Circuit breakers

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One of the scariest things I’ve done while flying was take off with my flaps fully down. It wasn’t on purpose, and it could have caused a crash.

I learned to fly partly in a Cessna 172 that was about 30 years old. It had resettable circuit breakers for several things, including the flaps. In general, this was not an issue. These were checked every time I did a preflight and they were easy enough to push back in.

I was doing touch and gos after I had been soloing for a few weeks, which meant that I took off, went through the pattern, landed, and, instead of stopping, took off again. My instructor thought it was very important for me to learn to land with full flaps (having already flown some aerobatic planes, I was much happier not using the flaps) so I was doing as he asked – every round, I’d lower the flaps all the way (which slows down the plane considerably), land, then raise the flaps, do a quick run through to make sure the plane was in good shape, and take off again.

I had done several touch and gos already that day, and I was feeling pretty comfortable. I landed nicely, retracted the flaps, started getting back up to speed as I ran through my checklist, came off the ground into ground effect at the correct speed, and then realized that something was not right. The controls felt sluggish, and my airspeed was not increasing.

I looked out the window. The flaps were still down.

I looked at the controls, and I had raised the flaps.

I looked at the circuit breakers, and the flaps breaker had popped. I thought the flaps had gone up, but the breaker popped, so they never actually came up.

Flaps can increase lift, but only in the first increment. After that, they increase drag. This can be a significant increase in drag. I was in ground effect, which is the distance from the ground that is less than or equal to the length of the wing of the plane, and in ground effect, you get extra lift. You kind of have a cushion of air. For the moment, I was reasonably safe, but the end of the runway was coming up fast, I didn’t have enough space to land, and I couldn’t retract the flaps that close to the ground because I would lose lift rather suddenly and likely hit the ground hard. There were also trees at the end of the runway.

I was talking to tower throughout this, at least a little bit. They knew I was a student pilot and they could see the flaps. They asked if they could help, and I said I didn’t think so but could I possibly not talk to them for a few minutes, and they said ok and let me be. That left me with enough attention to do something about the problem.

I started going up, carefully. I couldn’t raise the nose much because, when you climb, you lose airspeed. With the flaps down, this close to the ground, I couldn’t afford to lose any airspeed because I would probably stall (flaps full down decrease stall speed, too), and stalling would probably make me crash. I cleared the trees without a lot of room to spare and very, very carefully made the turn to the next leg of the pattern. Once I had gained enough altitude, I set the flaps so they would not all retract at once and reset the circuit breaker. I then retracted the flaps slowly as I continued flying up to the pattern elevation.

I really wanted to stop flying right then, but I knew if I did I might not get back into a plane, so I did one more touch and go. The tower people were very nice (and probably very relieved that there weren’t any messes to clean up!). I did my last touch and go with no issue, landed, taxied off the runway, got the plane near the hangar, shut her down, got out, and shook for a few minutes.

I don’t assume that instruments are telling me exactly the right information anymore. I pay attention to circuit breakers and to feeling like something is off. I was lucky this went as well as it did and I had the opportunity to learn from it.

Cessnas are great planes to learn in, but keep an eye on your circuit breakers.

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