Everything seems to be going right for private aviation company Wheels Up. The startup, a membership-based firm that claims to “significantly reduce the cost of flying privately while providing unparalleled flexibility and service,” recently raised $115 million in a funding round led by T. Rowe Price. It also just promoted aviation industry veteran Robert Garrymore to president of corporate sales.
However, this sudden outpouring of good press has also served to cover up an incident during the summer which, were it publicized more at the time, could have put the wheels down on Wheels Up before all the funding and promotions.
On August 6, two pilots and five passengers were flying in a Wheels Up Citation Excel XLS from San Francisco to Drummond, Michigan when the door flew off the plane as it climbed to 2,000 feet.
At about the 1:10 mark on a recording of the cockpit tape that’s been posted on YouTube, you can hear the pilot yell, “‘Emergency! Our door flew off the aircraft!” He continues, “The door is hanging … We cannot climb and we cannot maintain clearance because of the clouds…I think they (the passengers) are OK, but they’re gonna be pretty upset.”
Once the plane emerged from the clouds, it was able to make a visual approach, but not before one final complication—the air traffic controller mistook the hanging door for the plane’s landing gear and reported that the aircraft had only one gear down. When emergency personnel examined the plane after landing, however, they saw that the landing gear was fully functional.
All passengers evacuated the plane safely, and no charges have yet been filed. Wheels Up has also not acknowledged the incident in any way.
This is somewhat ironic, because Wheels Up heavily promotes the safety of its planes on its website. The company has implemented Safety Management Systems (SMS) to identify and mitigate hazards on its planes. Wheels Up pilots must also hold both an FAA Airline Transport Pilot license and an FAA First-Class Medical Certificate
As for the planes themselves, Wheels Up touts its Citation Aircraft as “a legendary business jet known for its comfort, performance and reliability.” The Citation also has the ability to outperform (or in this case underperform) “similar mid-size business jets in takeoff, climb, cruise and landing.”
What’s more, Gama Aviation, the operator of the Wheels Up planes, purportedly has a “pervasive safety culture.” Not pervasive enough, apparently.
No matter how well you plan for any in-flight emergency, however, things are always bound to happen—Bono learned that the hard way last year when the rear hatch of his private plane went missing and two suitcases fell out of the aircraft.
If the Wheels Up team had watched the news in between funding rounds and hiring sprees, perhaps they could’ve prevented the door falling out from under them too.