Unusual Attitudes: When “Signed Off” Doesn’t Mean “Safe”

Ercoupes magically solve the coordination problem —
all it takes is faith.

The service was at a Presbyterian church in a small town east of Cincinnati — about a 30-minute flight in the Cessna 180. I had planned to fly there and commandeer the airport's retired police car, but my airplane wouldn't start. When I jumped in and "cranked," it wouldn't fire — odd, because it was fresh out of an annual and always lights right off. So I drove across the ramp, asked the guys at a shop to check it out, and got on the road for the two-hour drive to Hillsboro, Ohio.

Sue Soderstrom had been killed in the crash of her Beech 18 just after takeoff from a small airport in the sparsely populated farm country of south central Ohio. She took off from Fayette County Airport for a scheduled package pickup at the nearby Wilmington, Ohio, mega airfreight facility. I'd been giving Sue and her pilots Part 135 check rides in that Twin Beech ever since she'd relocated her freight business from Wisconsin to Ohio. A licensed mechanic and ATP with 23,000 hours, she'd logged 17,000 flying night freight around the Great Lakes in all kinds of weather in the Twin Beech. This lady was no amateur.

I wasn't at the funeral in any official capacity but had taken leave because I thought somebody from the FAA should be there for the family. And I certainly had no inside information or answers about what had happened. The inspectors who responded to the accident said that finding a definitive cause was unlikely because of the devastating post-crash fire. It was in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board now.

In a takeoff accident involving a twin you immediately suspect "engine failure with loss of control below VMC," but Sue's airplane had impacted a tree directly in line with and about a half-mile off the end of the runway. It wasn't rolling or turning when it hit, and from what remained of the engines and props, investigators believed both were making power on impact.

But there was a significant clue. Sue and a couple of helpers had replaced a frayed elevator trim cable just before she'd departed that night. They told investigators that after installing the new cable Sue had rolled the trim wheel in the cockpit full forward ("nose down") and gotten out to visually check the position of the trim tab on the horizontal stabilizer. Then she'd gotten back in the cockpit, rolled the trim full aft, and climbed out again to check the tab's position on the tail. Satisfied, she buttoned everything up and launched into the black night.

The NTSB's eventual finding of probable cause was "an undetermined event" with "night light" a factor. I'm pretty sure it was the pilot's inability to recognize and compensate for unusual elevator pressures caused by a trim cable that had been installed backward.

Maybe Sue was tired, and she was undoubtedly anxious to finish the job in time for the pickup at ILN. This meticulous, experienced, skilled professional was also human, and when she visually checked the tab position after rolling the trim both ways, I think she "saw" what she wanted and expected to see.

But would an experienced pilot allow an elevator trim anomaly to fool her to that extent? Couldn't she simply overpower the increasingly heavy pitch forces and climb instead of flying the airplane into the ground?

I was in the jumpseat of a DC-3 years before during a test hop after some heavy-duty maintenance. I knew nothing about DC-3s in those days, but I remember my husband rolling the elevator trim wheel back on takeoff to lighten the stick forces (not, I'd later learn, a great idea). The copilot called VMC and gave the hand signal for V1/V2/VR but we didn't rotate, and Ebby finally closed the throttles, aborting the takeoff. Instead of getting lighter as he trimmed, the nose got heavier; it didn't want to "unglue" because, it turned out, the elevator trim had been installed backward. This was in broad daylight with both engines making takeoff power on a wide, long runway with two pilots. But something felt very wrong, and Ebby abandoned the takeoff while there was runway left.

The Beech 18 was a single pilot operation, late at night with a pilot anxious to get in the air, taking off into a black night with no outside visual references. Something wasn't right — stick forces were wrong. Did she look down and around inside for some clue and, in her concern and confusion, allow the airplane to descend into the terrain?

That's my take and maybe I'm wrong — but I don't think so.

Recently a highly experienced pilot friend neglected to check the trim settings in a King Air before a test flight after maintenance. The airplane yawed badly to the left after liftoff, and wrongly assuming he had an engine failure, he came back around and landed. But on touchdown it veered violently off the runway, plowing through a ditch and ending up

so badly damaged it was totaled.

Investigators found both engines were operating but the rudder trim was set all the way to the left stop.

I picked up the 180 once after an annual inspection done by a friend — himself a pilot, an outstanding mechanic and true craftsman whom I'd trust with my life. Since it was the first flight and my sister Mary was with me, I actually used a checklist — something I tend to "abbreviate" since I'm the only human being who's flown this airplane in 22 years. Everything checked OK — the mags, carb heat, prop, fuel selector, ­vacuum and ammeter gauges, and engine instruments. I set one notch of flaps and "wiggled" the controls.

When I began the takeoff something about the rudder just didn't feel right. So I pulled the power and taxied back for another try but got the same odd response — or lack of. I nearly just pulled it into the air, but something — I wish I could claim good sense but more likely it was a smack upside the head from that guardian angel — made me reject the takeoff and head back to the hangar.

"Something's screwy with the rudder pedals," I said, and my friend worked himself upside down under the instrument panel. He emerged with a very large, black flashlight — invisible from the seat but wedged up and behind the left rudder pedal — which he'd been using for work behind the panel. Thankfully I hadn't "pulled it into the air"; the takeoff may have worked but the landing would have been interesting.

This guy is a meticulous pro, but he's human. And the fault here was mine for doing a half-baked before-takeoff check. "Wiggling" the controls is certainly no assurance that you have full, free and correct movement of all the "flippers."

Willis Stuckey, a mechanic at the long-gone Cincinnati Aircraft operation, had a story about somebody rigging the controls on an Ercoupe backward. In this no-rudder-pedal airplane, turning the "steering wheel" magically links rudder and aileron deflection. Willis said the pilot got it off the ground but had to fly around for a while, teaching himself to fly "backward" before attempting to land.

So recently I asked Kurt Yearout, a friend and Intercontinental Ercoupe guru, if this could happen. He said you couldn't "reverse rig" the entire aileron and rudder linkage but he had seen an Ercoupe with the rudder part hooked up backward. When the wheel was turned left, the left aileron properly went up but the rudder on the split tail was deflected to the right. The new owners flew it that way since, despite much yawing and wallowing, there was enough aileron authority to bank and turn.

An FAA survey of maintenance-related accidents showed that, while most were related to faulty power plant installations, flight control installation errors were more likely to result in an injury or death.

Given the "human factor" (did I actually say that?) I guess we need to treat an airplane fresh out of maintenance as a dangerous piece of machinery and do a really critical preflight. If everything's OK, consider it a nice surprise — like a Valentine from an unknown admirer. And a corporate pilot friend tells me he never brings an airplane back from maintenance at night or in IFR conditions.

I got back to Lunken that day after Sue's funeral and the shop was still open.

"We fixed it," Cowboy said.

"So what was wrong?"

"It won't start unless you turn the fuel selector on."

Yeah, the selector had been turned to "off." … Who needs a checklist?

Get exclusive content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter