Locked into terror

Source: CASA

Sometimes it’s important to listen to your doubts, even when there seem to be perfectly good explanations for something that just doesn’t feel right, as this close call from 2010 eloquently tells

Name withheld by request

It was a special day. I had graduated with my private pilot’s license two weeks earlier and today I was to set off from Moorabbin for a day trip to Phillip Island with my first passengers. They were my six-year-old son Joseph and a family friend called Beth.

I was aware of the possibilities for carelessness when others (particularly loved ones) were present, so I had done slow, careful nav preparation for the trip in a Cessna 172. I also got Beth to take Joseph away for a bit while I did the walk around. Everything seemed to be in order, so we took some photos to commemorate the occasion and prepared to depart.

I had done the vast majority of my training on the Cessna 152 and seen the nasty side of it (stall characteristics). I guess you could say that therefore I felt relatively relaxed in the 172.

As we taxied to the run-up area the steering felt a little stiff, but I made it around the corners fine (I had always found Cessnas hard to steer). I was also remembering my instructor telling me not to put undue pressure on the 172 rudder pedals on the ground as they (unlike the 152) were connected to the nose wheel. He said this put a lot of pressure on the steering linkages, particularly at low speed.

With this in mind, I put the stiffness in the steering to the back of my mind.

With run-ups safely done, we headed to the 35L threshold. As we were taxiing, I tested the steering again and started to feel uncomfortable with the tightness. Due to my low hours on the 172, I had earlier assumed it had to do with the greater weight, the linkages described earlier, or that was just how a 172 felt. I may have also ignored it due to not wanting to appear incompetent in front of Joseph and Beth!

By the time we reached the threshold, I had to act. Mercifully, there was no one behind me on the taxiway (if there had been, I may have given in to temptation to take off). I idled the engine, put the park brake on and told my passengers: ‘hold on for a second, I just have to check something.’

They say in the CRM stuff that having discovered one mistake, it’s important not to make another …

On exiting the aircraft (which I now know not to do when the prop is spinning), I managed to knock the park brake off with my knee. Mercifully again, I noticed the plane moving fairly quickly, so I jumped back in and secured the brake again (still not switching off though).

On exiting, I discovered the problem immediately. There was a rudder lock faithfully secured to the vertical stabiliser! In the wind provided by the prop, I unwound the wing nut and brought the lock back into the cabin.

My heart was beating hard the whole way over to Phillip Island but thankfully it was an uneventful flight and I managed quite an acceptable approach and landing. Likewise the return.

In the six months since, I have gone over the events of that day a thousand times. Apart from the obvious (my complete stupidity at missing the lock in the walk around), I think the Swiss cheese model did explain part of my error:

  1. That aircraft was a cross-hire from another school. I had never seen a rudder lock prior to that day, as none of our school’s Cessnas had them.
  2. The lock was white, the same colour as the vertical stabiliser.
  3. There was no red tape on the lock which might have caught my attention (no excuse though).
  4. I was excited at taking my first passengers and was obviously not as attentive to my walk around as I should have been.
  5. I should have been alerted by the stiffness of the rudder pedals on taxi to the run-up, but the instructor’s words about not turning sharply at low speed in the 172 clouded my judgement.

I certainly now know that if I’m unsure about anything whatsoever, there’s no shame in pulling off a taxiway, shutting down and getting out for a (safe) closer look.

On recollection, the thing that scares me most of all (apart from trying to land in a crosswind with negligible rudder authority) was the possibility of the plane running off while I was outside, with Beth and my precious son in the back. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I guess that’s another reason why they get you to check the idle speed during run-ups!


Calling for close calls

Every pilot has had at least one flight that has taught them a lasting lesson about flying. That’s a close call—a hard-won lesson too valuable to keep to yourself.

Flight Safety Australia wants to hear about your close calls—and we will pay you $500 if yours is published. With our return to printed publication we need more close calls next year. Close calls can be from any sector of aviation—from paragliders to airline transport, including all types of rotary wing aircraft. We would also welcome close calls from aircraft maintainers, ground handlers and cabin crew.

Generally we prefer to hear about recent incidents to ones from many years ago, and civil close calls to military misadventures, but vivid stories with strong safety messages can break both these ‘rules’ and be strong contenders for publication.

Close calls need to be:

  • between 450–1400 words
  • written in the first person, ‘I’
  • written in an active voice, e.g. ‘I lowered the gear’, not ‘the gear was lowered’
  • written with a few lines or words of analysis after the event description
  • accompanied by a three-line cover sheet consisting of:
  1. your name
  2. your email and phone contacts—to send you your money if published. (If you are tremendously confident of your literary prowess, you may include bank account details!)
  3. your preference to be named or anonymous.

A close call does not have to be an accident or serious incident. Any flight in which the unexpected brought a lesson in its wake qualifies. Take a look at our online close calls archive for examples.

Send your close calls to fsa@casa.gov.au

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  1. ” I was also remembering my instructor telling me not to put undue pressure on the 172 rudder pedals on the ground as they (unlike the 152) were connected to the nose wheel . . . ”

    This guy might want to have a word to the instructor who told him that the 152 doesn’t have a steerable nose wheel !

    Presumably it’s the same guy who didn’t hammer into him the stupidity (and illegality) of exiting an aircraft with the engine running without there being a licensed pilot at the controls, handbrake on or not.

  2. Well you obviously didn’t check the rudder hinges in your pre-flight and there is no excuse for exiting the aircraft with the engine running. However we all make mistakes and I have made man,y so I am not throwing rocks in a glass house. The good thing is you admitted what you did and by writing this article took responsibility. Pity you didn’t have the guts to put your name on it.

    • I don’t think it’s helpful to bully and harass those who contribute stories to this site. I don’t care about their names, but I do want to hear their stories, and hopefully learn from them so that I benefit from their experience.

      Just a friendly caution to those who criticise in a non-constructive way: You are not being helpful, and the day will come when your remarks make people decide not to share their stories. You may well be the greatest pilots ever put on the planet with nothing left to learn. But the rest of us are pragmatic enough to think we will never be perfect, and we take every opportunity we can to learn from others.

      I’d like to congratulate and sincerely thank all those contributors to this site for having the guts to tell their story. Please be assured that your contribution is important, and that 99.99% of readers are thinking “there but for the grace of God go I”.

  3. My neck is hurting shaking my head so much!
    Have to agree with Rob here. Your instructor is a fool for a start! To think this idiot is out there teaching?
    Not finding the control lock is bad enough but to exit the plane like you did is inexcusable! You should be utterly ashamed of yourself endangering your passengers like that!
    I feel sorry for any further innocent people who fly with you!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience so we can all learn from it. Another thing to add to the Swiss Cheese model is to make sure to include a “flight controls free and correct” check. This is in the Before Takeoff checkist in the POH for later C172 models. There have also been airliner accidents where professional pilots have failed to remove or notice the control lock is in place.

  5. Thanks for sharing. These stories can be extremely helpful to students and low hour pilots … On review it is very easy to criticize yourself and be criticized for being so “dumb” ..but often at the time it was not so clear that something bad was about to happen.

  6. Thanks for sharing – it takes real courage to share and own up to mistakes. It is a reminder to all of us that even a moment’s inattention means something is likely to be missed. Having learned from this experience, i sincerely hope you’ve gone on to enjoy many hours of safe flying.

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