Welcome back to the fourth installment of one of my ‘lessons learned’ stories from personal flying experiences over the years that highlight aviation safety. This story reinforces that age-old aviation adage: “Just Fly the Plane!”

Shawn Arena

A Breakfast Trip to Northern Arizona

This story occurs circa 1996-97. I was working as the Noise Abatement Officer at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) and one of my co-workers named Doug (an IT Specialist at PHX) wanted to take a trip to Prescott, AZ (PRC) for a Saturday breakfast at the airport café. At that time, I was renting aircraft from Chandler Municipal Airport (CHD) which is located about 30 miles southeast of PHX. On the appointed day, Doug met me at CHD and off we went in our Cessna 172 to enjoy our breakfast at PRC. Now Prescott Airport (officially named Ernest A. Love Field), was (and still is) a busy facility – not only because of fly-ins like us on the weekend but PRC is the western U.S. location for a popular school’s resident campus, so the pattern is filled with “Echo Romeo” call signs from students transitioning the local airspace. The airport café (which I recommend to any pilot looking for a great meal) is decorated with all sizes of historic and current aircraft hanging from the ceiling – what else can a hungry aviator ask for! Needless to say, we enjoyed the food and scenery, and then it was time to return to CHD.

“What’s That Noise?”

Similar to many airports throughout the country, PRC has noise abatement procedures that aircraft are to follow immediately after departure (as my job title denoted, that was my “day” job at PHX to monitor). At PRC, in order to avoid neighboring homes to the southwest, aircraft are to maintain runway heading (210 degrees) for 3 miles before turning. As we approached the 3 mile mark to begin our turn further south, I heard a terrific noise and immediately saw that Doug’s door had flown open – the noise is something similar to opening a window while a car is cruising down the highway, only amplified – and we were wearing noise canceling headsets!

Almost simultaneously as the door opened, I heard my former flight instructor Lance in my ear saying “Just fly the plane, stick to aviate, navigate, communicate.” I had heard stories about pilots meeting their demise when the passenger door would fly open and upon reaching to close it, they caused the plane to ultimately end up in a spin. Fortunately for me, Doug was riding in the right seat, and without hesitation, he reached over and slammed the door shut – end of crisis. At the time, we didn’t seem to be that concerned about our moment of terror, as we uneventfully completed our flight home to CHD.

My “Then It Hit Me” Moment

After Doug and I parted ways at CHD on our respective drives home, I started critiquing my airmanship skills (this is something that Lance taught me years before, always evaluate how you conducted your flight so as to learn for next time), it was then that the gravity of our door incident hit me. I was fortunate to not only have a passenger with me to assist but one that did not even blink an eye and immediately nipped the situation in the bud by slamming it shut. (Later that following week when he and I were collaborating on a work project, did he sheepishly admit that he had trouble closing the door upon leaving PRC, which he surmised caused the door to fling open). So in my best Chuck Yeager (ah-shucks) moment, I told him no harm no foul as we made it back in one piece.

What I did not tell him, though, was that one situation made an indelible mark on me, reminding me of the age-old aviation safety adage: “Just Fly the Plane.”

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Additional Aviation Safety Articles:

Halley’s Comet and the Go No-Go Decision

How Not To Impress a Friend With Carburetor Icing

Flight Safety: Breaking the Chain of Events

Feature Image: Simon Moores

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