Going Overboard

Rear cockpit.

Accidentally dropping things out of airplanes is one of those definitive, irrevocable experiences that you’ll only do once (hopefully) and never forget. It can be embarrassing, expensive, questionable for those below and frowned on by the FAA, but it does make for a good campfire story.

Have you ever lost anything out of an airplane? Gravity being omnipresent—and apparently increasing annually according to an equally decrepit friend while digging post holes at our favorite desert fly-in place—anything taken aloft is at risk of going overboard.

It really helps if you’re driving around in an open-cockpit flying device, of course, but persistently unconscious or clumsy pilots can still manage the feat given a cabin airplane. In that case large windows à la Cub are a big help. So is leaving the sacrifice sitting on the tail or wing. And, naturally, if you’re perched on a Breezy then losing something seems a certainty.

Given my Starduster’s alfresco seating, I can stimulate everyone’s clutch reflex by recounting not one but two firsthand accounts of things gone for a dive. The first was a sectional chart—remember those—sent to eternity somewhere over Bakersfield. No disrespect for anyone in Bakersfield or thereabouts, but if there were choices in such matters I’d hope to select a more picturesque place for my final plunge. But I digress, and it really wasn’t the chart’s fault or choice anyway.

Having fully related this tale in a previous Rear Cockpit column, I’ll gloss over the preliminaries and simply remind everyone that I had put the chart under my left thigh for safekeeping. This was prior to me discovering that slipping it under my shoulder harness was the preferred method, but pivotal in that realization.

All was well until the fuel selector valve required immediate attention due to the sudden arrival of quiet. Naturally the fuel selector valve was handily located on the floor, under my left thigh. In my elevated state of motivation I lifted my thigh to aid passing my hand between cockpit side and leg. Thus unweighted, the chart floated laconically upward, floating in an invisible equilibrium of cockpit ventilation before bolting authoritatively up, out and gone. I mean, once it found the air moving out of the cockpit, that chart accelerated like a .300 Winchester Magnum.

That dramatic demonstration of air power was reminiscent of the first—and last—time my wife pointed out something from the front cockpit while I had about 24 inches on the ol’ 540. She points like an English hunting dog, which I’ve been (unsuccessfully) discouraging for decades, and I’ll admit a sly if guilty grin as her arm bent back like a palm tree in hurricane season. Thank goodness for all that innocent enthusiasm, but no harm done and she hasn’t gesticulated outside the cockpit confines since.

Not to pick on my soulmate, but she figures in my other overboard story as it was her purse headlining that one. We had embarked on one of those pleasant breakfast patrols only to find the restaurant cerrado permanente at our destination. So it was back in the biplane and off to our breakfast alternate. Upon arrival there, my wife asked me to open the headrest storage locker and hand her her purse. Alas, no purse, followed by much double guessing and fuselage bowel inspection, with electric illumination no less. Still no purse. Anywhere.

Turns out the “purse” was more correctly a fanny pack, which while I was otherwise engaged at our first stop she had stashed in the cockpit headrest in the perfectly sane belief that things put in lockers stay in lockers. This was during my wife’s early orientation to open-cockpit flying, not to mention our rat rod Starduster’s peculiarities. One of those being the spring clip retention “holding” the headrest hatch closed had clearly been purchased outside the hardware store’s aviation aisle many years before. Like all of us, it had eventually lost some of its spring and above 140 mph it would pop open, announcing itself on the back of my leather-helmeted head with a distinct if painlessly padded thump. The sinister wind thus let in, no doubt fingered a loose end of the fanny pack belt and sucked out the purse like so much cooked semolina.

As my wife’s wallet was now among the missing, this was of no small consequence and she spent the next day canceling all her credit cards, applying for a new driver’s license and so on. A spot of humor ensued when a credit card clerk asked if my wife had any idea what had happened to the card and she answered, “It fell out of an airplane,” and the clerk gasped, thinking somehow things could go so awry on an airliner.

Three months later the purse was recovered a couple of miles from the first airport. It was hanging in an avocado tree and the finder was concerned of possible foul play, as how did a woman’s purse end up in the middle of a 50-acre avocado grove?

Another notable cliff diver was a friend’s cellphone. He was ferrying an open-cockpit airplane across the U.S. and opted to purchase his first iPhone during the trip. He put it atop the instrument panel…where vibration and that insidious wind conspired to wiggle the phone to one side. As the windshield and instrument panel form a near perfect funnel for overboard discharge, my buddy was just able to witness the little electronic marvel’s departure. It’s somewhere in northern New Mexico if you want to go look for it. He only had it for possibly 40 minutes, so it was like new when it bailed.

At least all these items had the good sense to completely depart the aircraft. Thus, they may form a financial or operational burden, but don’t really pose a direct threat to safety unless you are having a particularly bad day. But wrenches and screwdrivers that find their way to the very aft fuselage can play badly with the elevator and rudder controls, especially in aerobatic flight, and are to be assiduously avoided. Ditto for pocket dwellers such as combs, pens, coins, wallets, dog tags, etc. This is why the dedicated acro types empty their flight suit pockets preflight and good mechanics get all their wrenches and sockets back in the toolbox.

It’s also something to consider when building your plane. Many designs make no provision to fully close the cockpit from the aft fuselage, and a simple panel might help. At least most have canopies these days.


  1. Tom, I used to have a Spezio Tuholer. In my early days of aerobatics I did a barrel roll with a camera between my legs … only to watch it slowly depart vertically at the top of the roll. It’s somewhere out in the desert immediately south of Pyramid Lake. I’d had it since I was 6 yrs old. Oh well.

  2. I had an Erecoupe, used to stick our arms out the slide-down canopy windows to try to make ad-hoc alerons. My brother’s watch was ripped off. My recollection is we circled around to get our position and drove back out there and recovered it. (Long before GPS)


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