As a pilot of a 1989 Piper Malibu Mirage, I get to fly all over our great country and have experienced many interesting non-scheduled “events” while flying. On a recent trip from Central Florida to South Carolina, I had one of those events.
It was a pleasant day for flying, aside from the routine incessant bumps experienced below the base of the scattered fair-weather cumulus clouds. My goal was to get to the smooth air above the tops of the cumulus and I filed for and flew at 13,000 feet. The radio traffic was light and the view great when all of the sudden, a large boom and rushing wind took me totally by surprise. To say it was a “large boom” does not do justice to the experience; it sounded like a cannon went of in the cockpit! My first reaction was to feel around my body (to confirm I still had an “earthly body”) and then all sorts of thoughts went through my head. Did my engine throw a rod? Did I hit a goose? Was I in the process of being shot down (with all the TFR’s you never know any more)?
Soon I realized the left side pilot’s window was all but gone! There were a few ragged bits and pieces still along the frame edge, but 90% of the window was just gone! I reduced the throttle, figured out where I was, and put the aircraft slightly out of trim to reduce the amount of air coming in the cockpit. I queried the JAX Center Controller as to the closest airport with 5,000 ft of runway would be located. He quickly rattled off a few airports within the area and I selected Savannah, GA as my landing spot. Before I go much farther in my story, let me assure you that, having been through many mechanical troubles in the air, site selection for a precautionary landing is absolutely critical and you can do no better than to pick Savannah, GA if you have to be stuck for a few days in a strange area! Aside from expensive gas, it is a wonderful old town with plenty to do. After my aeronautical debacle, I had a great couple of days in Savannah.
I decided to not declare an emergency. The airplane was flying fine; I just had a nice cool breeze through the cockpit. The landing at Savannah was uneventful otherwise.
It appears the small triangle-shaped window (early Mirage style) which is on the left window developed a crack in one of the three small radiuses unbeknownst to me. I cannot honestly say if there was one before the flight or not for I rarely use the window. Inspection of the window was certainly not on my normal preflight. With the airplane at 13,000ft MSL and with my having departed Florida, I did not touch my cabin pressure controller. The cabin pressure differential was high, but not above the 5.5 PSI maximum limit. When the crack spread, the window quickly gave way and the pressure exerted inside the cabin pushed all the pieces outside at once. It was certainly a rapid decompression! Much like a balloon that makes a loud report when it “pops”, my Malibu “popped” as well, just like a balloon, but only much bigger. This was the loud report.
Medically speaking: I am pleased to report that I was not congested or feeling sick in any sense of the word. Otherwise, I could have experienced any number of physical troubles due to the rapid change in pressure. I could have blown an eardrum, sinus cavity, or even had dental issues had I been flying with congestion. For those who sometimes fly when they don’t feel so well, knowing they fly a pressurized airplane, I would challenge you to consider the ramifications if you were to experience a “blow-out” like mine. Lesson confirmed: Only fly when you are physically fit enough to handle a worst-case scenario.
Pressure discussion: I fly as a flight instructor in the Malibu and have seen many pilots who never touch their pressure controllers, even when going up into the flight levels. They know that the pressure in the vessel will automatically be adjusted when the cabin differential reaches its limits if everything is working correctly. As long as they land at an airport with a similar elevation, there are no issues. Yet, I strongly oppose allowing only the system to control the cabin pressure. I recommend you follow the checklist provided with your Malibu and adjust the cabin pressure for the altitude you are anticipating – both on the way up and on the way down. For starters, you can make it comfortable for all in the airplane and adjust the pressure slowly so you and your passengers will barely be able to notice the change in pressure. If you allow the controller to adjust after you reach the maximum cabin differential, then the last part of your climb will have a higher cabin rate of climb. Additionally, if you adjust the controller when the checklist dictates, you will develop a habit of regularly considering cabin pressure and never have difficulties when landing at airports with significantly different elevations from what you are accustomed. Lesson learned: When flying at high altitudes, you are truly in a “life capsule” and you should consider cabin pressure at every phase of flight.
Recognition time: As an instructor/evaluator in the military, I get to sit in the back of full motion, very realistic flight simulators and “administer” various emergency procedures under various conditions for evaluation and training purposes. One thing I have noticed repeatedly…rarely is any problem diagnosed quickly AND accurately. You can only have one of these two options! The best pilots are the ones who recognize that it takes time to get over the initial shock of having something unusual happen, diagnose the problem, and then administer the correct remedy. In this emergency, I bet it took me 10 full seconds to get over the shock, realize what had happened, and…do nothing! That’s right…many pilots first reaction is actually the wrong reaction. In this case, I probably reduced the throttle without much thought, but it took FOREVER for me to finally deduce that a window had blown out. You would think I would have figured it out quickly, but it took me a long time to eliminate variables and deduce the problem. Wouldn’t it seem obvious that a window was missing? In the heat of the situation, the obvious is not always obvious. I would challenge pilots to think over situations which could occur in flight and truly consider the ones which require immediate action to save lives. I would then suggest that there are VERY few emergencies which would require steps which absolutely MUST happen instantly. One emergency which comes to mind for which instant action could be required is an engine failure shortly after takeoff. This is why most instructors recommend determining a go/no go altitude. If the failure happens before a given altitude, you land straight ahead; if it happens after the predetermined altitude, you turn back. Most emergencies, however, are best left to thought and consideration of changing conditions. Just fly the aircraft, watch the “light show” on your dashboard, and make a good decision after some careful thought has been applied to the situation. Possibly include others in the decision making process before making a final plan. I asked ATC for navigation guidance and it was good since my charts were blowing all over the place! Lesson learned and confirmed: first reactions are not always right in aviation.
Kevin to the rescue!: Kevin Meade is just super. We are truly blessed to have him and his team of professionals as part of our Malibu community. He has solved at least 3 major problems for me in the last 4 years over the phone and, in this case, I did not hesitate to call him. Within 2 minutes of landing, I had Kevin on the phone and within 10 minutes of talking to him, I had a new window unit (new notched-opening style) headed my way! He had one on the shelf and, even though it was 4pm in Kansas, he over-nighted the whole thing (tube of correct sealant included) so that it arrived in Savannah by 10am the next morning. He even talked the Savannah mechanic (who I did not know beforehand) through the whole repair procedure eliminating wasted time and money. I spent $3,000 on the window unit, and $1,000 having it put in, but I would have spent WAY more than that if I had to fly home commercially or spend extra days in Savannah. Within 36 hours of the event, I was flying my Malibu home. Lesson learned: get to know Kevin.
Seatbelts and window coverings: Thank goodness my seatbelt shoulder harness remained in the aircraft. I have since learned that this event has occurred in other types of aircraft and the shoulder strap has slapped the side of the airframe causing very expensive damage. Also, my left side window shades were lowered and took a huge beating with all the rushing winds. They were flailing about and I could do nothing about it but hope they survived until landing. To my surprise, they survived and, with a little starch, are working nicely again.
Pitot-static leaks: If you have a leak in your pitot-static system on the inside of your pressure vessel, this can greatly impact the accuracy of your pressure vessel indication/control as well as give you totally incorrect pitot-static indications. For instance, I’ve had airspeed indicators which leaked air slightly through the gasket on the face of the instrument. At other times, I have had pitot-static plumbing bolts work their way loose. Aside from complying with your official pitot-static inspection every three years, you can check the integrity of the system on a regular basis by closing the pressure vessel (door and small window) and turn on the Vent/fog Blower while on the ground with the engine off. This will mildly pressurize the vessel. If you see your pitot-static instruments move during this test, then you probably have a leak inside the vessel and may be susceptible to flight issues related to your pitot-static system and your pressurization system.
New window with no small triangle shaped window: For those (like me) who do not use the triangle shaped window, a new replacement window is just coming on the Malibu market. I wish this had been available at the time of my event, for if so, one would be on my airplane now.
Divine pilot: On this flight, since I was northbound during the afternoon, the sun was glaring in on the left pilot’s seat. As an instructor, I sometimes practice flying from the right seat (with no autopilot for the “ramp police” reading this account) to keep myself from getting rusty, but in this case, it was just a matter of comfort…or was it? I decided to jump into the right seat and let the shade keep me cool. Had I been in the left seat, I am sure it would have been much more dramatic an experience. Would the shrapnel from the window have hit me? I have no idea, but I am a Christian and, therefore, have to thank God for riding left-seat for me on this portion of the flight.
I hope my little story helps you out, or at least got you thinking about unusual emergencies. Mostly I hope your Malibu window has no cracks. Check it out and if it does, get a new window ASAP. You do not want to go through my experience in flight!