The Hazards of an Open DoorOne recording in particular stays in my memory. It is a recording of a pilot taking off from Montgomery Field in San Diego, CA for a flight. He was flying an experimental and all was normal until shortly after take off. Suddenly he reports to the tower in a panicked voice that his canopy was open and he needed to land. The tower cleared him for an immediate landing on whatever runway he wanted. We never hear from him again. The recording goes on with other pilots that were on the approach to that airport offering to try to find the plane and the resulting search. In the end the pilot crashed the plane and died.
I don't know what type of plane the pilot was flying and I don't know if, in that type of plane, a canopy opening is really an emergency situation or something that one can continue to fly on. The thing I do know is, for the planes I fly. An open door is not an emergency situation, the passengers will not fall out and the plane will not fall out of the sky. I resolved a long time ago, probably when I heard that recording, that I would not be a pilot who panics with an open door and dies.
My Open DoorYesterday I got to test that resolve. My daughter and I were flying back from Columbia, CA to Reid-Hillview in the Arrow. We had just had a fun afternoon eating a fantastic meal at El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, wandering around the little mining town state park and getting some ice cream at a the ice cream parlor with our friend Randy. The density altitude was over 4500 feet when we took off. My recent high altitude and high DA flying definitely came in handy.
Right after take off we heard a loud POP noise. My first thought was I had left the baggage door open, but I hadn't. Katie's door appeared closed, the top was still latched, the plane seemed fine. So I kept climbing out. Then Katie said the bottom of her door was open. I looked near the back of the door and could see from my position about a 1/4 inch of blue sky starting about 1/4 of the way down the door frame all the way to the bottom of the door.
We had two options, return to the airport we just left and close the door or continue the flight. The door seemed secure on the top latch. The plane was flying fine. I knew this was not an emergency. I asked Katie if she was comfortable flying home with the door the way it was. She was, of course. I double checked she had her seat belt on good and tight and kept on course for home. I flew as smooth as possible and enjoyed the extra cool air circulating in the cockpit. Katie fell asleep.
The flight was totally normal until we arrived at RHV. I don't know why but the tower asked me if I would do a short approach. "Unable short approach." I told them. My response was instinctive and immediate. They readjusted whatever their plan was and cleared me for a normal approach and landing. I declined because I didn't want to do any sharp maneuvers with the door open as it was. Especially with my daughter being on the "low side" of the plane for a right pattern short approach which was what they wanted me to do. I knew the way I was flying so far, normal and smooth with no large banks, was working well and I didn't want to find out the hard way if a short approach and the more sudden and steep maneuvering required was a bad idea with an open door. I'll have to ask my CFI about that.