By Anthony Nalli
Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. I invite you to contact me at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV to anonymously share your stories. The experience shared and lessons learned will be of benefit to all readers. Confidentiality will be assured and I will not use your name or aircraft ident without your permission. If your submission is used in Close Calls you’ll receive a copy of The Aviators: The Complete First Season on DVD.
Our pilot had departed the airport he was visiting in his high-performance homebuilt on the 80-mile trip home when at approximately 200 feet the gull canopy on the pilot’s side of the aircraft detached itself from the fuselage. There was a loud bang and our pilot thought that the canopy had collided with the tail section.
He declared an emergency and told area traffic that to stay alert and stay away. The aircraft was marginally controllable with quite a lot of buffeting. He knew that lowering the gear and flaps would also have some aerodynamic effects on the aircraft so decided to increase the power to offset the resulting drag. As the gear came down he found that choosing a higher power setting certainly helped. Next were the flaps.
“A little more power and flaps 1. No appreciable effects,” our pilot calculated. “Flaps 2. Nothing unusual. Flaps 3 and on final, the fear factor didn’t enter into the equation. I wanted a successful landing.”
And he got it. Our pilot concluded the flight but was very upset that his beautiful aircraft had been damaged. “How am I going to tell the builder that his masterpiece was damaged?” he wondered since our pilot believed the original builder would always be the “true owner of the aircraft.”
With these thoughts in mind our pilot began to consider resuming the trip home so that the aircraft could be properly repaired. He called the manufacturer whose initial response was “you’re lucky to be alive!” Golly, that was certainly reassuring.
They knew of only one other pilot who flew the same kind of aircraft without the canopy and that was for about 20 minutes and the pilot was a high-time test pilot and airshow pilot. They did mention another incident where the same type of aircraft also lost its canopy. Unfortunately, that pilot was unable to control the aircraft resulting in two fatalities. “So I guess luck was on my side” figured our pilot.
Despite feeling lucky the first time around, our pilot “decided to become a test pilot” and fly the aircraft home for repair. Upon departure the aircraft became quite uncontrollable, more so than the first time.
Our pilot considered turning back but decided the situation was difficult, though manageable. “If some other pilot was able to fly under these conditions, then surely I could do the same. And with this deranged thinking I decided to continue.”
Our pilot recalls, “The flight back was possibly the worst flight that I have ever conducted. I now refer to it as my 50 minutes of pure terror. I had to crouch down to avoid the excessive buffeting and hear the radio. The instrument panel was shaking and the rear panel behind the pilots seat became unhinged and was flapping in the back. The aircraft wanted to go to the right, so I used both hands, my left hand on the left stick and my right hand on the right stick, and left pedal to maintain level flight.”
At one point our pilot was “curious” to know what would happen if he released the pressure on the sticks. “I attempted this test pilot experiment only to be surprised as the aircraft veered to the right, wings going 90 degrees to the vertical. I was able to bring the aircraft back to its level unstable flight path. It was now blatantly obvious that any inattention on my part would result in a right departure and a subsequent stall spin condition.”
Now approaching his home airport our pilot was preparing his landing. The active runway was 30 and the winds were from 270 degrees at 25 knots gusting to 30 knots. It would be a challenge but the crosswind component was within limits.
“I had to maintain a higher approach speed. The normal approach speed is 80 knots. Any slower and you become a flying manhole cover!” With a higher speed, the landing roll would also be in question but with the winds our pilot was hoping for some help from Mother Nature. Our pilot crabbed into the wind, touched down, backed off the power, and came to a stop with runway to spare.
“Again luck was on my side with successful conclusion,” recounts our pilot, relieved. “Someone once said I had a lot of experience. Well, it seems all my experiences are from errors that I have made. I thought that I had secured the canopy.”
But our pilot later revealed to me that the decision to make the return flight home in his disabled aircraft wasn’t a good one. His years of experience and flying skill were critical while at the controls but his advice to others would have been to stay on the ground.
“My claim to fame now is that I am only the second fool to fly this aircraft with only half the canopy.” Boasts our pilot tongue firmly in cheek. “Having experienced four engine failures and two single engine landings in multi-engine aircraft in my long flying career, the departure of the canopy was by far the most serious.”
Anthony Nalli is the Executive Producer of the hit television series The Aviators (www.TheAviators.TV). Anthony can be reached at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV. The Aviators can be seen on PBS in the United States, Global and CHEK in Canada, Discovery in Asia, and online at Hulu.com and coming to iTunes in September.