Jul 12, 2012 - (Ed. Note: A strong advocate of aviation safety, Doug Gilliss regularly contributed safety-related articles. This article, submitted just before his tragic death, is still relevant today.)
I was watching an Eastern Block military jet aircraft take off at a major national air event and was shocked see the front canopy depart. The airplane returned and landed safely, no problem. I was at another event and I saw the same type jet return to the field minus the front canopy. Another jet of the same manufacture lost a front canopy a few months later, then another this summer. After that and most recently, a MiG had a canopy incident, risking safety of flight. Most spectacular and, sadly, fatal was the loss of a canopy, initiated by a fearful and poorly briefed passenger. Ultimately, the pilot crashed the plane after a series of misinterpreted indications by the pilot.
These are the incidents that I have either witnessed personally or have personal knowledge of; I have heard of many more. Are these aircraft prone to canopy loss? Is there some universal problem with the planes? The pilots? Poor training?
Not wanting to be in the position to, as they say, “cast the first stone,” nor wanting to second-guess several incidents, there are some observations that can contribute to improving safety in flying former military Eastern Block jets.
Don’t Go Topless
First, to avoid the risk of losing the canopy on your military jet we can look at the design and technical aspects of the canopy operation on these aircraft. In a relatively simple, cost-effective and efficient design, many of these aircraft, specifically the L-29 and L-39 from the Aero Vodochody Company, have a canopy that is not hinged or permanently fastened to the aircraft when it is unlocked. The canopy hinges are actually open-ended hooks that permit the canopy to depart when opened beyond normal limits. You can easily prove that by hyperextending the canopy on the ground, letting go, and watching the canopy fall to the ground - which I have observed more than once.
My description is not to criticize the effectiveness of the design, it works: when the canopy is unlocked in flight or triggered by the ejection process, the slipstream carries it away instantly so the pilot can eject safely. No sophisticated mechanisms or relays need to be activated to prepare for an ejection. Similarly, when smoke or fumes fill the cockpit removing the canopy in such an emergency is easy and instant. However, as easy as it departs when needed, it will also depart when it is not fully locked, or if the locking lever is moved in flight.
There are a couple of checks that can assure the canopy remains secured to the airframe in flight. It sounds simple but it is critically important to lock the canopy locking lever by pushing it all the way forward. When in its full forward position two indications are available to confirm the canopy is locked. First, the canopy lever contacts a squat switch that extinguishes the canopy warning light (in aircraft that have such a light), which, when illuminated, indicates the canopy is not locked. Second, if the canopy locking lever does not reach its full-forward position the cabin pressurization or air conditioning system will not activate. Sometimes it takes a firm push to be certain the canopy locking lever is all the way forward. Some aircraft may need to have the contacts at the full forward position cleaned or adjusted to be confident the canopy is locked, and the indicators confirm it is locked.
Knowing how the system works gives us an extra measure of safety by checking the operation of the locking lever. For example, it is a good idea to activate the cabin pressure or air conditioning system switches, depending upon the aircraft, to confirm the canopy is locked. This check is especially important if the aircraft has no “canopy unlocked” warning light.
Whatever type of aircraft you have or fly, learn about the canopy operation system and double check the proper actions to secure the canopy before takeoff. Plus, don’t attempt to make adjustments in flight. The canopy will depart before you can say “lock.”
Professional Check Systems
Looking at more overall solutions, there are many examples of pilots’ actions that have caused emergency situations or, worse, loss of aircraft and lives. For instance, pilots omitted a crucial checklist item (flaps) on a takeoff of an airliner from Detroit a few years back, and were never able to recover from the resulting stall and crashed.
I want to focus on a very simple and low-cost solution to this continuing risk in aviation - one that particularly affects pilots of former military jets. In a word: checklists.
Most pilots use a checklist, with varying degrees of discipline, from looking at it once to reviewing each item and starting the process over if it is interrupted. Some pilots involve passengers or other pilots on board in an exchange where one person reads the list and the pilot confirms the selected item is accomplished, similar to the professionalism exhibited by airline and military pilots. Regardless of a pilot’s habits, assuring all mandatory items are accomplished is the goal for safe flight.
Three reasons for improperly using checklists come to mind: complacency, arrogance and lack of familiarity with the airplane and its systems. Pilots who fly frequently, say several times per week, may, as a result of their repeated accomplishment of the taxi, takeoff and landing procedures, feel that they are so comfortable with the sequence of events that they do not need to refer to a checklist to be certain all the necessary procedures are initiated. Let’s call it complacency. The pilots in this category are so used to doing the same thing they may feel the use of a checklist interferes with the flow of their flight habits.
Other pilots may fall into the category of arrogance. They feel they are above the use of checklists. Their experience, training, proficiency or just their attitude keeps them from relying on what they might call a crutch—their checklist. They believe that such lists are for other, less skillful, less experienced pilots.
Still other pilots are not familiar enough with the aircraft, flight systems or procedures to diligently use a checklist. They may go through the motions of referring to the checklist, maybe even read some of the items aloud, then put it down. After replacing the checklist to its original location the result is that it was not properly followed, certainly diminishing its value. The pilot might as well not have a checklist if only a cursory glance at it is substituted for following it, item by item.
Flying without a checklist or not using one that is kept in the airplane is likely to increase the risk of not performing actions that are critical to safety. The checklist is not valuable because it simply exists; it must be used properly to serve the valuable purpose for which it was designed.
Why A Checklist?
Repeating a brief anecdote from the Army Air Corps (USAF before 1947) history suffices as a clear example why checklists were developed and remain the mainstay of cockpit safety procedures for military and airline aircraft—and civilian aviators who emulate the highest level of professionalism. In 1935, the US government held a bomber fly-off competition between the Martin DB-1 and the Boeing Model 299. The Boeing aircraft had demonstrated superior features and flight characteristics before this event and was favored to dominate the competition. Unfortunately, the pilot, unfamiliar with the aircraft, neglected to unlock the elevator of the Boeing aircraft on takeoff so it crashed, killing most of the crew. The Martin DB-1 aircraft won and was given a government contract.
Only after repeated efforts and flight demonstrations was the Boeing aircraft reconsidered, under close scrutiny. The Boeing team discovered the only way to make sure everything was done before and during flight was to use a checklist. The checklists permitted the Boeing aircraft to fly more than a million miles safely before it was accepted. It became the venerable B-17 of WWII fame, with orders for more than 12,000 aircraft. And the checklist became part of all safe flying operations. Checklists are used because they work, assuring safer flights.
Where do you get a checklist for a foreign made military aircraft? Actually, most of the flight manuals have been translated into English. Typically, the manuals emulate the format and content of USAF and US Navy flight manuals, including recommended checklists. However, military manuals are a starting point. There is no regulation that says you cannot supplement the military procedures and construct your own checklist. There are some very good ones available.
The guys I fly with and I have revised our checklists several times; interestingly enough, we have included additional items for checking to make sure the canopy is secure. For example, in the L-29 we check to be sure you cannot slide a checklist under the canopy seal before takeoff, confirming the seal is inflated, which won’t occur unless the canopy is locked. Feel free to add your own safeguards for items you tend to omit or items neglected in accidents of other pilots. We also constructed an emergency checklist, which we keep in the cockpit. It’s printed a bright color to distinguish it from the normal checklist and make it easily recognizable in case it is needed.
To make your checklist print a word processing document on both sides of cardstock, and then laminate it, for a basic checklist of your own design. We print them the size of a kneeboard so they are convenient to clip to the board when flying. Your local copy shop can help if you need it.
For higher quality checklists there are other sources. Many iterations of these checklists are available from pilots who have conscientiously developed their own and commercially from companies in the warbird business (International Jets has a fancy one for the L-39, for example. It includes emergency information and data for calculating aircraft performance).
It’s not that I don’t like action at flying events, but I prefer to see pilots demonstrating the combination of performance characteristics of their airplanes and their unique skills, rather than canopies departing aircraft. There are other benefits to using a checklist besides safeguarding key aircraft parts and accessories, but using a checklist will keep all of us out of the envelope of danger, regulatory problems and expensive aircraft repairs and parts replacements.
In looking into many of the incidents I have described the use of a checklist would in most cases have prevented the incident. I won’t delve into the psychological reasons why pilots improperly use or refuse to use checklists—I’ll leave that for the shrinks—but I will assert that any safe pilot who wishes to fly with a level of professionalism dictated by owning or flying a former military jet will use a checklist. It’s not the training; it’s not the aircraft, they have flown millions of hours safely; it’s the pilots’ discipline, or lack of it, that causes incidents. Get a good checklist, and use it.
Douglas Gilliss, CFII, ATP