We were launching under normal conditions with a couple newlyweds squoze in the back seat. Ho hum. Then no more than a foot off the ground Bogie the tow pilot released us and zoomed radically up, hanging on the prop to a full-power stall. Our glider flew itself to a stop as we watched his recovery bottom out in a swale below runway level.

(This same swale features similarly in two other anecdotes, of equally unique events years apart. Think of that, three different miracles inches above the same muddy thicket of weeds! My guess, it’s the frogs.)

So what made Bogie do such a thing? After several minutes pacing the ramp hyperventilating, and going to his knees twice, his intensive post-flight found a pencil stub fallen below deck into the worst possible space beneath the stick, jamming it full back upon rotation. Bogie saved his own life by crushing that little scrap of wood.

Now wait. What if he’d not released us the instant he sensed trouble? Impossible to say exactly, but he would never have gotten high enough to survive the recovery. And who could guess how it might have worked for us, trying to land on whatever runway was left while Bogie tried not to crash there…
So cutting us loose at the get go also saved his life!

And that snappy response, did it come from his year of flying low level combat or from crop dusting while in college? Or was it something genetic? A sea of factors refracts forever around all of us like a hall of mirrors. But one unintended cause is all you need to turn an ordinary day into somebody’s final one. Whoever dropped that pencil stub made it potentially a lethal instrument.

Most pilots these days know what FOD stands for, and it’s not Fussy Old Dude. It’s Foreign Object Debris (or any of several other D words). Anything left floating around the cockpit is FOD, whether neglected trash or vital equipment, whether you put it there or have narry a clue. FOD doesn’t need your participation to kill you, just your acquiescence.

Another year I was finishing up with a one o’clock student when the three o’clock doing an obligatory preflight interrupted our debrief to ask why the stick made the rudder move.

“It doesn’t.”

“But it does,” he assured.

Alright, having landed the bird minutes earlier with no such anomalous behavior, we leaned in to look. Sure enough, when the stick moved the rudder responded. And there was a clunk.

We unscrewed an access panel near the sound and found the little assembly tool we called Lollipop that had long ago gone missing and been replaced. Somehow it found an ideal cranny to hide in through two annual inspections! How many wallops of turbulence, ‘imperfect’ landings and bouncing taxis had it withstood in that time?

Apparently Lollipop was still AWOL as we rolled to a stop from the flight minutes earlier, so what happened while pushing off and parking that impelled it to jump between a bell crank and the rudder cable with its business end stuck into a fairlead? Why didn’t that happen months earlier? Why didn’t it happen in flight, where Murphy’s Law has fullest effect?

Still gives me chills.

Oh there’s more. You familiar with that little hatch behind the aft seat of Grob 103s? It’s where all the important stuff connects, and is definitely not a storage compartment. Imagine my expression on finding a twenty-pound shot bag in there, lying spread across all the moving parts! Shot bag don’t care.

So here’s a plea for common sense. Pick up after yourself! And don’t stuff the cockpit pouch with everything you can reach but don’t wanna hold onto. That turns the pouch into a FOD nursery and gradually ruins the pouch to boot. If you really want lotsa krapola handy to distract you, consider a fishing vest festooned with pockets. No really. Think of it as a FOD magnet if you like. Sure it looks goofy, so does your hat. Some things are more important.

It’s comfy enough when you finally wear one – and you could say the same about caskets, but fishing vests are cheaper.