Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Control Failures

Learning to fly with trim can save your life

Since then, I've been very careful with my preflights. I follow a written checklist religiously before every flight, and perhaps the most important item on it is to check the airplane over carefully for FOD. There's a reason why every Extra manufactured has a clear Lexan panel on the lower-right rear fuselage of the airplane, because that's where everything that doesn't belong in the airplane—keys, earrings, passports, wooden battery trays, tools—ends up.

As the saying goes, you can never be too careful, and yet things can still happen. The third time I almost had a really bad day was when I was flying the Extra 260 at an air show. The morning of the show, I had some avionics work done to repair a bad radio. As showtime loomed, I was very anxious to get in the air and kept bugging (in a nice way, of course) the avionics guy, who was working as fast as he could, to get the job finished. As soon as he zipped up the cowling, I jumped in the Extra and took off for my first flight. To show off the great performance of the 260, my opening maneuver was a Vertical S—a double climbing half-loop. When I got to the top about ready to push over to go downhill, something in the stick didn't feel right. The elevator wasn't completely jammed, but I felt something restricting smooth control movement. I didn't know what the problem was, but I sure wasn't going to troubleshoot it in the air when I was over a perfectly good runway.

My crew came running over to see what was wrong. Clear as day, inside the Lexan panel, we saw one, two, three—there were nine—small screwdrivers and a plastic case. You might say I was horrified to think about all that stuff floating around in the tail of my airplane. It was creepy to think that even with a careful preflight, I didn't see the screwdriver case left on top of a radio stack before takeoff.

FOD doesn't have to be wood or steel. A friend of mine told me he did a roll on takeoff at an air show, and a sectional chart smacked him in the face, temporary blinding him a few feet off the ground.

My fourth—and hopefully my last—control failure happened when I was practicing near an airport outside of Tucson. I remember it well. It was late in the day, there was a high overcast, and the flat light made the runway seem much farther away than two miles from the box.

I had no idea what had caused the elevator to jam and didn't want to make the situation worse, so I set the trim and headed for the runway. I had to set a level descent to the runway without letting the descent rate get too steep. The Extra is unstable, and I found it difficult to set a level attitude because the airplane wanted to diverge into a climb or descent. Also, my trim control was stiffer than in previous airplanes, making it harder to fine-tune. It wasn't a great situation. I got the airplane on the ground, and while rolling out, noticed that my hands were shaking.

I had a tank for smoke oil behind my seat, and the fuel cap was nonstandard for an Extra. It was the type that had you turn a handle to tighten the seal. In the weeks prior, I noticed the cap was losing its seal and was getting harder to tighten, and I had planned to replace it at annual. I purposely put a small metal chain on it to the tank in case it came off during flight—an attempt at eliminating FOD problems. When I was up doing akro, the cap came off, the chain held it, but it lodged between the tank and the torque tube, completely jamming my elevator control.


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