Never Again: Red carpet treatment

November 2, 2009

A few years ago, I was a pilot working for the aircraft sales division of a large FBO and maintenance chain. I was scheduled to complete an aircraft delivery and provide some flight instruction to a new aircraft owner when my employer asked if I would perform a test flight in a Beechcraft Baron, which had recently had new avionics installed, before I headed out the next day on the aircraft delivery.

The airplane from the avionics shop was a late-model Baron 58 with 300-horsepower engines and dual Garmin GPSs. I’d never turn down a chance to fly an airplane like that, so I gladly agreed to perform the test flight.

The morning started perfectly. It was clear and windless, and the Baron was on the line, fueled and ready to go. The FBO staff had even placed a bright red carpet runner near the boarding step at the pilot’s door—all the trimmings of the VIP treatment given to the best customers. I exchanged smiles and waves with the line folks as I taxied by them on the ramp, thanking them for their trouble, and even chatted with the tower controller as I passed the base of the tower on my way out.

I had quite a bit of experience in Barons, and it turned out I had actually flown the test aircraft a number of times in the past, so I focused most of my attention on the newly installed avionics. A ground check showed all the new equipment was working normally. An engine runup, a run through the before-takeoff checklist—including a quick wiggling of the yoke to check the flight controls—and I was ready to go. I wanted to complete the flight quickly so that I wouldn’t be late for my next assignment, the aircraft delivery.

The takeoff roll and initial climb showed no problems at all. The air was smooth as glass, and I had the traffic pattern to myself. It couldn’t have been better—right up until the time I retracted the landing gear.

As soon as the gear was up, the Baron began to violently shake and shudder. My first thought was an engine failure, but the gauges for both engines showed everything was fine. A glance out at each nacelle confirmed there was no leaking oil, and everything was properly secured.

I concentrated on flying the aircraft, running in my head through other possible sources for the trouble. I noticed that it wasn’t just the aircraft that was shaking; the control yoke itself was oscillating in my hand, separate from the rest of the aircraft. My attention shifted to the control surfaces, and I swiveled around in my seat to give them a close look.

Then I saw it.

Wrapped around the leading edge of the right horizontal stabilizer was the bright red VIP carpet that had been so thoughtfully placed at my door. I realized immediately what must have happened: When I started the right engine, the prop wash must have picked up the carpet so carefully placed near the boarding step, as large and heavy as it was, and thrown it back around the tail. None of the line crew I had taxied by noticed the carpet there, nor had the tower controller I’d chatted with, nor had I. During the pretakeoff checks, I had neglected to actually look at the tail when moving the controls and making sure their movement was free and unobstructed.

Moving the controls hadn’t dislodged the carpet, and even the force of takeoff hadn’t blown it off. In fact, a coating of dew on the tail that had accumulated on that chilly morning was probably helping the carpet hang on. I could see that the weight of the runner and the disruption of airflow around the tail were making the entire horizontal stabilizer—and the rest of the aircraft— vibrate violently.

Worse yet, the carpet was slowly working its way along the leading edge toward the tip, where the elevator extends forward to a point and forms a wedge between the ends of the elevator and the horizontal stabilizer. If the carpet were to jam itself into that wedge, it would prevent the elevator from moving, and my already bad morning would get much worse.

I notified the tower that I needed to return for an immediate landing, and gingerly maneuvered the Baron around the pattern. The shaking was getting worse and worse. I was careful about changes to pitch and power, and didn’t extend the flaps at all. I didn’t know if that change in configuration would force the carpet even faster toward the dreaded elevator tip, or cause it to fall off and land who knows where. A no-flap landing in an airplane such as a Baron can be challenging, but at this point, that was the least of my worries.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when I lowered the gear. I waited until I was almost over the runway, then dropped the gear and looked for three green lights.

Thankfully, as soon as the lights popped on, the shaking stopped. Somehow, extending the gear had a damping effect on the tail, and the rest of the landing was uneventful. The carpet stayed on until I parked and shut down both engines. Then, the carpet finally fell to the ground with a plop. Suddenly, every line person noticed it!

Looking back, I now realize that every pretakeoff check, especially for the free and correct movement of the control surfaces, is critically important. Overlooking something as simple as visually verifying the movement of the flight controls nearly had disastrous consequences. If only I had looked back toward the tail instead of hurrying to save a few seconds, I would have seen the carpet before I ever left the ground.

I relearned some important lessons that morning: take your time, follow the checklist carefully (everything on it is there for a reason), and don’t assume that just because you’re flying from a busy controlled field someone else will be there to notice your mistakes.

Ed Oleksy began flying in 1986. He’s an ATP and CFII with more than 9,000 hours flying time including more than 4,000 hours of dual instruction given.

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