Gear Up: A Guide to Bonehead Moves

Dick's tales of misadventure and aircraft predicaments.

Dick Karl

Dick Karl

** Safely out of the Cessna P210, standing
around trying to look cool.**

(September 2011) My wife and I had just purchased a new (20-year-old) Cheyenne and it was tucked away in the hangar at KTPA in Tampa for the night. I could not stay away. One night after dinner I drove out to look at the airplane; I just wanted to sit in it and turn on the lights and avionics.

The FBO was quiet. I let myself out to the hangar, which has several bays. We were in the bay farthest from the front desk. I did not see any linemen. I put the key in the door lock and watched with enormous self-satisfaction as the airstair descended with that comforting whoosh. I fumbled for the interior light switch that can be activated from the door and turned off in the cockpit. Beyond convenient. The steps illuminated with a gorgeous array of recessed lights. This elegant touch was missing from my previous airplanes.

I climbed in, closed and locked the very impressive door handle — we’d be in the flight levels with this airplane and the door is designed to withstand 5.5 pounds of pressure per square inch, a number with which I was only slightly familiar. Seated in the left seat, I turned on the strobe, recognition, taxi and landing lights. I turned on the avionics and lit up the panel with the post lights. This was before I knew how much a new battery cost.

After a while, there was nothing else to do but get out, lock up and go home. I slid back to the door and pulled the locking pin. Only I couldn’t move the handle to the open position. After several attempts I began to wonder about how many foot-pounds of pressure I should really apply. If I broke the handle, this was now my airplane with my maintenance bill. On the other hand, I did have to go to work in the morning and I didn’t have a cell phone with me. Where were those line guys?

Back in the office eating the food that came off that Challenger?

I spotted a tug zooming right to left. I stuck my hand out the little port window and waved. It kept going. Soon another lineman came in and turned off the hangar lights I had turned on. I did not think to signal him with the landing lights. I just sat there and hollered. Finally, Chester came over, laughing. He let me out. It turns out that if you leave the key in the door it obstructs the exterior part of the handle.

This isn’t the only time that I got stuck in the Cheyenne. I can tell you that if you leave a humid airport (KCLT, Charlotte, North Carolina) and climb to Flight Level 250 in the winter and land in KLEB (Lebanon, New Hampshire) at night and taxi to a remote part of the field, you will find the door frozen shut if the wrong kind of sealant is applied to the door seal. But that’s another story.

Door keys had fooled me before. When we got a new (15-year-old) Cessna 340, my wife and I decided it would be a good thing to have the interior redone at a shop in central Florida. The work turned out not to be very durable, but I didn’t know that when I showed up to pick it up and fly it home. The clamshell door was open when I arrived, and after the owner proudly showed off his work, I climbed in and closed up. When I started the number one engine, I heard a faint ticking sound — like you might hear the clicking of the valves of a ’64 Pontiac. I applied power and it seemed to go away. Eager to get home, I started number two. Once airborne, though, I was sure I could hear some ticking. I diverted to our maintenance base at the world-famous Aircraft Engineering in Bartow, Florida. Bill Turley met me. I flung open the door and explained the noise. He took off the left cowling and we ran the engine. Naturally, the ticking sound was gone. Bill surveyed all parts of the airframe. He found nothing. Reassured that nothing serious was wrong, I headed back to Tampa.

There was that noise again. I landed, got out and closed the clamshell doors from the outside only to discover that the shop owner had left the door key and attendant key chain and other keys in the door lock. They had fluttered in the slipstream, scratching the paint. With the door open, you couldn’t see them from the outside.

Then there was the time when I was very young and very stupid. I had just bought my first airplane, a Beechcraft Musketeer. Then based at a small airport in a hollow outside of St. Louis, I was up one day for a joy ride. True, I wasn’t sure about the magneto check before departure. The rpm drop was not that much but the engine sounded rough. No matter, I was young, invincible and intractably dumb. While sightseeing over the city of St. Louis at 1,500 feet agl, I decided to check the mags again. What could possibly happen? Well, some serious silence, that’s what. The elapsed time it took me to turn the key back to “both” had to be measured with special equipment.

My next airplane, an Arrow, gave me a chance to demonstrate some amazing aeronautical decision-making at a young age. While flying from St. Louis to Kansas City, Kansas, to buy some Coors beer, a delicacy not then available in the east, I noticed that there was a river of oil approaching the windshield from somewhere up front. The cowling was adorned with a chevron of the stuff, and soon it crept up the windshield. Luckily I had a 1-year-old daughter in the back in a car seat and an old, dear friend in the right seat. At least I would not die alone.

With a voice now several octaves above normal, and forgetting all about the Chuck Yeager cool, calm convention, I told Kansas City Center I was about to die in a fiery crash. They suggested I put down in Jefferson City, Missouri, a thought that somehow had escaped me. When we landed, I was so excited I shut down right on the runway. Why? Fearful of slipping? The FBO guys were nice and the tower forgiving. This time I got the door open with remarkable alacrity. As my friend, Peter, observed, the airplane looked like it had been deep-fried. I was too nervous to laugh, but the rent-a-car ride back to St. Louis was comforting.

When I got a Cessna P210, I found my first door troubles. Now that I was high and pressurized, a concept lost on most of my passengers, who thought this magnificent machine looked just like a 152 to them, I was dealing with a serious door and my first “escape hatch.” As opposed to the regular 210, from which I had graduated, the P model had a very solid door on the pilot’s side, but only a window hatch on the copilot side. Though this could be opened for ventilation, I always viewed such a maneuver as a signal that I couldn’t afford air conditioning, and I thus kept it closed for appearances while taxiing.

On a fine winter day I landed at West Palm Beach, Florida, with all this narcissism on flagrant display. I taxied up to the FBO like I was in a Gulfstream, all the while bragging about the pressurization and the radar, which I barely knew how to turn on. As the fancy linemen and their luggage cart trundled out to greet the high rollers I had with me, I sought to open that great big door and broke the handle off in my hand. Seeing the delay, the linemen lost interest and ran to greet a Learjet, where a clearly bigger tip lay in store. Trapped inside, the Florida heat began to make it clear that the hatch was the best way out. After rearranging my passengers in a most inelegant way, I tried to hoist myself out of the hatch, only to find it more difficult than anticipated. Because I intended to maintain some self-respect and because the airplane was not on fire, the disembarkation process took on a certain lengthy Laurel-and-Hardy look. It all came to its denouement when a lineman tapped me on my protruding butt and suggested he open the door from the outside. I yelled between my legs my approval of this brilliant plan, extricated myself and walked sheepishly into the FBO.