Saturday, April 25, 2009

What the f**k was that??

It was a beautiful summer morning in southern California, and Karen and I were flying along in our Cessna Cardinal RG, VFR in the central valley, from LA to our vacation home in Pine Mountain Lake. We had stopped outside Bakersfield for lunch, and then continued at low altitude, just enjoying the sights.

Then, out of nowhere, there was a huge *BANG!* from the front of the plane. We quickly lost about 15 knots of airspeed. Karen looked at me and said "What the f**k was THAT?" I said, "I don't know, but one way or another, we're screwed." I immediately started looking for emergency landing sights, and quickly found one at Pixley airport. I also started talking to the controllers about the issue (I frequently use flight following on cross country trips).

The weird thing was---we were now stable. Still flying slower, but the engine was rock steady, and the plane was stable. Pixley is a cow field, with no services at all. There are a bazillion safe places to put down a plane in the central valley, so I elected to continue on to Visalia, which had full maintenance facilities. I informed the controllers.

We arrived at Visalia in about half an hour or so without incident. I set up the approach, and moved the lever for the landing gear---and nothing happened. I cycled it several times. Nothing. I tried the manual gear pump. Nothing---and no resistance. I was talking to the controllers, and we got several mechanics on the line as well. I had read that when the normal extension mechanism doesn't work, you can try somewhat violent maneuvers to throw it down and locked. I tried that. Didn't work.

It was suggested we try to pull the gear down with the towbar. So, while I slowed down to just above stall, Karen opened her door, took the towbar, and tried to pull the gear into position (this is a high wing plane). She could hook the gear leg, and she could move it, but she couldn't get it to lock.

I should be clear, of course, that leaning out of a disabled airplane trying to fix it in-flight was NOT Karen's idea of a good time! She was a real trooper throughout the event. But, she liked the next idea even less---SHE had to fly the plane while *I* leaned out the open door! I got the gear leg hooked, and I was able to move it, and I was pretty sure I could get it into position and locked---but then it occurred to me that having one gear down and locked and one trailing was a *hugely* bad idea. The mechanics on the ground concurred.

After an hour or so trying various things, we polled the assembled wisdom on the radio, and everyone agreed there was nothing left to try---it was time for my first and (so far) only intentional gear up landing. I told everyone to get out of the way, because I was coming in. I did do an extra circle of the field to let a King Air depart.

At that time in my life, I read virtually every aviation magazine in print, and I had read that if you can stop the prop prior to a gear-up landing, you can minimize prop and engine damage. I even saw a picture of someone doing it! So I turned the engine off. Damned prop kept spinning. I lifted the nose to stop it, but we stalled early due to the excess drag. A lot more drag than I expected with the gear trailing, partially down! I pushed the nose down, and we were at least sort of flying again. We banged onto the runway, and slid on the belly for a very short distance, rotating 90 degrees to the right in the process. As we rotated, a wingtip dipped and just barely touched the runway, then righted when we stopped moving. As recommended by procedure, we had unlocked the doors prior to impact. Once we stopped moving, I said “Out!”, and we quickly moved away from the plane, also according to procedure.

Well, there was no fire, and it turns out that I had successfully saved both the engine and the prop. They lifted the plane up with a hoist, hauled the gear down to the locked position manually, and later flew the plane home for repairs---no engine or prop work required. Turns out a hydraulic fitting in the landing gear system had failed, and immediately dumped all the fluid overboard. There was no way we were going to get that gear down. And you know what…we didn't sue anybody! It was an older plane, and shit happens.

Since it was all on the radio while it was happening, there was a huge press corps and general gathering watching while I was doing all of this. We made the paper the next day, and I still have the clipping. When I opened the door to do my attempt at pulling the gear down, my flight bag had bailed out of the plane. This had been noted on the ground---and the local sheriff had dispatched troopers to find it, thinking I might have been dumping drugs! They never found it, unfortunately, but to this day, in 2009, I use the flight bag Karen bought me to replace that one.

When all the commotion had settled down, and I had done my required interview with the press, we rented a car, and continued the trip.

It wasn't until hours later, waiting for dinner at the Pine Mountain Lake Country Club, that I emotionally caught up with what had just happened. I calmed down, several drinks later---.

The plane was returned to service in fairly short order, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s still flying today! As are we!



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