Airport Stories: Busted Airplane :(

I broke an airplane - how the hell was your weekend?

OK, now that I’ve gotten an :eek: out of you, let me explain.

The taildragger training hasn’t been happening much of late. After a roaring start, I had two weeks of bad weather. The past weekend, things were looking MUCH better. The weather was excellent. I felt great. Obviously, that left only one thing to go wrong - the airplane itself.

I drove my usual hour and a half to get to my chosen flight school. I was to meeting a new instructor - one who’s availability would be more compatible with my own, so I could work with just one person. As I was waiting for him to show up I busied myself pre-flighting the airplane, which appeared to be in good order.

J shows up while I’m just completing the walk around and getting ready to check out the fuel tanks on top of the wings. I look down at my hands - striped with black grease, dirt, and dead bugs. We shake hands anyway, because, heck, you get a little greasy around machinery. We finish up the pre-flight, order gas, and collect our gear.

We fill each other in a bit on our flying backgrounds. (J teaches both driver’s ed and flyer’s ed, interestingly enough) J and I discuss what I’ve done so far, how I feel about where I’m at, and questions I have. After that, there’s a briefing on what, exactly, we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, what’s going to happen, and what we do if something goes wrong. So far, so good - I haven’t even gotten in the cockpit with this guy yet but he’s made a good first impression so far.

We climb into the airplane. He makes sure my positioning is good, and gives me some tips on how to get in and out easier, and keep the seat cushion from sliding out of position. We review how control of the airplane will be transfered both in ordinary circumstances and in emergencies.

At last, we’re ready to go. I do the normal start-up procedures, the engine starts on the first try, and I taxi out to the run-up area doing my utmost to demonstrate superior ground control of the Citabria. I select a spot on the slab of pavement where we don’t disturb anyone and do the pre-takeoff run-up and checks to make sure everything is functioning properly. And it is. Excellent!

We put-put towards the runway once again. Once again, I am doing my utmost to demonstrate my mastery of ground handling in this airplane (since the air is dead calm this is really not much of a trick, to be honest). We’re just about to pull out onto the runway when



This is what we call a Bad Sign.

Something had clearly just broke, somewhere. The airplane was shaking. The prop had slowed enough to be intermittedly visible as blades rather than a uniform blur. There were horrible metal-on-metal noises coming from about 18 inches (that’s a half a meter for you metric types) in front of my nose. The engine seemed to be missing beats occassionally.

I said “That’s just wrong!”, pulled out the mix and throttle to shut down the engine, and muttered a naughty word. No further discussion was necessary - both of us knew we were not flying that airplane today.

Possible problems included running over something - something that either got sucked up into the engine cowling, or into the prop, damaging it… except no debris was visible, and the prop was undamaged. The engine hadn’t seized - the prop continued turning until I cut the power, even if it wasn’t turning well. There was no obvious, visible damage. There were no leaking fluids. Hmmm… that’s bad, because if we can’t see it outside the engine then that means the problem most likely is inside the engine, where we can’t see it. Oh, dear. Did we just lose a cylinder?

First thing, J reassures me that, no matter what the problem, I’m off the hook since I clearly did nothing wrong. Starting the engine up is probably not a good idea - neither of us wants to risk possible further damage to the engine or anything else. We clearly can’t stay parked here on the taxiway, blocking one of the main routes to and from the runway. There’s really only one thing to do…

… push the airplane the quarter mile to the maintenance hangar via muscle power.

Fortunately, it’s a relatively lightweight airplane. I could probably have done it on my own if I had to, but it’s a lot easier with two people, especially steering it. So we trundled the bird along.

In order to get to the mainteance hangar we had to pass the airport cafe. A lot of small airports have restaurants on or adjacent to the flightline, with seating planned to allow views of the airport activity. And we’re pushing (not flying) an airplane past all the nice folks having breakfast out on the terrace in the fresh, morning air.

Feel those eyes upon you?

Yes, the tourists are looking on in vague puzzlement, comprehending that this - two people pushing an airplane along - is not Standard Operating Procedure, but not quite daring to ask the obvious question.

Of course, a fellow pilot is not so inhibited. “Something wrong?” is bellowed out into the relative quiet.

“Yeah! It broke!”

The puzzled tourist looks morph into horror. My gawd! The airplane broke! Then puzzlement resumes because the tourists are looking for obvious breakage, like dangling wires or something, and of course, nothing of the sort is visible. And we continue along our way to the proper hangar, where we leave the airplane knowing the mechanics will surely noticed the bright orange and white addition to their charges.

(No mechanics around that day - it’s Father’s Day. They’re all off doing Dad stuff.)

Well, at least I got to meet the new-to-me instructor face to face, and pay my balance from prior lessons. I had a bite to eat and a glass of ice tea in the restaurant, taking seat facing away from the runway because I’m just a little disappointed in aviation this day. Turns out the waitress is also a pilot and asked me if I was the one with the non-functional bird and what might be wrong, and I mutter and gripe the reply and she reminds me that shit happens in flying from time to time.

Truthfully, if it had to break, I’m glad it broke when it did - another three minutes we would have been airborne with that problem and likely looking at an emergency landing. That would not have been fun, even if the odds of injury-free survival were pretty high.

Anyhow, I finished licking my wounded pilot’s pride and drove home.

When I got home, the Other Half was gonzo to do his flying, remote control models. You know, I was having a little trouble working up enthusiasm for flying of any sort but hey, it’s time with the family and all that, supporting your loved one’s hobbies and interests, etc. etc. So we pack the two airplanes he was currently flying plus assorted gear, and cooler full of drinks and popsicles, into the pickup and off we go.

We get settled in at the RC field. I’m eating my lunch by this time while the Other Half is setting up, fueling, and pre-flighting his little airplanes along with his buddies. Folks are having a good time taking turns flying.

Other Half takes his “funtana” - which he has equipped with an oversized engine for extra speed, power, and challenge - out to fly. It roars into the air, twitching and flittering almost like a bat but sounding like a much bigger plane. It’s zooming around the traffic pattern as the Other Half refines his techniques with it. He’s bringing it around for a landing when –

(of course there’s another tale of woe here)

– when he starts flailing around, batting at his face, while trying to continue to fly his airplane. Said airplane is screaming as it luches and flops through the air. He regains control, loses it again, let’s out an expletive as the funtana disappears behind the treeline.

We hear a surprisingly loud {{{CRUMPH}}}

Much wincing along the flightline - everyone know what that sound means. It means the airplane is not a not-so-fun-tana. One of the other RC pilots and me get to our feet and lurch off through the rough to look for it.

Now, Northwest Indiana is tallgrass prarie country, which usually doesn’t mean much to folks who haven’t been here awhile. This area where we do our flying is almost untouched territory, a genuine remnant of the once-Great Plains - at least the part not converted to minature runway. It’s real prarie grass back there, stuff with stiff leaves that will slice you like the worst papercuts imaginable, which is why no one goes into the rough without shoes and jeans at the very least. It’s June but the grass is already towering over my head. It’s so thick you can’t see where you’re putting your feet. Would you believe this is a drought year so far? When it’s a wet year the grass is even thicker and taller.

Anyhow, we’re trudging through all this, me wishing I had remembered to bring the family machete along, and actually imagining we’ll find the darn thing.

As luck would have it, the majority of the airplane is strung in the branches of a tree as red and yellow shreds of cellophane and balsa wood. Although large portions are recognizable as what they formerly were, the gas tank and battery pack have utterly disappeared. We were able to retrieve the servos (some of which were actually usable still) and the radio receiver, which is the really expensive bit, and the engine for recycling into another airplane at a future date.

The cause of all this? A bug had gotten between the Other Half’s glasses and face, and bounced off his eyeball several times, while he had been trying to fly the airplane. To say the least, this was very distracting. No one else in the club - and the club is about 40 years old - had ever heard of that freak accident before.

Other Half was applying a popiscle to his sore eye.

A couple of us held him down, but couldn’t see anything wrong with his eyeball. Bloodshot and irritated, but he hadn’t been stung and could see clearly. So we applied another popsicle and he took some time out for a bit.

After which he flew his other airplane until something went wonky with the landing gear and it kept nosing over every time he tried to taxi it out onto the runway. At which point we decided we had broken enough stuff and packed up.

(By the way - most days we go to the RC airplane field someone seems to break or crash one of the airplanes. It comes with the territory)

Which is how my Sunday went. Disappointing, yes, and occassionally nerve wracking, but you couldn’t really call it a disaster.

Oh - the aftermath.

Well, it turns out the airplane engine wasn’t broken after all - what a relief! (New engines start around $30,000 (actually, that’s for a rebuilt one), and if one was required it would have most likely been several weeks wait for me to resume training). Nope, one of the magnetos had spontaneously disassembled. Another Freak Thing No One Around Here Has Heard Of Before. Has since been replaced, the airplane thoroughly inspected for any other damage, test flown, and is back in service.

(No, not Magneto, foe of the X-Men, Mutant Master of Magnetism - geez-o-Pete, get yer nose outta da comic books. Magneto - device to generate electricity to send to the spark plugs so they spark. Half the normal magneto power = half the spark = reduced power = equals slower prop. The bad noises and shaking probably came in part from loose magneto bits running around under the cowling)

The Other Half’s eye swelled up a bit, then it went down overnight but it was still very sore and tearing. Being a guy, of course, he didn’t go to the doctor - he sent me to the local pharmacist where I explained the Freak Bug Accident, confirmed the lack of obvious injury, sting, cut or abraision to cornea, etc., etc. and asked about soothing eye drops to help nature’s healing along. Pharmacist made recommendation and set me off with a stern warning to get Other Half to a doctor if things got the least bit worse, there was any sign of infection, etc.

The recommended eye drops came in single-use vials, almost cute (single-use so they were sterile - wanted to take no chances introducing Bad Stuff to already sore eye). After second or third application the drops worked loose a teeny Bug Part that had lodged up under his eyelid - not sure if it was a wing bit or a leg bit, it was that fragmentary - after which things rapidly improved and we could go back to eating popsicles instead of using them as first aid.

So, it looks like all and sundry have recovered from Sunday (except for the not-so-fun-anymore-tana, which is in the process of being reincarnated/stripped for parts).

We’ll try it all again next weekend.

Because we’re pilots, and near-disasters just can’t keep us on the ground.

  1. You’re okay.
  2. If you believe these things happen in threes, then the second and third only happened to an RC model. See point 1.
  3. I didn’t know a malfunctioning aircraft could make porno music sounds. :smiley:

Of course it does - that’s so you know that if you don’t get a grip on the situation you’re about to be f*****

Well, you couldn’t have forgotten to take the tow bar off the nose wheel.

The magneto passed the check during the run-up, but went to pieces just afterward? Suspicious. Does running for a few seconds on a single mag put any extra load on it that may have just tipped it into failing?

Pilots have to be smart and careful (sounds like you’re both), and sometimes bad things still happen. Glad to hear this one wasn’t any worse.

This didn’t happen to me, but it’s still an incredible story.

My wife has been friends with this guy since she was little. He got married and had 3 daughters. My wife used to babysit them and they look upon her as a substitute mother. The family was never well off and very rarely traveled.

The middle daughter got married a few months ago and moved from West Virginia to Seattle. Her and her husband decided to go back to WV for a visit but the didn’t know anything about airplanes. So basically, my wife had to book their flight for them. That time everything went smooth.

Cut to 2 weeks ago. The girl decides she’s leaving her new husband. She asks my wife to book her a flight. She wants 1) to leave on a Friday and 2) to not have any stops.

Well there are no flights from Seattle to WV that have no stops. She asks if she could come to Detroit and have us drive her down. There are no non-stops from Seattle to Detroit and plus it would cost more.

As does the leave on Friday. My wife talks her into goin on Sunday and books the flight.

On Sunday (just last Sunday) we get a call. They bumbped her. She had no clue what to do. They had her on another flight that had 3 stopovers and the first was in Vancouver. She was panicking that she didn’t have a passport. We assured her that it wasn’t need that they wouldn’t send her there if she needed one. So off she goes.

She gets to Vancouver and we get another call. They had to get off the plane due to a mechanical failure. So she waits and gets another flight to Chicago.

In Chicago, they have another equipment failure. This time, they can’t fix it and cancel the flight. This is about 11:00 pm when her original flight had her in WV at 4:30. She has to wait until 7:00 AM to get the next flight.

Now this girl doesn’t have any money. She’s hasn’t eaten since early that morning. She’s afraid to ask for anything so my wife gets on the phone with the service rep and gets her 1) food vouchers and 2) a hotel voucher.

Here’s the rub. None of the food places were open. Also, they didn’t give her any tranportation vouchers to get her to the hotel. Also, she was worried that if she went to the hotel, she wouldn’t get up in time for the flight. She didn’t want to stay at the airport because she thought someone would attack her if she slept there. She wanted us to come get her.

We finally were able to convince her that by the time we could make it there, it would be close to her flight time. So she went and parked herself at her gate and waited it out.

This may be one of those cosmic things. She was so worried that something would go wrong and did it. My poor wife was on the phone with her and her dad most of the evening. Both of them crying and basically useless and her trying to get things straightened out over the phone.

Great read Broomstick.

Gets yer attention don’t it? he he he

Glad things became brown and sticky before you had to contend with potential overdoses of gravity. Damn that sudden deceleration. :wink:

At least you had a clear ‘no-go’ sign. Better than being in two minds as you trundle down the strip.

I post way too early in the morning for my own good - I had to read that twice before I got the joke. :slight_smile:

Yes. However, both magnetos passed the mag check. One showed a greater drop than the other, but that’s not unusual and both were in normal parameters. It may be what showed was unusual for that airplane but I’m not familar enough with the airplane yet to have pick up something that specific and subtle. Nor did the engine run rough during the magneto check, which is another sign of trouble that didn’t show up.

Not that I’m aware of.

Nor was the engine under any significant load when it gave - since we were taxiing it was just slightly above idle.

Glad to hear you’re ok… And the airplane survived.

We had an issue with the Citabria I was going to attempt to get my hands on… It crashed. Total loss. No fatalities though, so that’s a good thing. Scary thought, and nobody knows the reason yet, and it went down only a few miles from my house.

The way you first described it, I though it had thrown a rod or something, at least it was only a mag. Relatively easy fix.

Yeah, I was thinking rod or blown cylinder or the like as well.