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Training and Safety Tip: Ventilation by surprise

Not to worry, there’s no hurry to close that door

An aircraft door or window popping open in flight can be shocking and surprising, but it is usually not as big a deal as the movies and popular media would like you to believe.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

The sound of an aircraft’s door or window popping open is certainly startling, and that alone can make pilots overreact with sometimes unfortunate results. The real danger from an open aircraft window or door is a pilot panicking and performing an unnecessary high-speed aborted takeoff.

This breezy and noisy event usually happens during takeoff, or on initial climbout when a pilot’s workload is at its busiest, and the accompanying racket can be dramatic and loud. When this happens to you, the important initial action item you must remember is to fly the airplane normally and continue to climb until you are clear of altitude and airspace concerns and can afford to spend some time and attention on the unplanned ventilation.

If you're flying with another pilot or otherwise-capable companion, it may be possible to close the door in flight with a little aerodynamic assistance that you can muster by opening the opposite window or vent. At flying speed, the door may be impossible to close, even with that help, in which case you may opt to return to the airport, make a normal landing, and close the door. There's no rush, because everyone is wearing a seat belt, and the forces that make the door difficult to close in flight are not going to pull a person out of the airplane at low altitude.

If the door or window opens when you are at a very slow speed—such as at the beginning of your takeoff roll—you can abort the takeoff, clear the runway, and close the door.

It's worth noting that this discussion of open-door policy for pilots applies strictly to nonpressurized aircraft, which includes virtually all training aircraft. Recent events have demonstrated that a door opening at high altitude in a pressurized aircraft can become a real emergency, but let's stick to trainers: In some training aircraft, it may be possible to close a door that opens in cruise flight, or when you are in the practice area.

  • If you're alone, it's not worth the distraction to attempt closing the door in flight. Just land. But if you're flying with another pilot or a frequent flying companion in the right seat, you could try to have them close the door as you open the opposite window (or vent if you have one). If they succeed in closing the door, resume normal flight.
  • If you can’t close the offending door or window and you are in VFR conditions, simply return to the airport and land.
  • If for some reason that is not possible right away—for example, because you are flying in instrument meteorological conditions—continue flying to your destination and live with the noise, or divert and land.

Are you flying a bigger, faster airplane? No worries. During my airline career, cockpit windows popped open a few times during takeoff, and we successfully got them shut and sealed without fuss or drama.

Remember, you may freak out a little bit if your airplane adopts an unexpected open-door policy, but it is usually not a big deal. There is no reason to rush—it is rushing that can cause an accident.

Kevin Garrison
Kevin Garrison is a retired 777 captain with more than 22,000 accident-free hours flown. He has been a flight instructor for more than 45 years and holds an airline transport pilot certificate, along with a commercial certificate with land and seaplane ratings, and a flight instructor certificate. He has been an airline pilot examiner and is rated on the Boeing 727, 757, 767, 777, DC-9, and MD-88. Kevin has over 5,000 general aviation hours that include everything from banner towing to flying night cargo in Twin Beeches.
Topics: Flight School, Training and Safety, Student
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