book, making radio calls for every turn. For a brief moment, flying was actually fun.

Right on target I made my call back to the tower to enter Delta airspace, reporting position, altitude and weather info. They told me to report on the downwind and I was good to come in, so in I went.

Just a few minutes later it occurred to me I was going incredibly fast. I looked over at my RPMs, normal range, I looked at my altitude and wasn’t climbing or descending so I figured I was just enjoying a tail wind and would be there in no time. Whew! This flight was going swimmingly better than the last solo.

Still, I was nervous about Delta airspace. The tower was busy. I could hear it all the way in. Every communication sounded like a take-out order read back and happened as fast as an auctioneer speaks. I was breathing deeply and reminding myself I had trained for this.

Then it happened.

Suddenly everything sounded a little different. I frantically scanned all of my engine instruments. They all reported in normal range. I checked my headset plug ins. Secure. Then a rush of wind came into the cabin…out of the corner of my eye I caught it. The passenger door had popped wide open and was now swinging wildly in the wind – the 130 knot relative wind!

At that moment – the moment my jaw dropped right out of the plane – I heard the tower call my tail number and ask my position.

What?! When do they ever do that?! Why?! Can’t they see me from their window?! Don’t they have my transponder?!

I have been taught in cases of emergency the rule is to aviate, navigate, THEN communicate. I wasn’t to the airport yet, and I was wrangling a derelict door back to the side of the plane…the tower could wait.

Still not yet able to grab the door on one of it’s passes closer to me, the tower came back with my tail number and asked if I was over TV Highway.

Fun fact, kids, I have lived in Oregon less than a year and believe it or not, I don’t have every single road memorized yet, especially considering I bike to and from work less than 5 miles from my apartment. So while my panic level was at about a 4 with the loose door, the tower thinking I was potentially somewhere else entirely from where I believed I was brought me up to about an 8. (Where the hell is TV Highway?!)

It was beautiful in Portland today. There were planes everywhere routing in and out of Delta airspace, not to mention nearby PDX.

So I gave up on the door for a minute and got on the radio and this was about how it came out: [click] “Cessna 64942!…I think I’m over Baseline Road [click] I think over Hillsboro????! I’ve got an [DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T DECLARE AN EMERGENCY OVER A FLIPPING DOOR!] open door!” [click]

The tower came back: “ok.”

That was it.

Back to the rogue door before any number of random things students have lost under these seats find a way to drop on an innocent jogger below.

Finally I caught the door and wrangled it back to the side of the plane, but no matter how hard I pulled, it didn’t latch shut, it just stuck to where I could see a sliver of light through it and there it remained the rest of the flight, taunting me with the notion it could randomly depart again at any given second.

Then the tower said what I thought was my tail number and told me to report on base. Maybe it was my tail number. Maybe it wasn’t. I still have no idea. I was shaking like a leaf from head to toe. So I radioed back that I would report on base (completely forgetting to include that I was a student pilot soloing like I’m supposed to tell them).

Then I heard my tail number over and over again. I would ask the tower to repeat, but the tower was unresponsive. “Hmmm….must not have been for me. I feel like an idiot.” Thinking on it as I write this tonight, I’m pretty sure I was so panicked I responded to everything that had a “9er” in it as if it was for me.

With the confidence of a turtle on a fence post, I entered the downwind. Still asking the tower to repeat their last instruction….that wasn’t probably for me, but I sure thought it was.

The tower did not respond to me.

Was my radio transmitter out too?!

I reported my base turn, just in case. The tower then responded that someone was clear to land, but I wasn’t 100% sure who – apparently you can get tunnel hearing when your panic level leaves the charts. I was scanning the sky like a hawk for anyone else coming in to land.

The passenger door began to squeak at me as I turned final.

I executed the approach as best I could, still shaking uncontrollably. The PAPI told me I was high, now low, now high, now low, now good, now low….full flaps, airspeed 60 knots.

“I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”

I held the flare for what felt like forever. Then, once again, I started climbing. I released just a little pressure and waited and instead of gently touching down on the ground it bounced. Again! Then it started to turn sideways. I aggressively gave opposite rudder but it just wasn’t working out, I was bouncing and turning more and more with each bounce. “Ok, go around. Full throttle.”

Nope.

I got on the radio to announce a go around, but the plane would not leave the ground. Instead of climbing and trying again, I was going full speed and accelerating right off the runway into nearby obstructions. I couldn’t get it back to the center line to save my life no matter how aggressively I pressed on the rudder. But it did occur to me at that moment I was no longer bouncing. So I killed the power and applied full brakes.

Now during this near death experience, my thumb was on the radio the whole time. So instead of the go around I was planning to announce, the tower (and everyone else on that frequency) got to hear an assortment of very high pitched expletives. When I finally released my thumb, the guy in the tower, with the calmest voice I’ve ever heard told me: “It’s ok, just land on the runway in front of you, pull off whenever you can.”

So I did. It took a while to slow down….many many taxi ramps later I turned off of the runway, thanked the controller, and switched over to ground.

I pulled past the hold short line and stopped. And for the next little while, the only movement in the plane were the tears streaming down my cheeks.

I contacted Hillsboro ground with my best attempt at a non-quivering voice, followed their instructions back to the tie down area and saw my instructor standing at the end of the lot.

My stomach sank. I had let him down again. He trusted me with his credentials and reputation as an instructor, and I botched the landing a second time.

Once again he was really cool about it. He said it wasn’t so bad and neither of us were in any trouble. The plane was fine and other than my pride and nerves, everything was in tact.

It was a few hours before the shaking stopped. I still cry a little when I think about it. How it was equal parts humiliating and terrifying. How at one point I was certain I was going to crash.

Fun fact, my previous post where I had a mechanical problem with a plane during the run-up was this exact same plane. This is actually the third time I’ve had a problem with this particular plane. I can comfortably declare Cessna 64942 dead to me. I will NEVER agree to fly it again.

My next lesson is Tuesday. If I try to pilot a plane again. Ever. Right now I’m not so sure.

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16 thoughts on “Just once, could everything go right?

  1. Damn…so cool. You have your first IFE (In Flight Emergency) and you lived and someone else will get the pleasure of flying that black cloud known as 64942.

    Open doors are something we don’t think about when we ponder what could possibly go wrong. I’m sure your IP told you that the door is a distraction and not a danger so I wont say anymore about it.

    What I would encourage you to take away from today was that you stared down the gremlin today. That guy will show up when you least expect it and he will try to tempt you into forgetting to continue to fly the airplane, to continue to navigate and continue to communicate.

    If everything you wrote is accurate then I think you did great. No worries about the sounding cool on the radio thing. Take a breath before you speak and call any problems “An Issue.” Like this “”Delta Tower, Cessena 64942 is working an issue with a door. Request vectors to the nearest appropriate runway for a full stop landing.”

    Notice I never used the word emergency but from that point on, ATC is now a trusted team member and they will literally hold your hand all the way to the runway all because you told them you needed it. Now ATC is responsible for getting you pointed to the best runway for the weather/winds and getting you onto a extended final. No more trying to figure out if you are a left or right downwind, of trying to remember to call the dase turn, blah, blah, blah. You put the controller to work and let them shine. Also, notice I never used the word student because it this situation, you are a pilot working a issue. Later on if the Feds get involved, then you will use the word student like a get out of jail free card.

    The first time isn’t perfect and it shouldn’t be. It should be messy, confusing and leaving you so many opportunities to wish you had done things differently. Now you can think about the entire eveloution and the ground speed of zero and figure out what happened and how to improve. The nevt time you have a issue, you will know how to react and perform. You will be cool as school.

    rob

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Rob. “What does Request vectors to the nearest appropriate runway for a full stop landing” mean? Does requesting vectors tell ATC you need to skip the pattern and come straight in?

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      • Your IP has taught you correctly to aviate, navigate, communicate. As I read the story of your experience, it sounded to me that the distraction of the door issue was taking so much of your attention that you were having trouble navigating and possibly communicating.

        A pilot is essentially a juggler and is always shifting her attention between aviating, navigating, and communicating. The door issue added a new and different ball into the juggling equation. Not many of us can keep that 4th ball in the air easily while devoting the proper attention to the other 3. Therefore, asking for help from ATC is a very appropriate action.

        To be clear, a open door that is flapping in the wind is not necessary an emergency. But it is definitely a distraction and a distraction can lead you into some type of emergency. (Ask your IP to tell you the story of the Value Jet flight that crashed in the everglades).

        By asking ATC for vectors, what you are really asking them to do for you is to navigate and help you find the airport. You are not asking for priority handling and you are not declaring an emergency. But when you include the reasoning of “working a door issue” they understand that you have an additional thing going on and they will be attentive your needs.

        Getting vectors from ATC is simply fly a certain heading and altitude and they will adjust that heading based on the winds to get you a straight in approach to the runway and airport that you request. Adding the full stop phrase at the end of the phrase tells them that you will not be doing a touch and go. That doesn’t mean that you can’t land, taxi clear of the runway, lock the door and take off again. Just that you are not planning to do a touch and go.

        Please talk to your IP about this but the point is that you use all available resources to get your aircraft safely on the ground including the option of declaring a IFE. Declaring a IFE just means that you get what you need to be able to land and you have to write a written report to the FAA within 7 days. It is not a big deal so never be afraid to say those words if you are concerned about the conclusion of the flight.

        Your story is nothing different from what the rest of us have experienced. We all have had occasions as young pilots to work through issues and you are no different. I love that you are so open about your experience and willing to learn. That is a mark of a great pilot. You really are going to be fine.

        Hope that answers your question.

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      • Interestingly enough, I did locate a recording of the tower’s radio transmissions yesterday and listened to it. I can’t believe how calm I sounded. A lot of the freaking out that happened happened in my head alone…or at least off of the mic. None of the profanities happened with my thumb on the button like I thought, and there was a time I asked the tower to repeat – and it was for me – and they didn’t answer. It is a little funny to me now. They must have known something was up. My first transmission was clear as a bell, the next one (after the door popped open) sounded like I was calling them from inside a wind tunnel. I told the story to my mentor and she laughed hysterically. Hopefully someday I will be able to tell the story with laughter. But not just yet. 😉

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  2. Well handled! I know it was nerve racking while it happened, but you did great. I always worry about open doors on the C172, but fortunately it always happened to me when I had another pilot with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the interesting things about aircraft design is that they only want something to be strong enough to do what it was designed to do, rather than as strong as they can make it. Even the wing! If it’s not strong enough it might break in flight. If it’s too strong, the it will weigh too much and you’ll be sacrificing performance and load carrying capability unnecessarily. That’s why you find doors like that. Even today’s $1m Cirrus SR22s have doors which have been known to pop open on occasion.

    The good news is that the door won’t open all the way, and it can’t hurt anything. I fly some airplanes (the Cub for example) where we leave the door open on purpose. Some aircraft don’t even have doors or a roof — open cockpit biplanes are one such example.

    Experiences like the one you had are probably good in the end, because they make you a better and more experienced pilot. I bet you got a more valuable experience for your dollar on this flight than if the door hadn’t popped open. Who knows when and where the things you learned today might pay off big in the future?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ron. Fun fact about this particular plane, my CFI told me he took that same plane up with another student an hour later, and the same door popped open on him too! One difference in the perspectives of an experienced pilot and a new pilot are their reactions to the same situation – I was upset I nearly lost my life, he was upset he nearly lost his ipad :p

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  4. Awesome job in handling a loud, distracting situation and getting the plane on the ground safely! “Experiences like the one you had are probably good…” is understating it, I think, although Ron is an instructor and I’m not. As a pilot if it didn’t kill me, then I am logging it as “excellent experience, once of the better lessons.” My two encounters with ice fall into that category, burned indelibly into my brain in a way that no amount of discussion with a CFII beforehand could have done.

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  5. p.s. I landed the Twinstar at Hillsboro on Sunday evening and if I had your email I would have invited you and your husband aloft for a look around Portland in some story skies. (That’s a very busy little airport you are training at, and some challenging terrain and winds you deal with. Know that when you do your Super Long Cross Country and fly down to Southern California is is a lot simpler flying from Santa Monica to Santa Ana.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Colin! Sorry we missed you and thanks for the invitation. If I knew how to send you my email address without broadcasting it to everyone online, I would. Maybe I’ll bump into you at the airport sometime. I’m the only little blonde I’ve ever seen up there ;).

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      • I have no such compunctions: colin (at) mightycheese (dot) com

        Our son is at Reed College and now it is a little easier to get back and forth to him. (My brother is on San Juan Island near Seattle, so I flew up to see him first, then swung through HIllsboro to get our younger son at the end of his visit to see his older brother).

        Next time I’m coming through I’ll shoot you a note once I have your email.

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  6. Pingback: Building Confidence | The Bold Bluebonnet

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