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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Fatal distraction

Distractions are a part of everyday life. They pop up unexpectedly. Typically we stop what we're doing, address them, and then resume whatever activity they interrupted. This approach works fairly well-unless we happen to be piloting an aircraft at the time. A relatively minor in-flight distraction can quickly lead to disaster if the pilot forgets aviation's first commandment: Fly the airplane.

On January 12, 2007, a Cessna 525 CitationJet crashed shortly after takeoff from Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, California. The co-pilot had failed to lock the front left baggage door, which flew open during rotation and distracted the pilot-a 38,000-hour ATP-during the initial climb. The aircraft stalled and spun into the ground and was destroyed on impact. Both pilots were killed.

The local positioning flight was destined for Long Beach, California. Before departure, a ramp worker fueled the CitationJet and spoke with the co-pilot, who was loading cases into the left nose baggage compartment. The worker later said he saw the co-pilot shut the baggage door, but not latch or lock it.

At 11:07 a.m., the aircraft was cleared for departure on Runway 34L. Shortly after liftoff, one of the pilots requested a return to the airport for landing. Witnesses reported that the airplane was flying slowly, and that its wings began to rock. The CitationJet turned slightly to the left, then broke hard to the right and crashed.

Witnesses who saw the aircraft from midfield said the left front baggage door was still closed during the airplane's takeoff roll. Others located near the end of the 8,000-foot runway stated the baggage door was open, standing straight up, when the aircraft was about 200 feet agl. When the door was later located in the wreckage, the key lock was found to be in the horizontal (unlocked) position.

The NTSB concluded the accident resulted from the pilot's failure to maintain adequate airspeed during the initial climb, leading to an inadvertent stall and spin. The co-pilot's inadequate preflight and his failure to properly secure the front baggage door were cited as contributing factors that allowed the door to open in flight, likely distracting the pilot.

When we ready an airplane for flight, it's important not to let our attention wander. Idle chatter with passengers and others can cause us to overlook little things during preflight-little things that can become major issues in the air.

Most pilots have, or will, encounter distractions in flight. Annunciators flash. Windows fly open. Doors become unlatched. The key is for the pilot not to become unhinged. Above all, maintain focus and control of the aircraft. Many minor distractions can be located and resolved in the air. Some require a return to the airport. Very few constitute true emergencies-unless we allow them to.

An aviation technical writer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.

By Carl Peterson

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