Never Again

Failure to flight check

January 1, 2005

After being involved in several different businesses, my last 24 years of working before retirement were spent in aviation, operating an FBO at the Hillsboro, Oregon, airport (now Portland-Hillsboro). When not overseeing employees and attending to other aspects of the business, my most enjoyable experience was selling new and used airplanes. With extensive advertising, I always had more buyers than airplanes, and as a result, a high percentage of my sales were airplanes purchased and resold out of other dealers' inventories, and aircraft on consignment.

One such airplane was a Piper Comanche 250, owned by a dealer in San Jose, California. When I was ready to take off upon picking it up in San Jose, I discovered the airplane had a dead battery. The line attendant gave me a jump-start. It was later determined that he must have reversed the cables in the process, which in turn apparently damaged the alternator or some other part of the electrical system.

After takeoff there was just enough juice in the battery to retract the gear, so I didn't notice any problem. However, after about 30 minutes, I lost radio contact and all the electrically driven instruments stopped functioning. After checking fuses and resetting all the breakers, I found that nothing had helped the situation. The engine ran perfectly, so I reasoned that the best thing would be to continue north on to Red Bluff, California, about an hour into the flight from San Jose, where there was a shop where I could get the problem fixed — buy a new battery or do whatever maintenance to the electrical system deemed necessary.

Having a dead battery was of no great concern as I knew I could lift the cover plate on the floor and lower the landing gear, but to my horror when I did so, I found I could only move the gear handle partway. Pulling, pushing, and probably in the process bending the handle did no good. This situation clearly left me with a helpless, hopeless feeling.

Since I could not make radio contact, I buzzed low over the airport to get someone's attention. As I passed over the field at Red Bluff, one person waved and held his arms out and down, I suppose to let me know that the gear was not all the way down and locked. I circled the field several more times trying to get the gear down. By then a fire truck was parked near the runway, along with a contingent of spectators gathering to observe the upcoming event.

Since I probably still had around 50 gallons of fuel in the tanks, I wanted to touch down as slow as possible and get out in the event of a fire. I made a long, slow approach down final, and when I had the runway made, I closed the fuel valves, turned off the master switch, dropped the flaps partway, and unlatched the door. I carried a little power with the nose up to slow my speed, and just before touchdown I pulled the mixture and turned off the ignition. It seemed to me at the time that the airplane would never stop sliding, but in reality I probably did not slide much more than 100 feet.

With no wheels, I had no control, so by the time the airplane stopped, I had climbed out on the wing and was running away. One of the men from flight service told me that if there had been a track meet there that day, I would have won first place.

A lift truck was sent out and the airplane was lifted up, and to my consternation the gear dropped down and locked into place. How could this be? What had I done wrong?

After filling out the papers for the FAA, I had a private airplane fly me to Medford, Oregon, where I caught a commercial flight back to Portland.

The party I got the airplane from sent a pilot to Red Bluff with a new prop. The pilot flew the airplane back to San Jose where the belly skin was replaced and the flaps repaired in the late 1960s at a total cost of $3,200, including the prop.

It turned out that the airplane was one year old. In its short life, it had been wrecked and the shop that rebuilt it had left the two pull strings off the gear motor that lifted it out of the way so the gear could be operated manually. Had I been more familiar with the airplane's gear system, I would have known to reach down and lift the motor up when I first tried to extend the gear by hand. That would have solved the problem.

I guess the moral to this experience is to never jump into a strange airplane and go without a complete flight check first.

Keith A. Magee, AOPA 198401, is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 4,000 hours. He sold more than 900 airplanes in 24 years as an aircraft broker.

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