A Suitcase at Terminal Velocity and the Traffic Pattern

The following is an excerpt from my twenty some years in progress book about my experiences as a commuter airline first officer flying De Havilland Twin Otters. Need I say, “back in the day”?

We departed from Albany on a beautiful sunny day in mid-summer with sixteen passengers headed for Plattsburgh, New York. The scenery along the route is a remarkable mix of views. As you look from the left side of the airplane to the west there is first the Mohawk Valley stretching out towards Utica, New York in the far distance. To the right you can see the beginning of the Champlain Valley and ahead there is Lake George and Lake Champlain. Further along the Adirondack Mountains pass off the left side. On this day the visibility was nearly unlimited, and the sun played over lush green fields, forests, and lakes. The air was a bit bumpy, as is usually the case on warm afternoons, but not enough to take away from the glory of the scenery. We arrived at Plattsburgh a few minutes early and our passengers were even complementary about their experience with us!

After they had all deplaned, I walked around the tail of the airplane to check the right wing and engine, passed around the nose,  and stopped at the forward bag compartment. I was not in a  hurry  or distracted, just enjoying the fact that I was being paid to fly on this  glorious day. I took a position about two feet from the door, placed one hand of each of the latches, unlatched both simultaneously, and swung the door up.

The largest, heaviest, and highest suitcase of the stack launched from its unstable position and fell unobstructed. I am certain the suitcase reached its terminal velocity as it hurtled the short distance it traveled. Thoughts raced through my mind. I had lost touch with the pleasant surroundings and the beautiful flight we had just enjoyed. Who the hell put the biggest bag at the top of the heap? Why didn’t I open the door slowly and carefully? How many of those people who are here to watch airplanes are watching me?

Thud! That’s the best description I can offer of the sound that the suitcase made when it found something solid to stop it’s incredibly rapid descent. “OW! OW, OW, OOOW!” I hopped about as pain shot through my right foot and up my leg. I noticed a great scuff on the toe of my shoe and had a revelation as to why the folks who work on the ramp wear steel toed shoes. “OW, OW!” About that time Tom the station agent with a big cart with the bags from the rear compartment  came up front, saw the bag on the ground, and said “you need to be more careful with people’s luggage!” I couldn’t have agreed more at that moment. I began to get collected and looked around to see if anyone had noticed the brief fiasco and, of course, they were all looking. I gathered up what little dignity I could muster and hobbled back to the passenger door to help the people  board for the return trip to Albany. None of them mentioned the pilot vs suitcase encounter so I thought perhaps I’d been lucky, and they had been busy inside getting checked in for the flight.

I don’t know if the toe was actually broken or just badly bruised but, it turned an angry  black and blue color and hurt for weeks. To this day the toenail is misshapen.

The flight back to Albany was probably equally as pleasant, however, my throbbing right toe was my main focus for the remainder of that day. After the uneventful ride and landing I was making my way back through the airplane to open the door when a passenger seated in the middle of the airplane said, “Please leave our bags alone!” Everyone nodded in agreement.

Well, that had nothing to do with the traffic pattern. However, if you have stuck with it to this point, I’d like to emphasize the importance of following the recommended procedures when operating around non-towered airports. Keep in mind that most airplane accidents and collisions, some 80% so we’re told, happen near airports. That is no surprise or revelation, that’s an area where many airplanes are departing and arriving at the same time. It’s like bats coming and going from somewhere under the eves of your house. Unfortunately, sometimes around airports you would think the pilots are as blind as bats with their comings and goings.

There are Regulations which delineate traffic pattern procedures, who has the right of way for landing or limitations of airspeeds and wing configuration for larger faster airplanes. There are recommended standard procedures in the AIM having to do with arrival and departure. Just like most rules and recommendations related to aviation, these are our best attempt to mitigate risk. Except for those who are at the very early stages of their aviation education, we all know what we’re supposed to do when entering, operation within, and departing from the airport traffic pattern. The problem(s) may be that we think no other airplanes are near-by or we’re in a hurry so just this once we won’t fly a proper standard traffic pattern. That just once might be as dangerous as “hold my beer and watch this”!

I invite you to consider the potential risk involved in saving a minute or two by being in a hurry in any aspect of aviation. Especially when you are occupying potentially crowded airspace. Mitigate the risk by announcing your position, identifying the correct active runway, flying at an airspeed  appropriate to that of other traffic at that airport,  and watch carefully for those who have no regard for their own safety or yours!

Fly Smart and be SAFE,

Jim Leavitt