UnCommanded (and Unexpected) Flight

When I heard this story, I couldn’t believe it. It concerned the owner of a nice Cessna 172, who had a bad case of get-home-itus, and the sad story of how his pride and joy managed to take off without him. If you think you know how this one happened, read on, for it is truly an odd convergence of winds, wings, and really bad luck!

IT WAS A WINDY, WINDY DAY. We aren’t talking about gusts to 15 knots here, we’re talking gusts to 30 or 40 knots on the ground. Those are blistering wind speeds, and depending on the configuration and the plane, they may be above the stall speeds of some wings.

Still, we are getting ahead of the story. In this case, our intrepid pilot was on the way home from a visit to friends, some distance away. He really wanted to get home, and despite the forecast for winds that could only be described as abusive, he elected to load up the plane, and fly home.

THE TAILWINDS WERE GREAT, and he and his passengers made it to their home airport in great time. The headwinds were also a help on landing, as they weren’t too far off the runway heading. This allowed our pilot to make a reasonable landing, and begin the long process of taxiing back to his hangar, to put away his airplane.

THINGS GOT HAIRY ON THE TAXIWAY, with the plane pitching up, and trying to fly. No matter how slowly the pilot taxied the plane, it was jumping around. Rather than continue on, he stopped the engine of the plane, and decided to push it to the hangar. THIS TURNED OUT TO BE A REALLY BAD DECISION.

Our pilot and his passengers climbed out of the plane, and started to push it towards the bank of hangars in which it would be stored. The winds were howling right over the tops of the hangars and as our pilot and his crew pushed the plane towards the hangars, it suddenly lifted off the ground. At around 20 feet, it flipped, and came down on its back with a crash!

BOOM as it landed — without passengers or a pilot — on the top of the wings, inverted. The pilot and his crew got lucky, the winds pushed the plane backwards even as it twisted, so they didn’t get squashed when it came down from its unexpected flight. The plane wasn’t so lucky, and experienced severe damage to the wings and horizontal stabilizer.

WHAT HAPPENED???? Our pilot was pushing the plane towards the hangar. Look at the facts: it was light on fuel, and had no passengers. That made flight possible. But the real error was when our pilot brought the plane closer to the hangars — vortexes downstream of the hangar, were coming over like mountain winds. The only thing missing was the standing lenticular cloud. As the plane pushed into the vortex, the vortex had sufficient force and wind velocity to cause the plane to fly.

Once in the air, nature took over. Gravity sucks, and started to pull on the plane. The plane also went backwards, increased angle of attack and slipped out of the vortex. A wing then dipped or likely stalled. Flip, CRASH! The plane was inverted on the ground!

DON’T MAKE THIS MISTAKE. First off, if the winds at your destination are ANYWHERE near the stall speed of your plane, ask yourself the question of how bad you really need to get there.

If you really, really need to get there, rent a car.

IF YOU MAKE IT THERE AND LAND, remember you don’t have to hangar your plane right away. Inside Information: Most hangar doors aren’t rated to open against winds above 30 knots anyway, and if you open it under high wind conditions, the door may get torn off. Depending on where your plane happens to be when the door lands, another disaster can happen. Thus, if there are tiedowns available, USE THEM UNTIL THE WINDS DIE DOWN.

DON’T FORGET YOUR PILOT TRAINING. Use your ailerons and elevators to maintain the non-flight status of your airplane as described in your POH. Quartering the winds with your controls will keep your airplane where it belongs — on the ground.

BOTTOM LINE: As the pilot in command, it is up to you to keep your plane from flying when it is not supposed to. Consider the expensive lesson that our friend here learned, and think about what you can do to avoid it. With a little thought, you will avoid having a chance to see your plane flying without a pilot!