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Emil Di Motta
Thursday! It was normally a light day with few flights
scheduled. The weather was ceiling and visibility unlimited (CAVU), and a great
day to fly. It was almost November and my instrument card would have to be
renewed by my birthday so I asked the Ops Officer if I could take the U-11 for
an hour training flight to practice some instrument procedures and approaches
because every Naval Aviator is required to maintain an instrument rating. The
Boss gave me a thumb’s up!
I strolled over to the maintenance office to review the aircraft yellow sheets,
the reports that each pilot fills out after a flight to inform maintenance of
any problems and to record his record of flight time, landings and instrument
time. The U-11 is a Piper Aztec, six passenger, twin-engined aircraft that the
Navy uses as a utility plane for ferrying personnel or light cargo. The one I
would be flying was also the designated aircraft for the Commander 4th Naval
District in Philadelphia, so it was kept in tiptop shape. There were no
significant complaints recorded so I signed for the aircraft and headed to the
weather office for a briefing.
“Good Morning, Chief! How’s the weather?”
“Good Morning, sir. We are CAVU and forecast to stay the same for the next
twenty-four hours,” was his reply. The CAVU rating was music to my ears.
I stopped in the Navigation office to pick up an instrument flight bag and
proceeded back to my office. I wanted to shoot some instrument approaches here
at Johnsville and then try a Radar Approach at North Philadelphia airport to get
some practice before my check ride.
The telephone rang. It was Chief Johnson. “Sir, the U-11 is fueled and ready for
you to fly.”
“Thanks, Chief. I’ll be right over.” I headed for the door.
The plane had been pulled around to the front of the Operations side of the
hangar, which made it easy for me to walk out and begin my pre-flight
inspection. Everything looked ok so I climbed up into the plane and prepared to
start the engines. I scanned the Engine Start checklist and began to start the
engines. Both responded normally so I called the tower.
“Tower, Navy N463 request permission to taxi to the run up area.”
“Roger, Navy N463, you are cleared to the run up area. The active runway is 22,
wind is 210 at 5 knots and the altimeter is 30.02” came the reply.
“Cleared to the approach of 22, altimeter 30.02,” I responded. My toes released
the brakes and I applied power to the engines. The aircraft began to move and
the observer signaled to turn right and pointed down the taxiway. I returned his
salute and eased the throttles forward as the aircraft momentum began to
increase. I turned to the left on the taxiway and proceeded to the run up area
at the far end of the runway.
The engine run up was normal so I called the tower for take off instructions.
“Tower, Navy N463 requesting permission to take off.”
“Navy N463, you are cleared to take off. There is no traffic in the area. The
wind is 211 at 4 knots and the altimeter is 30.02,” came the reply.
“Roger, Johnsville, I am rolling.” I eased the throttles forward and the
aircraft began to roll down the runway. Faster and faster until we reached take
off speed. I pulled back on the yoke and the wheels left the ground.
“Gear up,” I said to myself. “Flaps up,” and began a climbing left turn toward
the northeast. The view was breath taking! Not a cloud in the sky and the autumn
weather was crisp and clean. Visibility was excellent. I continued my climb to
5500 feet and leveled off. The power was brought back to cruise settings and the
aircraft was maintaining 180 knots of speed.
My first procedure was going to be calling North Philadelphia for instructions
to descend and make a Ground Controlled Radar approach to a touch and go
landing. I began to turn more to the East toward the airport when I heard a loud
POP! The aircraft began to vibrate violently! What the hell was that? I quickly
scanned the instruments and they appeared normal. I looked around the cockpit to
see if I had hit a bird or something. The aircraft was buffeting violently as I
continued to scan the interior of the cockpit. My heart froze! There in the
upper forward corner of the passenger door, I could see daylight! The door was
I quickly pulled back on the throttle to slow the aircraft and with my right
hand reached across the passenger seat to grab the door handle! The hinge was
separating and the door was shuddering rapidly. Holy shit! The damn thing can
come off and tear my vertical stabilizer off and I am dead!!
“Mayday! Mayday!” I heard my voice over the radio. It was strained and loud!
“Philadelphia, Navy N463 is declaring an emergency and request immediate descent
“Navy N463, Philadelphia, what is the nature of your emergency/” came the reply.
My arm was beginning to shake from holding the door from ripping off. I had the
yoke firmly grasped between my two legs as I groped for the microphone.
“Philadelphia, my passenger door is separating from the aircraft and I am barely
managing to keep this thing straight and level,” I blurted!
“Roger, Navy N463, what are your intentions?” Philadelphia replied.
Gees! My intentions are to get this damn thing on the ground and live to walk
away from it!! “Philadelphia, just give some clear airspace so I can see if this
thing will fly when I dirty it up”
“Roger, Navy N463,” the tower responded and then I heard “ All aircraft in the
vicinity of North Philadelphia, you are directed to avoid the airport in a
circle of 5 miles around it. We have an aircraft declaring an in-flight
“OK, Navy N463, how is the aircraft responding?” questioned the tower operator.
It was still vibrating heavily but appeared to be a little easier to maneuver
since I had slowed it down to 140 knots. “Tower, I am making 140 Knots and the
aircraft is responding slowly,” was my reply.
I had to see if the thing would fly with the gear and flaps down while I still
had altitude. I couldn’t afford any surprises when I was close to the ground. My
arm was going numb and I was leaning more into the passenger seat causing the
aircraft to list to the right. I had to keep it level!
I dropped the microphone into my lap and began to ease the throttle back some
more. I had to get the airspeed down to 110 knots so that I could drop the
landing gear. The airspeed was slowing and I could look out. I could see the
airport off to my right and way off to the left, I could see Johnsville. Did I
dare head that way? I could shoot a high altitude emergency procedure into North
Philadelphia or I could gamble and head for Johnsville about twenty miles away.
“Philadelphia, Navy N463, I am going to drop the gear and lower the flaps and
see if I can maintain heading and altitude.”
“Roger, Navy N463. There is no traffic in the immediate area and we have visual
contact,” came the response.
I reached for the gear lever with my left hand. My knees again held the yoke
tightly. The buffeting from the broken air stream caused by the open door had
decreased and the plane was remaining level! “Thank God!” I shouted to myself.
“Philadelphia, Navy N463. I am turning towards NAS Johnsville. Can you call and
tell them I am on my way?”
“Standby, Navy N463,” came the response and then silence. It dawned on me that
it was quiet even with the roar of the wind passing the opening in the aircraft
at 100 Knots!
“Navy N463, you are cleared to NAS Johnsville. Maintain this frequency. They
will pick you up and take over as of now!” Philadelphia reported.
“Navy N463, this is Johnsville. How do you read?” came a familiar voice. It was
Mallory, Air traffic Controller First Class. He worked for me. I am the Air
traffic Control Officer among other duties at Johnsville!
“Doing fine, Mallory. We have got to get this bird on the ground in one piece
preferably! And me, too!” I chortled.
“Aye, aye, Sir! Make a slow turn to 270 degrees and descend to 2500 feet. The
wind is 200 at 5 knots, altimeter 30.01”
“Roger, turning to 270 and descending to 2500 feet,” I answered. God, I better
make this. I couldn’t feel my right arm anymore. I had a cramp in my left side
from leaning into the passenger seat.
The aircraft was descending and I was turning toward the approach end of runway
22. Man! It looked so close! Just a few more miles and I would be safe.
“Navy N463, How is the aircraft responding?” It was the Aircraft Maintenance
“Johnsville, it is very sloppy at 100 knots. I am holding the door with my right
hand and I have no feeling in that arm. I need a straight in approach and one
“Roger, Navy N463. One guardian angel at the ready!” came his reply.
“Navy N463 turn left to 220, begin descending. You are three miles and cleared
for landing. The crash trucks have been alerted. One is at the approach end and
will follow you down the runway. The other is standing by at the far end. Do you
want us to foam the runway?”
“Negative, Johnsville! When I get this bugger on the ground, I don’t want to
skid off the runway. It could mess my flight suit!” was my reply.
I could hear him chuckling over the air as I continued my descent. The aircraft
was sloppy but I was not making any sudden changes in attitude that might make
it fall off to either side. I was too close to the ground now to have it roll on
I had 1/3 flaps set and my airspeed was hovering around 92 knots. The runway was
dead ahead. I was down to 700 feet and about a half mile from the end. I was
going to have to let the door go at the last minute prior to touchdown and then
all hell could break loose! If the door came off, I wanted to be just ready to
flare and touchdown. I could manhandle the yoke with both hands and keep it
level until impact! Oh! That’s not a good word! I was sweating profusely. The
air was cool but I couldn’t tell. I was at 200 feet above ground and descending.
Less than 500 feet to the runway! My left hand had the yoke in a death grip and
the end of the runway passed under the nose of the aircraft! It’s now! And I let
the door handle go! My mind told the right arm to move and grasp the yoke. It
hung there! I braced both feet on the rudders and eased up the nose. We were
going back up! My right hand swung over to the yoke and grabbed it. My left
pulled the throttles back and grabbed the yoke! We began to settle back down.
The runway was flying by! I was passing the Crash truck as it raced down the
runway along side of me. I passed it and the wheels touched the ground. I
dropped the nose and stood on the brakes. The passenger door flew open as the
brakes took hold! The door swung all the way out and appeared to snap past its
normal “full opened” stop detent. Here it goes! I couldn’t look any more. I was
on the ground and slowing down. If the damn thing snapped off, good riddance. I
was not flying this turkey again! My mind was going through the paces of the
landing, looking for the turn off back to the taxi way and mechanically, I ran
through the check off list. Why? I don’t know. All of that practicing for
emergencies that you know will never happen paid off because it did happen!
I called the tower for taxi instructions. “Tower, Navy N463, to taxi to the
“Roger, Navy N463, you are cleared to the maintenance area. Nice landing, sir”
“Mallory! A bottle of Cutty for the angel!” I commanded!
“Aye, aye, Sir” came the happy reply.
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