A Door Flew Off the Aircraft

2 Oct 15 4 Comments

Take a listen to the audio from this business jet at 2,000 feet when the door swung open. The recording is from liveATC.net and was edited and subtitled by Victor of VASAviation.

Wheels Up is a membership-based private aviation company which offers a pay-as-you-fly aviation service to its members using a fleet of King Air 350i and Citation Excel/XLS aircraft.

On the 6th of August, N509UP, a Citation Excel/XLS, departed San Francisco airport with five passengers on board for a trip to Drummond Island Airport in Michigan. They were climbing to 2,000 feet when the door swung open.

The pilot immediately declared an emergency and requested to return to San Francisco.

N509UP: 509UP, declaring an emergency. Need to return to the field immediately.
Norcal Departure: 9UP, Norcal Approach, understand you’re declaring an emergency. Are you able to maintain your own terrain/obstruction clearance?
N509UP: Negative! A door flew off the aircraft.

In cloud and unable to climb, the stress in the pilot’s voice is clear. The controller doesn’t appear to be very experienced dealing with emergencies. She doesn’t approve his return to SFO immediately but instead tries to get him to climb to the altitude where she can give vectors.

Norcal Departure: Roger, sir. I just have the climb to the Minimum Vectoring Altitude. Unless you can maintain your own terrain/obstruction clearance.

This makes sense under normal circumstances but not in a declared emergency where the aircraft is struggling to remain airborne.

And yet, every time he explains that he can’t climb, she asks again if he’s able to maintain his own terrain/obstruction clearance. She clearly struggles to work out what she should do if he can’t climb to her Minimum Vectoring Altitude. But that’s not the bit that made me choke.

Norcal Departure: N9UP and verify you have Information Lima at San Francisco.

Lima will be the most recent information on the ATIS, the letter is changed with every update so that ATC can be clear on what information the pilot has received.

The ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) is a recording of airport information offered to inbound pilots who have enough time to dial in the frequency and have a listen. It is not a part of any emergency procedure in the world.

She probably said it out of habit but I really felt sorry for the pilot as his frustration peaks. He’s got his hands full trying to keep the aircraft in the air and he really isn’t getting good support from the controller, who needs to stop asking questions and just help get him safely over terrain and back to the airport.

 Citation Excel/XLS N509UP

To be fair though, it seems like it’s pretty hard to freak out this pilot.

N509UP: The door is hanging and uh… passengers… I think they’re okay but they’re gonna be pretty upset.

I’ve done a number of flights in the back of a Citation small jet and I can tell you, I would definitely be pretty upset.

On the other hand, the relief in the controller’s voice when he says he’s visual with the runway is a joy to hear. Operations and San Francisco Tower jump in — and to top it all off, the Tower controller gets a bit stressed when they can’t see all three wheels down. It sounds like he saw the hanging door which confused him.

The pilot came down safely and shut down the aircraft as quickly as he could so as to evacuate the stressed passengers. Another happy ending but wow, was that stressful to listen to!


  • If I were a passenger I would feel very reassured if this crew would be piloting the aircraft.. But the air traffic controller was, to put it mildly, less than competent. She might have been recently qualified but that is not really an excuse. Her lack of experience could have been the cause of a crash and if it had not been for the very obvious fact that the pilot of the Citation never lost their composure there could well have been a very different outcome.
    It once happened to me, as a trainee on a Corvette. There was no simulator for this type of aircraft, everything had to take place in the aircraft from the manufacturer’s base at St. Nazaire. Usually their own ATC took care of all Aerospatiale operations, but a few times a day there was an internal flight of a French commuter airline, TAT. They operated Fairchild FH 227 aircraft in yellow livery and a civilian controlled would be in charge.
    This particular flight coincided with our training session. We were the only two aircraft the controller handled and it was too much for her.
    She clearly “lost the plot” when she sent us on an easterly heading, bringing us right into the airspace of adjoining Nantes airport without clearance and, worse, losing track of where we were going. Our instructor eventually took charge, dismissed the St. Nazaire ATC instructions and contacted Nantes. The situation was quickly brought under control. Our instructor was the PIC and had to deal with the incident reports so I do not know what the eventual outcome was.

  • The MEF for the grid in which KSFO is located is 2300. The only terrain elevation I see on the SF TAC where the Citation was flying is 1275. If the controller vectored him back to the airport without him being at a safe altitude there would have been substantial risk of CFIT, if the Citation could not maintain his own terrain / obstacle clearance.

  • I didn’t think the Captain sounded particularly “stressed.”
    I think he was speaking loudly and straining to hear under the instantaneous increase in ambient sound levels.
    From a routine peaceful departure, to a hurricane roaring right behind you.
    I thought the controller was working the problem did as well as he could under the circumstances.
    KSFO is not a cow pasture where you can do a quick 180 and land. Probably already had a couple departures on his tail.
    Good job, getting everyone back safely.
    Who closed the door is my question.
    Unless the crew missed a “door ajar” light
    Likely a mechanical issue.
    Stains on the beautiful leather interior are a big issue.

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