A Bump in the Wrong Place

We all have those experiences as pilots that leave us with marks for life. Whether they are mistakes that caused us to damage our planes, or just mistakes that scared the daylights out of us, these experiences remind pilots of why they need to be cautious when flying — and even when on the ground.

In this case, our pilot had just flown off to an engine facility to have his engine checked out. Despite hours of troubleshooting, the engine continued to leak oil from the back of the accessory case, and the leak was becoming a concern. The pilot correctly decided to bring his plane into a reputable engine shop, which provided a pilot to fly back in the plane with him to his home field, to drop him off.

IT WAS A BUSY DAY AT THE AIRPORT — As the plane touched down, no less than 4 other planes were moving about the airport. This was a smaller airport, in that it had two runways, but no significant taxiways. Everyone was converging on the same area — the main apron — where the planes would be fueled or pushed into storage. That convergence of planes was not enough to cause a problem in and of itself, but when you add in a little bad judgment, things started to spiral out of control quickly.

That was all it took to turn a quiet afternoon into bedlam on the airport. When the pilot landed, he taxied back to the hangar. His intent was simple: he was going to shut down the plane, and let the ferry pilot start it back up and fly it back to the engine shop. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, the ferry pilot had something else in mind… and things got complicated.

Don’t shut down the engine,’ the ferry pilot told the pilot in the left seat. ‘Slide over, and I’ll take the left seat, and you can get out.‘ The complication here was that there wasn’t a lot of room to move around. Plus, the power quadrant was between the two pilots, directly in the way of the left seat pilot who, in this case, had to leave by the only door — which was on the right side of the plane.

I’d rather shut it down,’ the left seat pilot said. The ferry pilot disagreed. ‘If you shut it down, I’ll have to hot start it, and I’d rather not try to do that since it can be hard to do.’ The left seat pilot pondered what to do, and then made the wrong decision — he decided to try what the ferry pilot had suggested. He reduced the power to the minimum stop, and started to move.

As the left seat pilot started to scoot to the right, he crossed his legs to help leverage himself over the ferry pilot in the right seat. As he started to move, his knee contacted the throttle, and bumped the button on the vernier. The engine roared up to around 50% power with that little bump, and the plane lurched forward.

FORWARD, in this case, was directly towards a running Cessna 182, which was at a 90-degree angle and 60 feet away. The left seat pilot’s legs were still crossed up, as he struggled to get back into the left seat to get access to the brake pedals on the plane. He also started grabbing controls, first the throttle, then the mixture and the prop controls, pulling them all full aft to shut down the engine.

FINALLY, our pilot made it back into the left seat, and stood on the brakes. The total distance that the plane moved measured some 15 feet, and the total trip was around 8 seconds, but they were 8 of the longest seconds in the pilot’s life. The airport operator, who was present for the whole event, nearly had a heart attack from the sudden runup of the plane, watching it lurch forward towards the other planes on the apron.

Had our pilot not been able to get back into control, he could have slammed into the other airplane, potentially killing the occupants. He could have careened off into a field, causing substantial damage to the airplane. He could have swerved to one side and have come into contact with a hangar full of planes… but he didn’t. He got lucky, shut the plane down, and regained control.

When the airplane is running, don’t leave the controls unattended. If this plane had been a Cessna, or some other brand, with doors on each side, this may have been a safe operation. However, having to jump over the other pilot, and make his way out of the plane was a clear mistake, because it left the brakes unattended. All it took was a bump of the throttle, and everyone got an extremely unpleasant surprise.

Listen to that voice in your head that says ‘no.’ Our pilot admitted that he heard that voice, but deferred to the greater experience of the ferry pilot. Had he listened to that voice — and done what was right for him — he would have shut down the plane and avoided this whole nightmare.

BOTTOM LINE: Planes need attention — in the air AND on the ground. A moving plane that is not under control is dangerous, no matter where it is. Make sure that you do what is necessary to keep your plane under control. When you are in control, make sure you do what you’re comfortable with and don’t allow any outside influences to change your position.