Proficient Pilot

Nosewheel landing

November 1, 2005

Aviation writer Barry Schiff is based in Los Angeles.

On September 22, JetBlue Flight 292 departed Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, destined for New York City. But because of a landing-gear problem detected shortly after takeoff, the flight was unable to continue.

The crew learned after a tower flyby that the nosewheel assembly had twisted 90 degrees — the wheels were perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, not parallel to it.

The flight attracted worldwide attention, not so much because it was in great peril but because of the extensive television coverage capturing the drama for hours before the emergency landing at Los Angeles. This was reality TV at its best, much more interesting than car chases.

Most who watched the landing sat on the edge of their seats praying that they were not about to witness a tragedy. The captain made a flawless landing and held off the nosewheel for as long as possible. When the tires touched, they quickly came off their wheels and allowed the rims to scrape the concrete and generate a dramatic shower of sparks. The Airbus came to rest and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Even though this has occurred before to this model of aircraft, such an incident is rare, although it also happens in general aviation. It happened to my close friend, Hal Fishman. He was about to land his Piper Comanche 250 many years ago without realizing that the nosewheel alignment pin had fallen out during gear extension.

Fishman could not know that the nosewheel was cocked halfway to the right. His main wheels touched down normally, but as soon as the nosewheel touched, the aircraft veered sharply to the right, and the Comanche came to a sudden stop.

Most nosewheel-related events involve a nosewheel that simply fails to extend. This reminds me of a documentary film produced by the U.S. Air Force several decades ago. It showed the pilot of a military Aero Commander twin using the leading edge of his left wingtip to nudge and lock into position the dangling nosewheel of a North American F-86 Sabre.

General aviation pilots are not encouraged to take such heroic measures to protect an airplane. There are safer procedures that can be used when the nosewheel does not extend normally or with the emergency extension system.

Increasing the load factor might coax a nosewheel strut to lock in position. This can be done by pulling out of a shallow dive or executing a steep turn, the steeper, the better. (Be sure your passengers have barf bags before employing this method.)

Another useful technique is to make a firm landing (with the flaps up) on only the main landing gear, followed by a bounce and a climb. The jolt might encourage the crippled leg to move down and lock. This should be attempted only by experienced pilots intimately familiar with their aircraft.

Just as the JetBlue captain flew for a couple of hours to burn fuel and reduce aircraft weight, GA pilots can do the same. The reason, of course, is to reduce landing speed and the extent of potential aircraft damage. Do not, however, consume too much fuel and allow a greater emergency to develop.

The time spent reducing weight can be used to determine which airport would be most suitable for landing, preferably one with a long, wide runway, a strong headwind, a good repair shop, and the availability of emergency facilities.

The time also might be used to locate someone on the ground who can offer advice, something the JetBlue captain undoubtedly did. He could not only converse with his maintenance department but also establish a telephone patch with technical personnel at the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France.

Above all, fly the airplane. Do not become distracted to the point of losing control of the airplane (see " The E-Word," page 153).

When a tower controller asks if you would like emergency equipment standing by, answer affirmatively. The sight of fire trucks racing after your airplane might rattle your passengers, but this is no time to worry about their anxiety. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Although the likelihood of fire or injury is low during such a landing, there are no guarantees.

Prior to landing and if practicable, shift the load to establish as rearward a center of gravity as possible to reduce the speed at which the nose will touch down.

Landing with a fully or partially retracted nosewheel is not difficult. Simply hold the nose off the ground until almost full up elevator is applied. Then gradually release back-pressure and allow the nose to settle softly onto the runway. This is better than waiting for the nose to drop while holding the control wheel fully aft because of the additional damage this might cause. To minimize burrowing, do not apply brake pressure unless necessary.

Some pilots contemplate using the starter to position a two-blade propeller horizontally to protect it and the engine from ground damage. Trouble is, most engines windmill at approach speeds. Slowing to near-stall might stop the propeller, but the hazards outweigh the benefits.

The propeller might stop during the landing flare or while rolling on the mains. This would be the time to crank the engine, but only if the pilot does not become so obsessed with the challenge that he loses control of the airplane.


Visit the author's Web site ( www.barryschiff.com).