The Wrong Kind of Ditching


Those of us who fly or who are deeply involved in aviation probably don’t think of airplanes as being dangerous of themselves. And they really aren’t. But an incident over the weekend reveals a constant truth: Get careless around aircraft and they can bite badly, if not fatally.Over the weekend, we had our annual airport open house at Venice. It’s a public relations exercise to promote both the airport itself and aviation in general. As part of that event, we park a dozen or so airplanes in a small static display. I had the Cub tied down and I hung around for a while to answer questions and just generally be amiable. (Being basically anti-social, this I do with great difficulty, but I feel compelled to try.)

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About mid-morning, a Canada-registered transient Malibu showed up and shut down on the ramp. Sometime later-I’m not sure how much later, because I’d left the airport to run errands-the Malibu was observed to start up, throttle immediately to high power and dart across the ramp, a taxiway and into a ditch. A person was seen clinging to the wing in an apparent attempt to stop the aircraft. When the airplane hit the ditch-a drainage swale, actually-the nosegear was sheared off and the right main either collapsed or was also sheared off, causing the prop to dig into the turf and stop the engine. And that’s the best thing that could have happened all day.If the ditch hadn’t been there, the airplane would have had a long expanse of open center field, taxiways and runways-more than enough to take off. Or, worse, across the field and in full swing was the annual Italian festival, with rides and food vendors and hundreds of people milling around on a closed taxiway. (You can see it in the distance in the photo.) There’s a short fence between the airport and the taxiway that may or may not have stopped the airplane.If the Malibu had been facing the opposite direction, which transients sometimes do, it would have plowed right into our static display, making yellow confetti of our little J-3. Worse, it could have also mowed down a lot of people not expecting to be chased by a Malibu run amok. Wouldn’t have been too auspicious for our airport day, either.What can we conclude here? The obvious takeaway is so obvious that need I even explain it? Speaking of explaining, I can, in a leap of generosity and self-delusion, allow as how when the pilot pulled the prop through, maybe the switches were off and the problem was really an open p-lead. Just as a refresher, you know that a magneto needs no external voltage and will generate spark if it’s turned. The p-lead simply grounds the primary coil and keeps that from happening. When you switch off the mags, you close the p-lead to ground. If the lead has failed open, the mags are hot even with the switch off. It’s always a good idea to do an occasional p-lead check by killing the engine with the mag switch, not the mixture. As I said, I’m being generous because I can’t make the point without beating up someone who probably made a big mistake.My generosity comes up short in explaining why the Malibu’s throttle was in or near the full-open position. A couple of my colleagues tell me they know what full throttle sounds like and they heard full throttle. Moral: Don’t turn a prop manually unless you expect and are prepared for the engine to start. And as far as the throttle…well, you know.In sweeping accident reports, I read a couple of incidents every year in which an airplane being propped gets away from the propper. These usually bash into hangars, other airplanes or cars, but occasionally one gets airborne for a little non-autonomous random drone flying. I think of these every time I prop the Cub on my own, which is basically every time I fly it. Saturday’s incident reminded me that I’ve been meaning to make a tail tiedown safety rope for the Cub and I’ve got that done. Given the way I prop, it’s belt and suspenders. But better that than having my figurative pants around my ankles chasing a taildragger down the ramp and wondering what the hell went wrong.