Simple distractions, such as doors, windows, or cowlings opening in flight, cause more accidents than you might think. On September 6, 2003, a Beechcraft 55 Baron crashed shortly after takeoff from Runway 5 at Winder Barrow Airport in Winder, Georgia. The pilot died in the resulting fire.
Shortly after takeoff, the nose of the Baron dropped abruptly to the right and the right main gear touched down on the runway. A witness saw a dark shape on the right side of the aircraft, and assumed it was the cockpit door. The pilot regained control, and climbed to between 20 and 50 feet. He then started a shallow crosswind turn to the left at a slow airspeed.
The witness called the pilot over the unicom frequency and asked if he was OK. The pilot responded, "I've got problems and I'm going to make an emergency landing." He then came back on the radio and said, "I'm not going to make it." After descending below the tree line, another witness saw the airplane in a steep left bank between 40 and 45 degrees. It then hit a tree, rolled left, pitched down, and struck a power line before hitting the ground. Because of fire and smoke, rescuers could not immediately reach the pilot.
The cabin door was found in the unlocked position after the accident.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident was the pilot's inadequate preflight preparation in which he failed to secure the cabin door. This diverted his attention and resulted in his failure to maintain directional control.
At the time of the accident, the pilot had 900 hours of total time, with 220 in make and model.
According to the Baron pilot's operating handbook (POH), "If the cabin door is not locked it may come unlatched during flight. This may occur during or just after takeoff. The door will trail in a position approximately 3 to 4 inches open. Flight characteristics of the airplane will not be affected except for a reduction in performance. Return to the field in a normal manner."
Although some airplanes are adversely affected by the door opening in flight, most are not, and will fly normally with the door open. If you find yourself with the door open in flight, remember to fly the airplane first. Follow the instructions in your POH to secure the door in flight or land as soon as possible.
For more information about distractions, read AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg's Driven to Distraction, from the September 2001 issue of AOPA Pilot.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.