Never Again: Finding FOD

March 1, 2009

I was scheduled to fly an aerobatic demonstration at a local airport the next day. I fly a rainbow-colored Extra 300L. This highly capable, two-seat monoplane is flown by the pilot in command from the rear seat, as is the case in many other tailwheel airplanes.

The Extra has a big, clear, fighter-like canopy that affords great visibility and has sensational optic quality. It also has an emergency quick-release mechanism that enables the front-seat passenger or rear-seat pilot to jettison the canopy instantly in case of an emergency bail-out. The ability to jettison the canopy quickly and easily is an important safety feature—but it has one big drawback. Several pilots have experienced canopies that were inadvertently released in flight by a passenger who accidentally grabbed the mechanism. When canopy release occurs, it gets noisy and expensive all at once. There’s an immediate hurricane-force wind from the passing slipstream, and replacement costs for a new canopy and frame from Germany can exceed $15,000.

Because of this, an associate of mine developed a small device with concave ends that the pilot could place between the moving parts of the canopy release levers to prevent the front-seat passenger from inadvertently opening and releasing the finely cut piece of glass.

On this particular day, my cousin was in town, and I took him for a flight. He is a big guy, and he required some care getting in and out of the tight-fitting Extra cockpit. During this process, working from the back seat to assist him, I must have bumped the canopy lock and dislodged it, and it apparently tumbled into the deep well of the shaded cockpit and remained out of view. I didn’t notice the lock’s absence until I began my preflight inspection of the airplane the next day prior to a short cross-country flight to the aerobatic demonstration.

I now had to contend with the stark, well-known danger that a loose object could be floating around inside the aircraft—and that it could jam the controls while I was flying a high-speed, low-altitude aerobatic flight. I knew enough to dread the chance of foreign object debris (FOD) in the airplane. I knew well that even innocuous objects such as fuel strainers, pens, and loose tools had caused fatal aircraft accidents before.

I searched the airplane from top to bottom. But in spite of a concentrated effort and what I thought was a thorough inspection, I could not locate the canopy lock—and that bothered me. But I also knew there was a possibility that it had somehow fallen outside the airplane. I decided to fly the short trip to the destination airport, but on the way I performed several aerobatic maneuvers designed to dislodge such an object and cause it to travel back to the tail of the airplane. There, a transparent inspection port would allow me to search again in the most likely place for FOD to collect. That was the main purpose of the clear inspection cover.

Despite this sortie before the show followed by additional search after landing, I could not locate the missing object. As the time of my scheduled performance approached, I debated the merits of proceeding with the demonstration or canceling it. Not wanting to disappoint friends and family who had gathered to see me fly, I chose to proceed.

The aerobatic flight was going as planned. Then, toward the end of my demonstration, I performed a tumbling run that began from an inverted 45-degree up line. After several revolutions as the airplane’s energy bled off, I entered the appropriate controls to recover from the maneuver. I exited the series of gyroscopic maneuvers at an approximately 45-degree, nose-down attitude with the control stick seemingly locked in a forward position. I pulled but was unable to use the elevator to return the airplane to level flight.

I had read extensively on a variety of aviation subjects and remembered a description of pilots using trim and power to land in the event of elevator failure. That is precisely what I did. With the stick held firmly pulled backward in its jammed position, I controlled the attitude with pitch trim and altitude with power. I radioed the air boss to inform him of my situation, and was able to manage a firm but safe landing.

Upon exiting the Extra, I discovered the missing, fractured lock lodged in the elevator controls. Once found, it was quite easy to remove.

The lessons to be learned from this near-accident for me were plainly evident. First, my situation was not new or unprecedented. The disastrous results from FOD in the cockpit are well known and understood, as they have been for many years. It’s best to learn vicariously from others’ mistakes and follow their teachings. Aviation benefits from the sharing of accident and incident reports for just this reason.

FOD is FOD. If it is known to be present, or the potential for its presence is known, the issue must be resolved before the next flight. There can be no compromise. It would have been very difficult for me to cancel my demonstration—especially with friends and family who had come to see me fly. But there were many other aerobatic performers on the schedule that day, and the audience would not have felt cheated if I had stayed on the ground to address a safety issue. A different design for the canopy lock, or a better preflight passenger briefing, also might have helped me avoid this situation.

I’m glad I had read about other pilots using a combination of trim and power to contend with an elevator failure. The mantra to “fly the airplane” in an emergency was vital here as well. I’m also aware of similar situations in which pilots with jammed elevators intentionally rolled their aircraft inverted and pushed on the stick to release whatever was blocking the controls. Had I had pushed forward on the stick briefly, while in flight, I may have been able to dislodge the stuck artifact. It’s impossible to know with certainty.

Finally, establish routines and checklists that include accounting for objects that may be potentially dislodged. Don’t deviate from those patterns or get distracted, as I did. Scuba divers are taught—“Plan your dive and dive your plan.” Similarly, plan your flight and fly your plan, including pre- and post-flight inspections.

Dr. Matthew M. Cooper, AOPA 1378757, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a practicing cardiovascular surgeon, CFI, and AME who spends as much time as possible flying his rainbow-colored Extra 300L.