As much as we try to personalize them, airplanes are above all mindless mechanical devices that wear down and break at regular intervals, in spite of our mechanic’s best efforts. When this occurs, the pilots involved (and I am definitely one of them) invariably tend to blame themselves and lie awake at night thinking about how they could have handled the problem differently. We are almost always our own worse critics. But the truth is, in aviation, “stuff happens” regularly even though we pilots have exalted skills and try to prevent them. A couple of events that occurred at our airport in the past year illustrate this point.
King Air Landing Gear
A King Air 200 flown by one of our professional pilots (with more than 10,000 hours in the make and model) returned from a trip to California last fall. He started the LPV approach to Runway 11 with the weather at about 1,500 overcast and 4 miles visibility. Everything was going fine until the yellow glide slope needles centered and (while still in instrument conditions) the pilot pulled down the handle with the white round wheel on its tip to lower the landing gear. Initially, there was the typical growl and whine as the mechanism under the floor started into action, but then it seemed to slow down a bit, almost to a stop. This was followed by a loud bang, which definitely got his attention and scared the daylights of the passengers sitting in the back. The pilot took a glance at the gear lights, where he found two greens for the mains but an “unsafe” condition for the nosewheel.
While pondering the problem, he broke out of the clouds and was able to see the runway about a mile ahead of him and a thousand feet below. Wisely deciding not to land with an unknown gear condition, he broke off the IFR flight plan and began circling the airport in low but flyable VFR conditions. As safely doing so required nearly all of his attention, he asked the passenger in the right seat (the King Air’s owner and a private pilot) to dig out the emergency checklist and read the portion dealing with unsafe gear conditions.
Three or four turns around the airport later, they were unable to solve the nosewheel problem by reference to the checklist and decided to land while holding the nosewheel off and long as possible after touchdown. This was communicated to the growing crowd below on Unicom, whose morbid curiosity caused them all to hustle outside to see the upcoming airport event. The approach was made from the east to Runway 29 as the departure end of that runway was more overrun friendly than landing the opposite way. Touchdown occurred right on the black tire marks of the touchdown zone, with the airplane nicely centered on the runway. Both PT6 engines were pulled to idle cut off, the wheel held all the way aft, and the airplane deftly kept over the center line by fancy rudder pedal work. Care was taken not to apply braking as the deceleration would have promptly lowered the nose. But the inevitable could not be permanently delayed, and at first slowly, and then with a loud nasty crunch, the nose smacked onto the runway – albeit exactly on the white line.
There followed some quick deceleration, with the airplane stopping in less than 800 feet. The next problem: how to get the passengers quickly evacuated with the nose on the ground, the tail way up in the air, and the door some eight feet above the surface. Fearing that something bad was yet to happen, however, they all made the jump. Luckily, there was not a single injury.
As the pilot and passengers stood on the runway looking a mixture of sheepish, guilty and relieved, the airplane was then surrounded by ground vehicles from the airport staff and FBO – all wanting to help and see what had caused the event.
As it turned out, the nosewheel activation mechanism on a King Air looks like some Rube Goldberg device stolen from a bicycle repair shop during the 1950s. It has sprockets and a long bicycle-like chain that runs from the motor under the floor to the nosewheel well just behind the pilot. The bang occurred when the chain broke, having become jammed, which caused the motor to slow down just before the noise occurred. With the nosewheel up, the impact damaged the gear doors and radar dome but little else. The propellers were still turning but not under power and suffered minor damage.
The airplane’s nose was jacked up and placed on a helicopter dolly, then towed into the FBO’s hangar. Four months and $600,000 later, all the damage was repaired, and from looking at the airplane, you could never tell what had happened. The owner’s wife, however, remembered the event all too well, and before long, the turboprop was replaced with a Learjet.
The pilot, for the most part, received kudos from those observing. There were some “Monday morning quarterbacks” (MMQs) who faulted him for not flying about 20 miles away where there was a 10,000-foot runway and fire service at the airport. But, I thought the pilot handled it very well. By getting the passenger in the right seat involved, he made good use of all cockpit resources, and his airmanship in keeping the airplane centered on the white line was outstanding. Sometimes stuff just happens.
Some months went by without any exciting airport events and spring arrived. Then, we had one of our business jets, a Gulfstream 150, make a departure for the east coast in similar weather conditions, only to have an HYD FAIL red light show up on the annunciator panel right after liftoff. The crew immediately leveled off the airplane while under the cloud base at about 2,000 feet and began a slow VFR circle back to the approach end of the runway they had just departed. The co-pilot began running the HYD FAIL checklist, which is nearly four pages long in that particular jet. Sort of like the co-pilot in the Hudson River airline event, he was unable to complete the entire thing before they were set up on a long final.
Touchdown occurred nicely right in the zone, and the brakes were applied only to find there was not enough hydraulic pressure to do much. The thrust reversers came out, and the power pushed up to take advantage of all the deceleration they could possibly muster. Again, the inevitable could not be permanently postponed. With the runway end rushing up at them, the pilots shut down both engines to avoid ingesting a substantial amount of FOD they knew was going to be kicked up when the airplane rolled off the pavement. Off the end of the runway they went, somewhere between 60 and 80 knots, only to then feel a level of deceleration unknown to most pilots unless accustomed to landing on aircraft carriers.
As it turned out, the overrun area had been soaked repeatedly with rain during the previous two weeks, and the dirt under the grass off the runway end was more like soft mud than anything solid. This caused the main gear and nosewheel to sink tire deep, bringing the airplane to a complete halt in about 1,000 feet. All the passengers gently stepped down just a foot or so from the door to the ground, then stood about 100 feet away as all kinds of ground vehicles, and even the local sheriff showed up. The airport was closed, and a local truck wrecker was called to remove the airplane. This was artfully done with little to no damage to the fuselage by placing airbags under the “lift” points of each wing, blowing them up until the tires were clear of the mud. Then pushing steel plates borrowed from a local paving company under them and towing the airplane backward, moving the plates serially until reaching the pavement.
This, of course, took all day in rainy, cold weather, during which time the runway was closed. The passengers and crew, however, were seemingly not too dismayed by the event. Forty-five minutes after exiting their aircraft and cleaning the mud off their shoes, they borrowed one of the Learjets also on the field and owned by another company, and were on their way to Washington, D.C.
The “Monday morning quarterback” report after the event suggested the pilots should have declared an emergency, climbed out to 10,000 feet or so to top the clouds, then taken the time to run the entire checklist. If at that point there was any possibility of brake failure, they should have changed the destination from the airport they had just departed to one some 20 miles away at which there was full-time fire service and two miles of runway. But again, I am not so sure that criticism is deserved or valid. Although running the entire checklist might be the correct decision in the simulator, in real life flying, with the runway still visible under you and a hydraulic failure of unknown significance on the annunciator panel, getting the thing back on the ground as soon as possible would seem (at least at the time) the safest thing to do.
In aviation, “stuff happens” on a regular basis. And, if you fly enough, it is only a matter of time until one of these events happens to you. When (and it is “when” not “if”) this occurs, before getting too self-critical, or paying much attention to the MMQs, ask yourself this most important question: Did your decision process during the event result in everyone walking away without injury? If so, pat yourself on the back. You did just fine when the stuff happened.