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How Could An Open Door Cause A Fatal Accident?

Could a baggage door take down an airplane? In this accident, it's most likely the primary cause.

Capwatts86

On July 8th, 2016, a Piper Cherokee Lance took off from West Houston Airport (KIWS) and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 4 aboard the aircraft.

According to multiple witnesses, this is what happened:

The Takeoff Roll

The Piper Lance began its takeoff roll from runway 15 at KIWS, which is a 3,953' x 75' runway. According to witnesses, the forward baggage door was open before the aircraft began rotation. The witnesses reported the baggage door was in the vertical position while the aircraft was still on the ground.

Google Earth

The aircraft continued its takeoff, and began a climbout on runway heading.

Climbout

During the climbout, the aircraft remained on runway heading to approximately 100'-150' AGL. It appeared that the aircraft was having difficulty climbing, which was most likely due to a performance penalty from the open baggage door forward of the cockpit.

Capwatts86

Turn To Downwind

At 100'-150' AGL, the aircraft began a left crosswind turn as the airplane was crossing over the departure end of the runway. According to witnesses, the aircraft maintained a bank angle of 30-45 degrees during the turn.

The airplane rolled wings level momentarily on crosswind, and then resumed a turn to downwind.

Throughout the turn, the witnesses didn't report hearing any engine abnormalities. However, the retractible landing gear was in the extended position.

Stall/Spin On Downwind

As the aircraft entered a downwind heading, it entered an aerodynamic stall/spin to the left, and descended into terrain.

The aircraft crashed into a wooded area approximately 1/2 mile northeast of the airport.

Google Earth

The Accident Site

While much of the aircraft was destroyed by a post-crash fire, investigators were able to determine a several things:

  • The gear selector was in the "gear down" position, and all three gear actuators were fully extended.
  • The ignition switch was found in the "both" position.
  • The fuel selector was positioned to the right tank.
  • The baggage door latch mechanism was found unlatched, and its key-lock assembly was unlocked.
  • The latch mechanism was tested post-crash, and no anomalies were found.
KHOU.com / Air 11

What Can Be Learned?

While the final report isn't out yet, it's clear that the open baggage door had a major performance impact on the aircraft.

In addition to that, the pilot left the gear down in the traffic pattern, which may have been a result of distraction from the baggage door, or intentional. Either way, the gear had a performance impact on the aircraft as well.

Combined, the aircraft didn't have enough performance to continue climbing.

It's impossible to say whether any other action would have had a different outcome once the plane was in the air. But what is clear, and very eye-opening, is that something as benign as an unlatched baggage door could have such a catastrophic outcome.

Preflight was the pilot's first opportunity to break the accident chain, making sure that the baggage door was locked. But the second opportunity was on the takeoff roll. Had the pilot noticed the baggage door was open and decided to abort, rather than continue to the takeoff, this would have most likely been nothing more than an embarrassing few seconds on the runway, with a taxi-off to fix the situation.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

Images Courtesy:

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