TFOA (Things Falling Off Aircraft)

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f15dropMy only flying since August has been in the Sim to maintain my IFR currency for the next six month. October has come and is just about over and I won’t have flown due to business travel, vacations, and
house projects. But a flight in the 80’s come to mind that was memorable to me.

I was in the Navy Air Reserve (1965-1997) in the 80’s and already a pilot too, just not a Naval Aviator. (Color vision or rather a lack thereof took care of that.)

The Department of Defense and the airlines had a problem. Aircraft were landing with fewer parts than they departed with. Missing parts included access panels, exterior lights, gear doors, etc. Nothing
really critical except for those on the ground under the flight paths. The FAA, airlines, and the DoD initiated the TFOA (Things Falling Off Aircraft) Safety program. TFOAs goal was to reduce the quantity of items returning to earth before the aircraft landed. (Wikipedia “TFOA”)

Meanwhile, a fellow reservist and I had our annual two week training duty together at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Willow Grove, PA., and he had a Cardinal (C-177). He had over 4000 hours and was a CFII. He wanted a flying buddy to share flying and costs. So one day he flew from SMO to FUL to pick me up and we were on our way to PA. At the time I had about 400 hours and an IFR rating. “It’s your plane Ray for the rest of the trip. I have enough hours.” Cool, Lots of logged CFI time. The trip included an overnight in PHX, my first experience with icing W of ABQ, fuel in ABQ, overnight in Tulsa, and landing at NAS Willow Grove (he had a “facilities permit”).

Two weeks in PA and we were done. He stayed there for a week and AA took me home. The following year I had my two weeks training at the DoD Government offices at Lockheed Burbank (BUR). I could drive everyday in traffic or borrow the Cardinal for the two weeks and commute from FUL to BUR. The owner was more than happy to see some time put on the aircraft. So every day for two weeks I arrived at BUR by 8 AM and was back at FUL by 5:45 or so.

Finally it was time to return the Cardinal to its owner and SMO.

The Cessna Cardinal is a unique Cessna product. Cantilever wings, fully 90 degree opening doors, retractable, with a stabilator (flying horizontal tail), and panoramic front window. It’s my favorite Cessna aircraft. (My favorite aircraft is the Rockwell 114). Unlike the 172 and 182 the baggage door opens upward via a piano hinge across the top of the door, with a catch at the bottom, and an over center spring loaded to remain closed if closed and open if opened.

It was late twilight on a cool clear evening when I taxied to FUL 24 for takeoff toward SMO. The airport was mine; no one else in the pattern. Climbing through 500’ I thought the cool breeze felt good, but there was too much breeze! I looked around and saw the baggage door was completely open. I told the tower that I had an open baggage door would be returning to land and began a right pattern for 24. They asked if anything had fallen from the plane but I could not know that and told them so. By now it was almost dark.

A law enforcement helicopter was on frequency and offered to make a low pass over the runway with their spotlight to make sure the runway was clear. They did, it was, and I was cleared to land. I taxed to the North side of the runway, shut down, and looked into the baggage hold. Everything was there – except the tow bar. I locked up the baggage door, started up, taxied and took off for SMO. I returned the keys to my friend, told him about the tow bar, and bought him a new one.

I think the cause of the door opening was the torqueing of the fuselage while taxing from the 24 south run-up area over the concrete drainage channels. The door had become unlatched. The air pressure after takeoff pushed it partially open and the over-center spring opened it the rest of the way. Somewhere on the FUL airport, or on a rooftop in Buena Park or Fullerton, or in a back yard, or through a car window was a tow bar. I never found it, but I never went looking. My T F O A experience.

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