A Good FOD Walk Spoiled


Occasionally an aviation event jumps up to bite the oblivious pilot on the buttocks without warning. For example—and stop me if you’ve heard this—a seemingly healthy pilot of advancing age (you decide) walks into a medical office for a flight physical only to encounter the dreaded AME phrase, “Hmmm …” Felt upbeat entering the exam room, but now the FAA’s aeromedical viper slithers off its caduceus to sting the hapless applicant. Ahead lie annoying and expensive tests with potential for denial.

Now consider the unknown dangers in flight unrelated to aeromedical bureaucracy. Pilots anticipate threats, which are legion and mutate faster than COVID rumors. Crosswinds, airframe icing, or equipment malfunctions are examples of known unknowns. We know they exist and train to mitigate them but don’t know exactly when they’ll appear. We can anticipate wind shear on short final from the approaching derecho but can’t know its effects until skittering off the runway into the puckerbrush. I recently watched a pilot try his darndest to land a Cessna 172 with a 10-knot tailwind onto our 2200-foot runway. Had to admire his pluck as he floated with full flaps and excessive groundspeed while holding altitude slightly above the surface. Before embarrassment could turn silly, he wisely added power and went around. Blush. Still embarrassing, but his subsequent approach into the wind saved him from the NTSB funny papers. In fairness, I’ve entertained spectators more than once with creative variations on this theme.

Four years ago, when I brought my new Citabria home, I taxied over familiar ground toward my hangar and directly across a runway light that someone had thoughtlessly placed in my path 37 years earlier. No serious damage other than to my CFI ego, but the tiny scrape beneath the stabilizer, although easily repaired, still haunts me. It was a bite I should’ve seen coming, but pride of new ownership had me concentrating on how cool I thought I looked, until I played the fool. Luckily, we learn from our mistakes. Right?

Hmmm …

More recently, I met with a friend to fly the Citabria. An experienced pilot who loves the airplane, she arrived early to complete the preflight inspection. The airplane appeared set to roll from the hangar … as soon as I explained why there was a jagged hole in the stabilizer. Not a huge aperture (see photo), but one big enough to require that I deposit several dollars into the hangar’s swearword jar.

The damage was a puzzler. I’m guessing it occurred on the most recent landing, and even though we clean leading edges during postflight, it’s easy to ignore the airplane’s soft underbelly. Although we check the underside on preflight for integrity of flying wires or elevator, the stabilizer gets overlooked because it’s, you know, stable, boring. Frankly, even if she hadn’t spotted the damage, I doubt it would’ve affected safety. If miles from home, a field repair with FAA-approved duct tape gets you to a shop for a more attractive repair.

Seriously? You don’t think tailwheel pilots carry duct tape?

Hmmm …

Since the airplane’s annual would expire at the end of the month we decided to start the process sooner and pull the tail feathers, which we’d planned to do anyhow to check for corrosion. Fabric repair is easier with the item off the airframe. Yeah, I’m spinning things here with happy-face positivity, or as my fifth-grade teacher at St. Anthony’s Elementary told us, “When life gives you lemons, make lemon daiquiris.”

None of this explains what bit me on the empennage. Incoming ground fire? It is deer hunting season in Iowa. Maybe a rock kicked up on takeoff or landing? Neither seems credible since there was no exit wound, no damage to the leading edge or even a scrape prior to the hole. Plus, there was no projectile inside the stabilizer, no magic bullet like Oliver Stone discovered had killed JFK in Ford’s Theatre. Something sinister and easily disguised was the culprit.

The clues: A harvested cornfield borders the runway. Each fall, when a combine picks kernels and shucks out debris, the lighter bits drift across the airport, spreading litter but few aeronautical hazards. Severed corn stalks are tough and might’ve punctured the fabric. Plausible, but I didn’t like it. Something stank, and it wasn’t just from the manure spreader upwind. Our investigative team set out for a FOD walk.

Air Force vets know the drill of walking the base ramps searching for potentially destructive FOD (Foreign Object Debris). In the Army we had police call, which harvested cigarette butts. When I worked at a California airport, each morning we’d drive the runways picking up an amazing amount of junk that falls from aircraft, mostly inspection plates and the occasional oil dipstick. Dipstickless pilots usually don’t go too far before turning back to clean oil off the windshield. The FAA’s AC 150/5210-24 offers more on FOD management and makes for a wonderful last-minute holiday gift.

Near the approach end of Runway 18, we discovered a scattering of sticks, most small but one stout enough to put Polyphemus’ cycloptic eye out. This punji, unseen to the pilot, somehow jumped from its hiding place amid the corn debris, shot straight up to puncture the fabric, then quickly returned to earth, there to attack again. Any clunk would’ve been masked amid the rumble of landing a taildragger on lumpy sod. This is all conjecture. We may never know how many other sticks were in this cabal, plotting against unsuspecting pilots.

A mechanic is patching the stabilizer, and despite no damage beneath the skin, I’ve FedEx’d evidence to the FAA’s Forensic Lab in Norman, Oklahoma, for DNA analysis. A paranoid conspiracy scenario? Perhaps, but these are paranoid times, so until the boys in the lab release definitive results, this most recent bite to my aviation butt remains a mystery on par with Amelia Earhart’s role in the Lindbergh kidnapping. Threats are everywhere so check your belly before and after flight.

Hmmm …?

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  1. One instructor I had suggested that on final compare the airspeed with the groundspeed, now that we all have GPS. If the former ain’t greater than the later, you’re going to be landing LONG.
    One day landing at King Island, Tasmania, I was surprised to find a 25kt westerly above 1000′, with a 15kt easterly below. If my friends landing the same day on a different, small grass airstrip without a windsock had used this simple technique one of them might still be alive and the other might still be flying.

    • I have a grass runway that has a 2% slope. This cross check method is how I determine the landing direction. Greater than 10 kt difference, I land downhill with headwind.

    • Just do it early enough to succeed, unlike a few airliner pilots.
      And don’t flipflop – more than one crash resulted from reversing decision thus eating up runway, albeit sometimes that saved the crew (i.e. recognized bad initial decision and had runway remaining or performance/clearway to go around successfully). I presume crews brief the approach and landing before so they clearly understand what they will do).

      Veering off, I remember how a French airline successfully operated to very low minima in the Caravelle. One pilot’s job was to fly the airplane on instruments to decision height then do missed approach. Unless the other pilot with eyes out the window clearly stated s/he was taking over to land.

  2. Many moons ago, my airplane partner and I departed from a turf strip in our Pitts S-2B for a little acro practice. The plane, which usually flew straight as an arrow, had a slight but noticeable yaw throughout the flight.

    After landing I was taxiing the plane from the grass onto a paved surface when I happened to look down and saw something caught on a gear leg. I shut down the engine, hopped out, and saw it was a long (maybe 20ft?) piece of thick baling wire! We balled it up and gave it to the airport manager. Miraculously, the paint wasn’t even scratched.

  3. Paul, as always, highly entertaining although I have yet to see one of these missives include references to Mother Theresa, the theory of relativity, root canals or a justification for fruitcake. I’m sure it’s coming though!

    Let us know the results of the DNA analysis:-)!

    • Since you asked, Marc: My grandmother (Theresa Savino Tos-Berge; God rest her soul), had a relative, Uncle Arthur Azzetti, who was a dentist in Claxton, GA. Together in 1910, they theorized that if Terry produced holiday cakes chock full o’ stale nuts and other inedibles, Uncle Arthur (a step uncle, once removed by court order) would make a fortune on emergency post-holiday root canals as curious patients finding the untouched fruitcake in the ice box, would muse, “How bad could this actually be?” before biting in. Now you know the rest of the story….
      As for the DNA results, turns out my Bellanca Citabria, GiGi, is distantly related to my Aeronca Champ, Quinta. Something unnatural going on there, so we’re dropping the investigation.

      • Paul, totally plausible; family trees (both human and aircraft) can “branch” off in many directions!

        Happy 2022!

  4. Thanks for the entire article, it was refreshing. I was in a Jeep once that got a stick stuck into its oil pan so I can relate to how nasty they are sometimes. A fresh set of eyes plus an open set of ears is the antidote to what ought to be recognized as another hazardous attitude starting with C. Now let me get back to failing to walk the walk. The point about GPS speed is huge and deserves to be in the PHAK and/or AFH as a best practice IMHO, with some caveat about density altitude resembling tailwind, which it kind of does for better or worse depending on the context.

  5. You don’t have to land to get a hole in your horizontal stab. We have a bullet hole (now patched) in the left side of our 172. Entered from the the bottom, then nicked the leading edge of the vertical fin.

  6. Paul’s comment about playing the fool made me smile.

    Many years ago during a surprisingly pleasant afternoon, I was invited to fly a friend’s Ercoupe. I was fond of Ercoupes, their pleasant demeaner, the wonderful visibility, and the freedom of open cockpit flying, and wasted little time in pulling it out of the hangar and giving it a quick preflight. Within minutes, the Ercoupe was taxying across the grass, which wasn’t altogether smooth.

    Suddenly, a gorgeous German Shepherd charged the Ercoupe from a small crowd, barking, and stopping a safe distance in front of the taxying Ercoupe. I swerved around him. He followed, dashed ahead and came to a stop again in front of the Ercoupe. I started to get irritated, and hurried the Ercoupe across the rough grass to escape his chase, but again the beautiful animal blocked me.

    I looked to the left at the small crowd, which seemed to be excited, waving their arms and jumping up and down, as if to warn me of the presence of the dog. I dodged the Shepherd one last time, but he caught me, now directly in front of the worried crowd. Exasperated. I shut the Ercoupe down, unbuckled, stood up in the seat and announced that I was not going to runover their beautiful dog and asked, loudly, would someone please restrain the Shepherd.

    Finally, an elderly man spoke up. “Son, we are not worried about the dog. He was only trying to tell you that you left your tow bar hooked up to the nosewheel.”

      Second, I have a GSD.
      Third, She’s the smartest dog I’ve ever had, bar none. She also likes to be justly acknowledged when she saves the day. 🙂
      Fourth, YOU too deserve some credit. It only took GSD FIVE attempts for you to figure out he (Did you confirm the GSD was a “he”?) needed you to pay attention.

      Kudos, great story. I plan to use it when I talk to pilots about FOD, towbars, control locks, control checks, pre-flights, and other stuff I’ve learned the hard way must be in my attention scan. 🙂 🙂 and Thanks!

  7. A good example of trying to make the article the story. Could have contained 80% less unhinged glibness and still been quite entertaining. And an easier read. Cheers!

    • Rick if you prefer inartful, boring attempts at concision there is plenty of that here and elsewhere in the aviation press. The article being the story is exactly the point in reading Paul, salve for the soul if you will.

  8. Duct tape? Gee, Paul, time to update the back seat stash. Gorilla tape is far stickier and stronger than duct tape. NASCAR uses it at over 200 mph!
    Glad the damage was minor and you found the probable cause.

  9. A company called Shurtape makes a product called Cargo Pit Tape that is hard to get off and stands up to sun and weather for at least a year.