Proficient Pilot

Open-door policy

October 1, 2009

I apparently had passed the oral examination for my instrument rating, and it was time for the checkride. The airplane was a red Stinson Station Wagon, a comfortable old taildragger equipped with a low-frequency receiver and gauges barely sufficient for instrument flight (no gyros).

After climbing to 300 feet agl, the FAA inspector in the right seat told me to don my blue goggles (so that I could not see beyond the orange Plexiglas covering the front and side windows). Just as the outside world turned black, I heard a bang and a loud whooshing sound. I looked toward the noise and saw that the right door was ajar.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked the inspector.

“Beats me, kid. What would you do if you were alone?”

I flipped off the goggles (not the inspector), called the tower, and received clearance to land on “any runway.” I would have tried to close the door, but the inspector’s substantial size prevented me from trying that. I later learned, however, that by ignoring the door and flying the airplane, I did the right thing.

A door popping open can be startling and unnerving. It can sound like a small explosion followed by an onslaught of air and engine noise. The good news is that this kind of a surprise is seldom serious. Most airplanes fly and handle well even if a door comes off completely. A pilot’s reaction, however, can turn annoyance into emergency. Numerous accidents occur every year because pilots become more concerned with an open door than with flying the airplane.

In most cases, a door popping open is more bark than bite and usually is caused by improper latching or a failed latch. As the aircraft gathers speed during takeoff and initial climb, air flowing past the door creates a low-pressure region that attempts to pull the door open (especially curved doors that behave like cambered wings).

When a door opens, a pilot has two options. One is to abort the takeoff if sufficient runway remains to do so safely. The other is to continue the takeoff and climb to a safe altitude, ignoring the door, and concentrating on flying the airplane as if nothing has happened. (This can be easier said than done during a night or instrument departure.)

Here are some effects that can be anticipated: Elevated air noise creates a sense of excess speed—do not raise the nose unnecessarily; airflow entering the cabin can raise dust, and important papers (such as charts) can get sucked out; although a typical cabin door cannot open more than a few inches, passengers might become fearful about falling out—allay their fears; expect some loss of climb performance (especially in underpowered airplanes); air flowing past the door can become turbulent and cause mild tail buffeting and a possible tendency for the nose to pitch down; an open door can interrupt air flowing past a static port and cause erratic indications of three instruments (you know which ones).

Although the effects of an open door are seldom consequential (unless a large airstair door opens) and almost always controllable, there are rare instances when an open door can cause almost uncontrollable rolling and pitching moments. This has occurred on the Piper Apache and Aztec, although increasing airspeed usually improves controllability.

Upon reaching a safe altitude, a pilot is again confronted with two options: attempt to close the door or return for landing while ignoring the distraction. Closing an open door in a Cessna 172, for example, is simple. Just open the window, grab the sill, and pull the door closed. On other aircraft, though, closing a door can be much more challenging if not impossible. If you have trouble closing a door, you are usually better off landing and accepting a flight delay (unless conditions make such a choice impossible).

If you do opt to close the door while airborne, do not become so engrossed by the procedure that you fail to maintain control of the airplane, allowing an inconvenience to develop into an emergency. (Under no circumstances should an attempt be made to close an airstair door unless the person trying to close it is somehow tied securely to the interior of the aircraft.)

If a door cannot be closed in flight, it probably is because the pilot does not have the needed leverage or strength. In some cases, though, a door opening in flight can become warped and not fit in its frame no matter how strong the pilot.

Improperly latched baggage doors and cowlings also can open unexpectedly, but these usually are inaccessible. Not much can be done except to maintain control and land. The aluminum may rattle, bang, and buffet, but this usually does not affect safety.

When flying a twin Cessna, for example, an open nose-baggage door tends to close at high speed and float open as speed is reduced for landing. A pilot should avoid abrupt maneuvering that could throw loose objects from the nose compartment into a propeller.

Prevention is always best. Recognize that door-latching mechanisms often are taken for granted, and take your time in learning their idiosyncrasies, especially when checking out in new aircraft. Finally, never allow passengers to secure cabin doors and baggage compartments. Never. 

Barry Schiff has a secondary teaching credential (aviation) from the California State Department of Education. Visit the author’s Web site.