PARTS GO FLYING ON TAKEOFF
We stowed our carry-ons and settled into seats 52A and 52B in the rear of the Boeing 747. Having made this same trip several times in the past we knew we could smoke if we wanted to. Also the added space of two abreast seating on the left rear of the huge aircraft gave us plenty of room. My partner, who just happens to be my son, Bar, sat next to the window that afforded a clear view of the entire left wing trailing edge to the tip. We were on our way to the island of Malta by way of London. My training contract with Libyan Arab Airlines called for us to train their pilots and mechanics. This wasn’t our first experience with the Libyans. It would be very lucrative provided we showed up in Malta the following day to start the training.
You may wonder WHY we were going to the island nation of Malta to train Libyan flight crews and mechanics rather than to Tripoli. Thanks to the convoluted foreign policies of our bureaucratic government, we didn’t have the lobbyists in Washington, like oil companies and big business, to pay off to get us permission to enter Libya. After all, Ghadaffi and the good old U.S.of A were not exactly the best of friends and our State Department wouldn’t issue us visas. Malta was the compromise. However my son, Bar, and I were always treated very well and had no political agenda either way. We had worked with them a few times before and we were actually part of their organization giving what is called in the aviation industry, “recurrent training.”
My son is probably not the handsomest of my three sons although I am certain there are many young women with broken hearts around the world who might argue the point with me. Actually, he is a good looking guy with piercing brown eyes and a healthy mustache. He is, however, the best aircraft mechanic I have ever known, also the best pilot I have ever known. Why not? I trained him! This is not parental pride taken to extremes. This is a plain fact that many others who know him have told me many times. He has a sort of sixth sense that alerts him to the probability of an impending problem with an aircraft. Maybe he learned from me and my constant preaching that an aviator should always listen to his airplane and a good mechanic will ask her where it hurts then fix it. As far as the problem with the 747 that would shortly almost ruin our day, he couldn’t go out on the wing and fix the problem. He didn’t have his tools with him and the wind outside was blowing pretty hard. He was, perhaps, more aware of unusual things about an aircraft than I was. This is one reason I respected his opinion about aircraft condition. He was good. He sensed that something was going to go wrong as soon as we took off. “I just had a gut feeling, pop,” he said as we walked through the terminal in search of another flight to London, with another airline. “I just knew something was wrong with the flaps while we taxied. We lucked out, huh?” “We sure did,” I replied. “That flight crew sucked and we were lucky to get back in one piece.” This is after the incident with PeopleExpress and their low cost fares.
From the moment the aircraft bumped across the rough taxiway enroute to runway 22L for departure from Newark airport, Bar commented about the way the left hand inboard flap segment and canoe fairing that houses the working parts appeared to flop more than usual. I looked at the trailing edge of the flap and canoe fairing and just casually replied, “probably got a lot of miles on this machine or somebody forgot to put all the parts back.” I was joking. But, he got my attention. I then returned to my book, John Grisham’s “Pelican Brief,” which I intended to use as a relief from the boring flight I had made countless times as aircraft commander of a Boeing going across the pond. It was frowned upon to read as aircraft commander while making crossings. That day on that flight I was a passenger sitting as far back in the huge airplane as I could. So I was going to read during this boring crossing of the Atlantic. As he continued to study the flap he commented, “something doesn’t look right or else I have never noticed it before.” His observation prompted a discussion between us about wing bending during rotation where the real stress changes from one direction to the other through the wing attach points as the aircraft lifts off. The bigger and heavier the aircraft any passenger observing the wings during takeoff could see the wing bend upwards when the aircraft nose rotates up to leave the ground. This is normal. That is provided that parts don’t start coming off. I returned to my book but I knew he was concerned. He wasn’t an alarmist but what he was looking at had his full attention.
During takeoff I bitched about the side to side movement so evident in the rear of a large aircraft when a gentle management of the nose steering and rudder input is not monitored closely. “That’s the problem with simulator ratings and recurrent training,” I continued, “those guys up front don’t have the faintest idea of what goes on in the real world back here unless they sit back here and critique each other. Damn, won’t they ever learn to ease the nose steering while taxiing instead of throwing us from one side to the other back here. Shit, they’re worse than a truck driver on the interstate popping pills while high balling.”
“Not everybody is as fussy as you and takes the time to rotate training crews and teach them the finer points like you do,” he said teasing me. He knew my philosophy about pilot training. He had been with me as my associate instructor all over the world. His eyes were glued to the trailing edge of the flap during the takeoff. The aircraft lifted off and shortly thereafter started a slight left turn to a heading of 190 degrees for the standard departure pattern for that runway. With his nose glued to the window he grabbed my arm to get my attention, “It’s wrong, Pop, that flap is fluttering too much compared to the rest.” I leaned over further to look at what was causing the concern to my son. “It ain’t right. No way,” he said. “Let’s keep our eye on it during flap retraction, “ I said, “we could have a structural problem out there those guys don’t know about and the last thing I want with this bucket is an asymmetric problem during flap retraction.”
With the flaps partially extended to give more lift to the wings during takeoff, the same degree of extension is to apply to all the flaps on both sides of the aircraft. This is called a takeoff flap setting. If a piece of the flap on one side fails it could affect the roll control of the aircraft causing more lift on the side that hadn’t failed. That would be the same as the pilot trying to bank the aircraft. But, in this case, the airplane would try to bank itself requiring the pilot to correct this with opposite control input. If he didn’t know what was causing the problem he could make it worse by playing with the flap control. This could be disastrous. I know. I had experienced a similar structural problem with the flaps on an airplane that almost put me on my back five hundred feet above the ground. That is something that gets your attention. You never forget. You file it away. It’s called “experience.”
During this initial climb phase at a relatively high Theta (deck angle), the rear of the Boeing was vibrating in a vertical plane similar to what could be best described to a helicopter-wise pilot as a vertical one to one caused by a blade being out of track. This was not normal. It almost felt like the Boeing was stalling. Recalling the incident I believe it was caused by flap separation disrupting an otherwise smooth airflow just before all hell broke loose. Sitting in the back of an airplane you get different experiences than when you’re on the flight deck way up front. Ever been on a buckin’ bronc? Hanging onto the horse’s neck is a lot different than bouncing off its rear end.
At approximately fifteen hundred feet and in a climbing right turn to the west to follow the standard departure route the outboard left-hand canoe fairing tore free from the aircraft and tumbled aft taking a chunk of the flap with it. “Shit,” I said, “somebody in Linden is in for a big surprise. Do you think it hit the stabilizer?” I asked as I glanced at my watch to see it showing 1923 local. I wanted a time reference just in case. “I don’t know,” Bar replied. “Let’s check it out fast.” I slipped out of my seat (something you don’t do during takeoff and landing) to face a startled female flight attendant who asked, “something’s wrong, isn’t it?” “Don’t know yet. Let me get a better look out the galley door window,” I told her as I went aft to get a better view. “What flew past just now?” she asked. “Part of the airplane,” I answered. “Do you think the Captain knows?” she asked. “Don’t think so,” was my answer. “But you’re going to tell him,” I said as I quickly jotted down a brief message and asked her to get it to the flight deck. “We can’t communicate with them now, it’s a sterile flight deck. You know you shouldn’t be out of your seat.” “Screw that, honey,” I said as I quickly scribbled on the back of my business card. (NOTE) GUYS. A CHUNK OF WHAT LOOKS LIKE THE LEFT FLAP JUST FLEW BY THE WINDOW BACK HERE. THE CANOE IS GONE. MAYBE IT HIT THE STABILIZER. IF YOU KNOW ABOUT IT SEND THE FE BACK TO INSPECT WHAT WE SEE. (signed) CAPTAIN IKE. BOEING PILOT DEADHEADING SEAT 52A.
A sterile cockpit is what the FAA mandates during certain phases of all flights for takeoff and landing approach wherein only the active flight crew may communicate with each other or air traffic control to minimize distractions that could compromise safety. “Get on the horn and have the senior flight service manager get this information to the flight deck so somebody can get back here and look at what broke. Somebody’s got to see if there is any flap track damage or loose parts out there…now!” I barked to the frightened flight attendant. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I never felt this bumping before and I’m scared.” “I’ll cover for you if there’s any flack for you doing it,” I said. “But we have a major problem so get your ass in gear and get me in touch with the flight deck!” She hesitated for a moment. “Now”, I said loudly. She picked up the phone. I imagined she was doing what I told her to do. But she was only talking to the senior flight attendant, not the flight deck. “Sir,” she asked. “Who are you?” “Read the goddam note,” I said. “I’m a Boeing Captain. I’m deadheading with my son but we both know something is wrong. Get on it” Our immediate goal was to make someone other than the bewildered flight attendant aware that we had a problem. It was at this point I took command. I have the voice to speak with authority and the clout and experience to get attention. It comes from years of experience in the left seat. The“hot”seat.
An excited male flight attendant hurried to the rear of the aircraft and looked out the window to see the flapping metal. He mentioned that he was the senior attendant and I said, “Well, does the flight deck know about this?” “I’ll tell them right now,” he said. I saw him on the phone and imagined he was talking to the flight deck. Who else would he tell this to? This dude probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about so I just said, “something broke off the wing.” What really frosted my ass was that nobody from the flight deck came back. The only thing I heard was the usual bullshit, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain. We’ve had a slight problem on takeoff.” Bet your ass you’ve had a slight problem. Your airplane is coming apart. “We will keep you posted,” he continued. One thing that has always been a concern of mine is the actual experience of the guy up front running the show. Especially with the “new kid” on the block, PeopleExpress. For all I knew this “Captain” could have gotten his 747 rating early this morning without ever having set foot in anything other than a flight simulator. That’s just my opinion but it’s based on one of the things the industry and the FAA do as a regular practice to keep the cost down and rate the pilot in a simulator even if he doesn’t know how to close the door or kick the tires. And, this was PeopleExpress. The star on the horizon leasing aircraft from other failed ventures who probably couldn’t pay the bill. “How did I ever get here?” I thought. I knew they were a low cost operator and cutting costs was the only way they could survive. And that means, all costs, including pilot training and quality food service.
“Bar,” I said to my son. “We ain’t going to London in this piece of shit. I’ll guess the clowns on the flight deck are busy talking to maintenance and they are suggesting a return to Newark.” “That means we’ll have to dump a lot of fuel to get down to landing weight, huh pop?’ he replied. “Yeah,” I said. “But what really bothers me is when we go back to Newark, what kind of an approach are these guys going to make. If they screw with the flaps we could really have a problem. Are they smart enough to make a partial flap landing without killing us?” “Hey, pop,’ he said. “The flaps are still in the takeoff position. Do you think they can figure out the numbers for a partial flap landing?”
An experienced “Captain” would know how to adjust his speed on approach if he couldn’t use normal flap management. But, I didn’t know just how much experience this PeopleExpress guy had. I was concerned. You can bet I was. I knew he had stopped his climb. I could tell from the sound of the engines and looking out the window he leveled off and we were maintaining altitude. I knew he was talking to somebody and acting accordingly. Shortly the “Captain” again spoke over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, the little problem we had during takeoff means we’re going to have to return to Newark. But before we land we’re going to have to dump fuel so we will be circling over the ocean until we get rid of the extra fuel.” I figured we had no option so I just waited for the next move. The NO SMOKING lights came on with an announcement that no smoking would be permitted until the flight was terminated. That makes sense because shortly thereafter I saw the fuel being poured from the dump chutes on the wings. So far, so good. Lighten the aircraft so we can land. At least something is making sense but I was really pissed that nobody from the flight deck ever came back to see what actual damage had been done to the wing and flap. In my tainted past I have had several unusual things happen in flight that required a flight deck crewman view things first person and report back to the flight deck what he saw. In a few cases I turned the flight deck over to the first officer and personally went to see what happened back aft. But, in this case I wondered if anybody would know what they were looking at if they saw it. After all, both Bar and I were not only trained and familiar with the operations of heavy jets, we were both experienced and licensed mechanics with FAA issued A & P (airframe and powerplant) certificates in addition to our pilot certificates and various aircraft ratings. That is WHY Bar spotted the potential problem while we were still on the ground. He had the credentials to make a qualified judgment. My mistake is that I took it too casually when, perhaps, I should have raised all kinds of hell and demanded that the aircraft return to the ramp for a detailed inspection before we departed. After all, I was an FAA designated pilot examiner with a pocket full of licenses that could have made a good defense for my actions had I decided to do it rather than simply think about it afterwards . What’s that about hindsight? If we had our eyes in our ass we would be ahead of the game? Count me in that group. I didn’t raise hell. If I would have they’d probably haul me off in chains and I never would have gotten to Malta to train flight crews.
The reader should not get the impression that I, personally, am attempting to criticize the operating crew of this particular PeopleExpress flight unduly. It’s simply that I have spent too many years of my aviation life in aircraft accident research and investigation. There is a pattern all too familiar we call incompetence or pilot error. Pilots are not Gods. They put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. Who knows how any crew will handle something not in the normal category until they’re faced with a stressful situation and have to act. Usually we never learn about probable causes until we digest the results of a NTSB accident investigation. Again, my experience has taught me that the NTSB is often way off the mark and its report is subject to many levels of “what should we really tell the public?” My suggestion is, “don’t believe everything you read.” The NTSB has given us many facts and often arrives at a reasonable solution to the “probable cause.” But, many times, its conclusions are as simple as, “stroke the ignorant public, they wouldn’t know the difference.” The NTSB also has the advantage of hindsight and we know what they are thinking with.
After about an hour of circling and dumping fuel the Captain announced over the loud speaker that we were returning to Newark and would be landing shortly. He apologized for any inconvenience the delay would cause to the passengers. My only concern was, “get this thing on the ground in one piece.”
Looking out the window I saw that we were coming into Newark from the north. I recognized many of the landmarks. The frightened little flight attendant I had chewed out earlier asked me and my son to relocate at seats further forward by the over wing escape hatches. She said that just in case we had to evacuate quickly we would know what to do. “Do you know something I don’t know?” I asked her. “Did the Captain alert you to the possibility we might have a problem on the landing?” “No,” she replied. “I just thought if we did have a problem you would know what to do to help.” We moved forward and belted in. I figured that we were going to land on either runway 22R or 22L. Both were long enough to handle a Boeing 747 under normal conditions. I knew we were flying too fast on final approach. Maybe the damn runway was beginning to look pretty short to the guy up front. In fact, as we got closer to the ground we were really shagging ass and when the approach end of the runway whizzed past us I had two thoughts. One, we’re too high. Two, we’re too fast. I estimated we floated a third of the distance down the runway before I felt the wheels touch and then heard the thrust reversers roaring in an effort to slow the aircraft. Thank God the brakes were working and I felt the aircraft rapidly slowing. “Shit.” I thought, “is there enough runway left to stop this thing?” We turned off the runway at the very end. There wasn’t any more of it remaining. He used it all! But, we had arrived. Bar and I just laughed as we saw a plane load of passengers who started to clap. “I guess they all saw the movie “AIRPORT,” he said.
We waited until everybody deplaned then we went toward the exit. The Captain was shaking hands with each passenger as they left. I imagined he was apologizing and receiving a “well done” from the clapping audience in return. After all, Hollywood does have a way of influencing people’s reactions to anything that could be life threatening. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, clap? We didn’t. The little flight attendant I had given the note to rushed up the aisle just as we were about to leave the aircraft and told the Captain that I was Captain IKE, the man who wrote the note about the damage he and his son saw. “Captain,” he said, “I appreciated your concern.” “Yeah,” I said. “Too bad you guys up front couldn’t see what happened.” “Well, “ he said, “we sort of knew we had a problem from the way she started to rumble during climb.” “Yup,” I replied. “But you guys didn’t know if anything hit the stabilizer. I did. ” “Well, did it? Did you see any damage to the stabilizer?” he asked excitedly. “Captain,” I said, “why don’t you just go down on the ramp and walk back and take a look for yourself. Have a nice day.”
That was the last time I ever flew on PeopleExpress. They folded shortly after this incident. Perhaps the passengers got tired of clapping. As I left the 747 I walked under the wing to look at the missing flap. I saw a broken flap track and torn metal. Too bad nobody else was interested in what happened while we were still in the air. Don’t you really just get what you pay for? As far as my relationship with my son, I do pay more attention to what he comments about when we are passengers, or I simply put down what I may be reading and listen.