Have you ever had a door pop open while in flight? Not everyone has had this experience. Were it the case, manufacturers would be spending as much time in front of judges in courthouses as they’d be spending in front of CAD machines re-designing the latches. But it does happen from time-to-time; and there’s always someone with his or her hangar tale of how it unfolded.
Is it a life threatening issue? The answer seems to depend on the circumstances; or, more explicitly, on how the pilot chooses to handle the situation. Panic, and your flight has a better chance of ending as a smoking hole beneath you. Stay calm, and you’re much more likely to get the wayward door closed while aloft, or make your way to an airport where you can land and secure the door closed.
It would be every pilot’s natural reaction to try to close the door immediately. But really: is it so critical that it requires a spontaneous response? Or, is a more measured assessment a better approach? There are consequences, and risks, to a door that’s fluttering away ajar in the airstream. However, fighting to close it, and risking losing control of your aircraft, should never be one of the risks into which a pilot places himself or herself.
An open door can put a damper on your flight plans. More than one pilot has told the story of the door that popped open which resulted in everything unsecured in the cabin being sucked out to oblivion. (Even if unrestrained by a seatbelt, the weight of any passenger is such that they are not, in a small plane at moderate altitude and airspeed, going to be sucked from the cabin along with your navigation charts, your Ray-Ban case, and your brown-bagged tuna sandwich.) Many a pilot has, in fact, told of the story of their open door as having been a “complete non-event.”
It’s not, regrettably, always the case. There are tragic stories of airplanes that wound up in crumpled heaps, resulting from wayward doors over which pilots compromised control of their perfectly good airplanes for attempts at hasty resolutions. Infamously, a three-time winner of the annual Le Mans 24-hour sports car race lost his life when a door popped open on his twin. The irony was that one of his victories at Le Mans was still managed even though a door had long-blown off the 220 mph racecar of him and his teammates. They adapted to the circumstances, made it to the finish, and still won.
The most important thing to do if your door flips open in flight is to continue flying the airplane. Maintain control first. Stay calm. This doesn’t have to be a death-defying situation. Assess, plan, and then react accordingly.
In a lot of cases, a door that unlatches itself will only open a few inches. It may flutter around aggressively, but only within a short range, somewhat like the tail of a small snake slithering along the ground. Also, airflow will often prevent the door from opening too far. Controlling the air should, thus, not usually be a problem. The bigger problem is that pilots, so unprepared for such an unexpected eventuality, panic in the circumstances.
If your aircraft’s pilot operating handbook offers an emergency procedure for an open door in flight, learn it and follow it. One supposes that the worst case of a wildly snaking door in flight is that it could tear off and take the tail with it as it plunges towards earth. But, the truth is that this seems unlikely to occur: a door ripping itself off its hinges is a very rare occurrence, and, thus, a very low probability.
As a general rule, keep your speed down, and keep your aircraft completely under your control. If you can do it safely and calmly, close the door. If the door won’t latch, try wrapping a seat belt around the armrest to keep it in the shut position. If you can’t get the door closed, forget about it: focus your attention entirely on flying the airplane. Land as soon as you can.
Once landed, figure out why the door popped open. Was it an oversight on your part as pilot-in-command? Mistakes happen: don’t let it happen again, and ensure that it is part of your pre-flight checks to ensure that doors are always properly latched before take-off. Is something wrong with the latch itself? Don’t fly anywhere until repairs are properly done.
If ever this should happen to you, stay calm and live to fly another day. There’s no reason it should be anything but a hangar story to share at your local club, over a fresh tuna sandwich.