The student was driving, and we had just been given clearance to take off. I did my usual “final’s-clear-canopy’s-locked-runway’s-clear” chant and watched as we taxied toward the centerline. Then, just as she maneuvered our blind little biplane beauty onto the centerline, all hell broke loose! And I mean broke loose! Totally loose!
My feet were barely shadowing the rudder pedals when suddenly, the right pedal, brake and all, fell to the floor out of my reach, and the airplane’s center of gravity decided it liked the turn we were in: It did the Isaac Newton thing and started swinging the tail wildly to the right.
Since we had absolutely no control over the proceedings, the CG hijacked the whole process. Even though we were moving slowly, the CG jerked the tail further and further to the right, accelerating until the tailwheel unlocked, and the airplane swung around in a tight little slow-speed ground loop. We were both strictly passengers at that point because there was nothing we could do to stop the turn. No rudder control, no brakes, no tailwheel control, no hope. Something important had broken.
It stopped turning of its own accord, and there we were, sitting cockeyed in the middle of a major airport’s runway, jets waiting to take off and jets on final. I was about to do what I hated when other pilots did it: I was about to cause a runway closure, which I wasn’t going to let happen.
I did a quick, “We’ve had a mechanical and will push the airplane off the runway,” blast to the tower, but didn’t wait for a reply. I quickly shut everything down, and my student and I threw our straps off and bailed out of the airplane.
It really feels naked to be standing in the middle of an 8,000-foot runway seeing airplanes on final headed at you and others in the run-up areas on both sides watching your antics. But, the immediacy of getting our airplane off the runway chased everything else out of my mind.
With my student pushing on the I-strut and me pushing the tail, we hustled our butts off the runway and across the taxiway onto an unused portion of the ramp as quickly as we could possibly move. When I swung the tail around to put the tailwheel off the pavement into a secure divot in the dirt, I saw the source of our problems: The right rudder cable was hanging limp with the end lying on the ground. I picked it up and couldn’t believe what I saw: The turnbuckle that attached the cable to the rudder had broken cleanly right at the base of the threads. Not once in my life had I ever seen that particular piece of hardware fail.
As I was holding the broken cable end in my hand, I was suddenly aware that I was breathing hard. I hadn’t realized I had allowed my physical condition to deteriorate that far. This was the first of many epiphanies to come out of this episode that had some interesting life-changing consequences.
As we sat there in the sun, waiting for a tow tractor with a dolly to show up and tow 8PB back to the hangar (I couldn’t begin to taxi it; it was uncontrollable with no rudder, brake or tailwheel control), I began to think about what did happen as opposed to what could have happened. Only then did it dawn on me that I had just experienced the luckiest unlucky thing I’ve ever had happen in my life.
If the failure had happened three to five seconds earlier, when we had a fair amount of power and speed on the airplane, while taxiing across the run-up area to the runway, the airplane would have reacted much more violently: It most certainly would have spun us into the Falcon next to us.
If it had happened three to five seconds later, when we had full power on it during the takeoff roll, the airplane would have made a very, very hard left turn and curled into a high-speed ground loop. Or it would have left the runway at a high rate of speed while turning. Either way, the airplane would have been demolished, and we would probably have wound up on our back.
If it had happened after leaving the ground, I’d have had to try to land with no directional control. Not a good thing with a high-performance taildragger. Since touchdown is 65-70 mph, the results would have been spectacularly bad. It would have screamed off the runway in a matter of seconds. And, again, left us hanging from our seat belts.
The turnbuckle failed during the only possible five-second window that could guarantee a zero-damage, zero- injury outcome. I bought some lottery tickets on the way home. I’ll never have a luckier day in my life. And, I learned a lot. And, decided even more.
First, I was alarmed to see what effect a little physical activity had on me. I immediately went back to my early morning exercise program and feel better already.
Second, I didn’t replace the turnbuckle. I bought a set of new, updated cables that don’t have turnbuckles in them. The clevises are swaged on.
Three, the possibility of losing complete directional control like that exists in any taildragger when there’s a control system like that in the design. It has a major fault built into it: If you lose one cable and the rudder pedal goes to the floor, you don’t have access to the brakes. If you have brakes, you can lose all the rest and still maintain control of the airplane. There should be some sort of limit built into the pedal assembly that lets it move only a little further than the rudder needs, then stops. That way, if a cable fails, a nicopress slips, a swaged fitting lets go (all of which do happen), the pedal will go to the stop, but the brake pedals are still useful.
experienced the luckiest unlucky thing I’ve ever had
happen in my life.
I’m fairly certain I can come up with a very simple way to block the forward motion of the rudder pedals and not get into hassles with the FAA. If not, then I’m going to jump through all the hoops that 337s now require to make the simple mod.
If it can happen once, it can happen again. And next time, my timing most certainly won’t be as lucky.
The fourth, and highly unexpected, effect is the kind of thing you’d expect from a near-death experience, which this most definitely wasn’t. But, its potential caused me to reevaluate many of my priorities and do a better job of living, in general. I was damn lucky and should take advantage of what I was given.