The Smoking Tire – A Relict for the Wall of Shame

I have put off telling this story for several weeks.  It’s a lot more fun to talk about cool flights than to write about my own stupid mistakes. And this is definitely about a stupid mistake.

This is what happens to a tire when pulling on a break-lever too hard and too soon after landing. “Flat-spotted” is too nice a way to put it. This tire is destroyed.

So here’s the precursor to what happened.  On April 28 I had taken our club’s Discus to the west side of a north-south convergence line.  Cloud bases on the west side were close to 17,000 feet whereas to the east of the convergence conditions were much more difficult.  A persistent inversion lay over the plains supporting only weak thermals topping out at less than 8,000 feet.  With the help of a deep tow I was able to push into the western airmass and get all the way to 17,000 feet.  There were plenty of snow showers and virga above the mountains and my cautious self told me to stay within glide range of the Boulder airport.  Still, I had a good flight, scoring over 300 points on OLC-plus by covering more than 270 km including a 177 km triangle in just under 4 hours.   The flight track is here.

However, this story is not about the flight but about my landing.  And, as so often in aviation, stupid mistakes begin with chain reactions.

In this case the beginning was when I noticed on prior flights that the wheel break on the Discus was basically ineffective.  However hard I would pull on the break lever, there was no noticeable deceleration at all.  This is not an issue on the long runway in Boulder but it could be an issue when landing in a short farmer’s field. So I worked with others in the club to adjust the break and thought I would test it again on my next flight.

While I was flying another unrelated thing occurred: after about two hours the battery supplying the main electric system including the 2-way radio ran out of power.  This had not happened to me before. Unfortunately I didn’t remember that flipping a small switch on the instrument panel would have shifted the power supply to the ship’s second battery.  I made a mental note to get the battery replaced after the flight, but otherwise, having no power didn’t bother me too much at first:  the plane’s transponder, which broadcast my position to air traffic control was powered by a separate battery and still working fine. The airspeed indicator and the altimeter don’t require battery power and the ship is equipped with a second mechanical variometer that was also still working.  In addition, I had my own flight computer as well, which also has its own independent power supply. So the only thing I didn’t have was the radio, the optional Flarm system, the acoustic vario, and the ship’s built-in flight computer, which I didn’t need anyway.

As I came back to land, however, the lack of a working radio was back on my mind. There didn’t seem to be much traffic around the airport but without a radio I wasn’t able to announce my position and intentions and I also could not receive other pilots’ announcements.  So I concentrated on watching for traffic and on making my own position and intentions as clearly visible and predictable as possible.  I watched another plane land on runway 8 despite a slight westerly wind on the ground.  I remember thinking that I would land on Runway 26 (against the wind) if I could announce my intentions but with other traffic using runway 8 (which is the default runway in Boulder for calm conditions), I decided that I would also land on runway 8 despite the slight tailwind.

Somewhat preoccupied by these considerations I did not think at all about the break and the adjustments we had made to it.  So after touching down, somewhat faster than usual given the tailwind, I instinctively pulled on the break lever just like I had done on prior flights.  I noticed some deceleration and I remember thinking, “oh, the break is working now”.  I did not notice, or even consider, that I might have pulled the break lever too hard.

Just before the plane came to a stop the back pressure on the stick was no longer sufficient to keep the tail wheel on the ground, and the plane veered slightly off the tarmac.  Reactively, I must have pulled on the break again and thus the plane briefly dipped forward with the nose touching the gravel just before it came to a halt.

Other pilots watching my landing had noticed a smoke trail from my tire and came to tell me that I had been breaking way too hard.  Still, I had no appreciation for what “breaking too hard” could mean for the tire.  I basically destroyed it – there is no better way to say it. (See the picture of the actual tire above).

Dipping the nose into the gravel also caused some scratches in the gel coat on the underside of the fuselage.  Fortunately these are minor and only cosmetic in nature, and apparently relatively easy to repair.  Had the plane dipped forward on the tarmac and/or at a higher speed, the damage could have been much greater.

I’m obviously not proud of this incident.  With 1000s of feet of remaining runway in front there was no reason at all to break hard, or to use the break at all.  Drum brakes are not the most effective brakes and they are best used sparingly and only when really needed.  I decided to share this story because I hope other pilots may learn from it before “gaining” a similar experience themselves.  (Since my incident I have witnessed two other pilots damaging their tires as well).

I will also say that I learned a lot from the process of replacing the tire.  It is not a quick and easy thing to do and definitely a lot more involved than pushing the plane an extra 100 yards to its parking position. 😉

Lessons Learned

  1. Remember that battery switch, stupid!  If the plane you’re flying has more than one main battery it stands to reason that there is also a switch to toggle between these power sources.  If a battery runs of power, find that switch and use the good battery!
  2. Land against the wind whenever possible.  Even a slight tailwind can cause or exacerbate issues.  In this case it resulted in a higher ground speed at touch down, a longer ground roll, and it contributed to the plane veering off the runway at the end of the ground roll (because the back-pressure on the stick was no longer sufficient to keep the tail on the ground, and the rudder was no longer effective in steering while the plane was still moving). (However, I still think that my decision to land on runway 8 was acceptable considering other traffic, the fact that the wind was only light, and my inability to announce an approach to runway 26.)
  3. Breaking at speed kills the tire. Do not engage the wheel break at all when the plane is still moving fast unless you absolutely have to (i.e. there is a danger of hitting an obstacle on the ground).  The faster the plane moves, the more lift the wings still produce; therefore: the less weight is on the wheel and the easier the wheel locks up.
  4. You may not notice when the wheel locks up. If you use the break, use it gently and only when the plane has already slowed down.  You probably will not notice the wheel locking up when you engage the break, especially when the plane is still moving fast.   (The deceleration of a locked-up wheel is only small.)
  5. Only use the break when you must.  Safe the brakes in a glider for situations when you have to use them (e.g. a short off-field landing).  Don’t use them for the convenience of not having to push the plane back for a few hundred feet.   I believe for some planes with drum brakes this is even explicitly mentioned in the manual (e.g. for the LS4).
  6. Glider tires are soft. Tires of gliders are much more prone to flat spotting than car tires or bicycle tires.  Gliders also don’t have ABS systems 🙂
  7. Replacing tires on a glider is a complex and error-prone process.  Make sure to lubricate all moving parts (except the inside of the break itself!) and do not over-tighten the nuts on the axle for this may lock up the gear-retract mechanism.  After working on the wheel or tire make sure to cycle the gear retraction mechanism several times to ensure that it works smoothly and without requiring excess force.

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