Never Again

Hangar flying saves the day

March 1, 2006

Sometimes my wife wonders why I spend so much time hanging around the airport, even on days when I am not scheduled to fly. To me, hangar flying is an important part of staying current. The information learned in those sessions has been very valuable and probably prevented major damage to my airplane, or even worse.

I share ownership in a Beech Baron 55. The manual gear-extension handle in this airplane is located just behind the right front seat so the pilot can reach it and crank the gear down if necessary. It is not fun to do this on your own, but it can be done. It also helps if you have an autopilot to fly the airplane while you hand-crank the 50 turns required to extend the gear.

The plastic spar cover located under the front seats has a square hole through which the manual gear-extension handle fits. Properly installed, the handle extends through the hole and folds down on the outside of the spar cover. Unfortunately, if the spar cover is not installed properly the handle will be trapped inside.

During several hangar-flying sessions, I had heard of occasions where this situation occurred and a sharp pocketknife was used to cut the spar cover and free the handle. For that very reason, I almost always carried a small tool with a sharp knife in my flight bag. However, the manual gear-extension handle was not part of my standard preflight checklist.

Not long ago I flew the airplane to another city to have new engines installed. I returned home by commercial flight. So airport security wouldn't confiscate my knife, I had taken it out of the flight bag and left it at home.

Subsequently, on a solo flight from Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona, to Salt Lake City Municipal 2 Airport in Utah, I arrived at my destination to discover that the gear would not extend. No previous warnings, the gear just would not go down.

I departed the airport traffic pattern to troubleshoot the problem. I recycled the alternators, master switch, gear-position handle, and so on, all to no avail. When it became clear that hand-cranking was in order, I folded down the right seat and pulled off the manual gear-extension-handle cover, only to discover that I could not extend the handle because the spar cover had been improperly reinstalled and was blocking it. I also discovered to my dismay that I had not returned my knife to my flight bag.

Fortunately, there are areas over Utah Lake, located south of Salt Lake City and west of Provo, that are off most regular traffic routes. I headed there, activated the autopilot, climbed into the backseat, and rummaged through every pocket, nook, and cranny looking for a knife to cut away the spar cover and free the handle. Nothing.

By this time I had been flying approximately three hours.

There I was. Alone in the backseat of a perfectly good airplane with the gear motor apparently inoperative and the manual gear-extension handle blocked, trying to keep some sort of lookout for airplanes and rocks, heading south for about 15 minutes and then turning around and heading north for about 15 minutes more, while flying at reduced speed to conserve fuel and maximize the available airspace.

Even though I did not have my knife, hangar flying assisted me again. First, I knew instantly what the problem was and how to solve it. Second, I knew that, if necessary, I would land gear-up, new engines or not. Third, I immediately thought of many discussions about flying the airplane first and not getting so distracted by the problem that essential flight elements would be forgotten. Avoid terrain. Maintain a heading, altitude, and airspeed. Manage fuel consumption.

The autopilot was handling heading, altitude, and airspeed for the straight- and-level portions of the exercise. I had to manage terrain and fuel. That was relatively easy. I just had to keep looking outside often enough to stay within the confined area I had identified as reasonably clear of other airplanes and mountains. And the airplane's fuel flow gauge was extremely accurate, a very important factor as the event continued to unfold.

With contingencies in place, I finally identified the only implement I could find in the airplane — the towbar. Using the towbar's notch that hooks on the tow pin, I ripped and ripped at the spar cover until I had torn enough off so I could get the gear-extension handle free. It took more than an hour to tear at the spar cover, look outside and reset the heading bug, and watch the fuel gauges, while trying not to have a heart attack from the exertion.

You can appreciate my relief when I finally had the gear indicator lights showing three green. I collapsed in the backseat to catch my breath and cool off when I was reminded of aerodynamic principles from my earliest flight training. Extended landing gear creates drag. Unchanged power settings, while maintaining altitude (thanks to the autopilot), will slow the airplane down.

My relaxation in the backseat was short-lived, as I perceived a change in the airplane's performance. I glanced at the airspeed indicator, which showed 85 knots, the approximate touchdown speed for a Baron and not far above its stall speed. Yikes! For an older, overweight, and out-of-condition guy, I moved pretty quickly, and from the backseat pushed the throttles forward, disconnected the autopilot, and lowered the nose. Then I climbed back into the front seat and resumed what more closely resembled normal flight.

The remaining flight and landing at Salt Lake City were uneventful. For the record, I added 122 gallons of 100LL. In an airplane that carries 136 gallons of usable fuel, that is about as close as I care to cut it. Salt Lake Air Service expeditiously replaced the landing-gear motor, and the return flight was without incident.

I now check the spar cover before each flight, and I have a knife in the airplane's glove box instead of the flight bag.


Dan G. Curtis, AOPA 1376649, is an attorney residing in Arizona and a private pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings. Over the course of seven years he has accumulated more than 650 hours of flight time.


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