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Tuesday, 26 November 2013 10:13

Expect the Unexpected Featured

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Nowadays, we are so accustomed to human flight that we sometimes forget that it is not our natural mode of transport, as it is, for example, for birds. Rather, we have altered our reality by designing machines with complex systems that allow us to fly.  However, these machines are sophisticated, fragile, and operate in rapidly changing environments. They are imperfect, as they have been designed by the human being, who is himself imperfect.

 Whether at the controls of a light and uncomplicated plane or a heavy modern aircraft, pilots have to be prepared for "the unexpected," - whether physical, environmental, or circumstantial - because, it could compromise the safety of the flight.

In order to avoid "the unexpected," we have several procedures and safety regulations. From a physical and procedural standpoint, there are the checklists which exist to verify that everything is in optimal condition during the distinct phases of a flight. From an environmental standpoint, we can study and analyze forecasts, maps, and documented trends before a flight.  However, circumstantial challenges exist in response to in-the-moment conditions, and these are the most difficult to foresee and address. It is here that the pilot's decisions become crucial for the safety of the flight.

So in aerobatics, as in any other kind of flight, we are subject to "the unexpected," for which we have procedures and lists to guarantee the security of the flight we are navigating. However, we are also subject to a "surprise" factor, which we have no control over and must be prepared for.

As you know, in aviation you learn a lot about flight accidents, incidents, and errors that have been reported. This is why I decided to write this article about what happened to me a few days ago. I think that by sharing my experience with the readers of this website, they can learn from it and perhaps avoid making the same mistake.

I remember when I was just beginning aerobatics, after having had just two flights in the Zlin, I had the privilege of training with Vytas Lapenas - someone very special who has done a lot for aerobatics sports; Master, and spiritual guide for many. He told me something that will stay with me for the rest of my life:   

“Alex, in aerobatics, safety comes first. Then, fly like an eagle," he said.

He always insisted that we do a few safety maneuvers before any training flight. He would usually suggest doing a "pull-pull-pull humpty bump" and a half roll to make sure that the harnesses were fastened, the parameters of the engine remain green during upside-down flight, and above all, that there were no loose parts in the interior of the cabin.

I have remained faithful to his instruction and sage advice for all the flights of my life; like a religion - transmitting it and insisting that any future aerobatic pilots I have the privilege to teach always adhere to it to guarantee their safety.

There was a recent training session during which this advice took effect. My task that morning was to be on the ground at radio control giving instructions to a pilot taking off for the first flight of the day to fly a sportsman sequence in a Z50LS.

After performing the relevant checks, the pilot took off. We checked our communication, which was perfect. I told him to reach a safe altitude and perform the safety maneuvers, as I had learned my first day.

First the "humpty bump," everything correct, and then a half roll. I told him to push the stick forward and pull back in upside flight to make sure they it was well-attached and that there were no moving parts in the interior of the plane. At that moment, I could tell by the tone of his voice over the radio that something was wrong.

He told me that he had heard some unusual metallic noises in the interior of the fuselage but that he couldn't identify where they were coming from. At that moment, I told him in a relaxing tone to make a smooth descend, land, and that once he was on the ground, we would figure out what it was.

Once on the ground, the pilot got off the plane with some unease, and together we began to look for the source of the noise. We looked in the cabin area and surprisingly, behind the seat, we found three euro coins. We looked at each other and immediately understood. We knew that any moving element in the cabin could cause a jam in the controls, creating a disaster if moving through the fuselage to the tail, where the cables and rods for the rudder and elevator were located.

We had heard of cases where this had occurred, and nobody doing aerobatics wants to get into a situation like that.

We sighed, removed the coins from the plane, and then took out a fabric divider from behind the seat of the plane, used to prevent anything from going to the end part of the tail of the plane. From afar, we saw three more coins in the lower part of the fuselage, one of them very close to the cone of the tail where the cables and joints of the rudder and elevator controls are located.

Our question at that moment was this: How could these coins have gotten here if the pilot had just arrived at that moment in coveralls with closed pockets and nothing inside of them? How could the coins have gotten in the rear part of the cabin through the fabric divider?

After thinking and analyzing the situation, we realized two very relevant things:

The first was that the pilot had taxied the plane from the hanger to the gas pump through the grass airstrip wearing wide Texan pants with coins in the pockets (from buying breakfast). Due to the elevated position of his legs and the bumps on the airway, they had fallen into the seat without him realizing.

The second was that these coins passed through the divider to the rear part of the plane during the first maneuver, the "humpty bump," through a hole the size of a hockey puck ripped in the bottom part of the cloth.

Knowing this, we tried to remove the coins from the rear of the plane. It took us about an hour and a half to fish them out with a contraption we made with a stick and a kind of paddle, since access was highly complicated.

Once the six coins were out, we looked and looked again in every corner, each almost impossible to access. We took out the parachutes, cushions, opened the dashboards, hit our hands all over the fuselage so that any possible coins would jump and make a metallic noise for us to locate them, etc. We did everything possible to be able to find any other coins, but it seemed that was all of them.

The pilot prepared the plane and took off again to return to making his test figures.

Once again he heard a metallic noise, this time softer. He landed, and we searched for where it came from. Surprised and asking ourselves where it could be coming from, we find one more 50 euro cent coin in the belly of the plane behind the divider.  We took it out and once again cleared the plane. We didn't find anything.

To sum things up, it took us one more flight to get all the coins out of the plane. We took out a total of 9 coins over 3 consecutive test flights, each flight running the risk that any of the coins could have moved into the dangerous area of the tail and caused a block in the controls, creating subsequent risks and problems.

Fortunately, it was just a scare, and we were able to continue the training as normal. But we knew that we were extremely lucky when others had not been.  In the end, we took the situation with some humor, baptizing the plane "Z50LS, Reproducer of Coins," but with the lesson and its conclusions well-understood.


It is of vital importance to check the pockets (if needed, up to three times) to remove anything that can fall out before boarding any aerobatic plane, even if it is only to taxi, sit for a moment, or take a photo.

Wearing coveralls without pockets or with zippered pockets can prevent situations like these from happening.

We must always do test figures before beginning any training. It is here where we discover whether everything is in the proper condition to begin the training. Who knows what could have happened if the pilot in my story had not done them and went on to begin his program.

In this case, there were several "harmless" coins that only caused a scare. I had experienced the same scare once when I saw pliers flying over my head.  At other times, it's been garage door openers, pens, and even a bag of chips. We were lucky we didn't experience any jam in the controls, but due to the tubular design of these planes, it wouldn't be difficult for this to occur if there are any items in the cabin, since they tend to move to the tail when the plane is in vertical. As you can see, the same pattern repeats and repeats, so it is good to keep it in mind, thoroughly checking pockets and cabin before each flight.  

Expect the unexpected and remain ready to act accordingly.

Read 2853 times Last modified on Tuesday, 26 November 2013 10:39
Alex Balcells

- Profesional pilot, aerobatic flight instructor and competitor. 

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"Aerobatics is the hidden rythm of our soul..."