Never Again Online: Fly the airplane

November 7, 2007

I was flying our Piper Comanche from the University of Oklahoma Westheimer Airport in Norman to my home base at Altus/Quartz Mountain Regional Airport in Altus, Oklahoma. Everything seemed normal during the trip until I noticed the amber gear-up indicator light was not lit.

The Comanche has two mirrors mounted on each wingtip pointing toward the underside of the airplane to visually check the gear status. There is also a landing gear handle inside the cockpit between the two front seats to determine the gear position: If the handle is up, the gear is down and locked; if the handle is on the floor, the gear is up in the wheel wells. I confirmed the gear status with the help of the mirrors and the handle, and I felt pretty confident the gear was up. I chalked up the light problem to a burned-out bulb and pressed on home.

When I arrived at Altus, I slowed the airplane down and ran the before landing checklist, which includes lowering the gear. But, to my horror, nothing happened when I placed the gear switch in the down position—no sound of the gear motor engaging and no feeling in the rudder pedals of the gear coming down. There was no gear visible in the mirrors. The situation quickly caught my attention. I dreaded the thought of having to manually lower the gear and hope they would lock in place—or, if that failed—having to land gear-up. I immediately looked up the emergency procedures for manually lowering the gear: Slow airspeed to 100 mph; place landing gear selector in the off (middle) position; disengage motor release arm and push forward through full travel; allow landing gear to fall; emergency handle forward through full travel to extend the landing gear.

Now, like any good pilot, I had studied the manual gear extension procedure in the past and knew the process pretty well. But, leisurely reading about the task is quite different from having to perform the real thing in flight. I realized it was not going to be easy while flying the airplane.

Different thoughts began racing through my mind, "Get ready for the emergency procedure; I wish I were on the ground right now; call Nick [who co-owns the airplane] to get his help and ideas; why is this happening to me?"

Getting Nick's help seemed a good idea. He had more experience in the airplane than I; he was also an A&P mechanic. I immediately contacted the airport via the unicom and asked them to call Nick, have him come out to the airport, and put him on the radio to help me troubleshoot and come up with ideas to keep the airplane and me safe. He arrived after about 10 minutes, and I can't tell you how comforting it was to hear his friendly voice. Nick began by asking some relatively simple questions that I had already considered, but ones that had to be asked nonetheless: "Are your navigation lights on?" (The gear indicator lights automatically dim when those are on) and, "What happens when you put the gear switch down?"

Nick and I finally concluded the circuit breaker must have popped for some unknown reason. He asked if I could reset it. I did, but still, nothing happened. We tried a couple of other things to no avail. Nick then recommended I stabilize the airplane and get ready to manually lower the gear, something I was not looking forward to and really didn't want to hear. In the meantime he was going to try and contact the mechanic who had last worked on the airplane to see if he could offer other suggestions. The mechanic wasn't home, so Nick called the previous owner of the airplane, who came up with the solution: Slow the airplane to 100 mph, push and hold the circuit breaker in, and see if the gear drops down. I was willing to try anything at this point. Hallelujah! I heard the gear motor engage, felt the gear falling, and got a green light indicating the gear was down and locked! I yelled in the radio, "Nick, that worked! The gear is down, and I have a green light." I did a low pass over the runway while Nick inspected the aircraft through binoculars to ensure the gear was down and locked. He advised it appeared to be so, and I came back around and made an uneventful landing. It was good to be back on the ground!

As I reflect on this incident a few things come to mind.

I am amazed how calm I had been during the whole event. I had not really been scared. Instead, I had dealt with the issue at hand and told myself, "No matter what happens, keep flying the airplane."

Although I was by myself in the airplane, I had not been alone. I had made a good decision to get my partner involved. I had known I could count on his expert advice and experience, and when he was at a loss for any more ideas, he enlisted the help of others! This was good crew resource management.

As pilots, we must be ready for any challenge that might come our way. Know and practice emergency procedures, know your airplane, and use all available resources. And above all, no matter what happens, fly the airplane.

Douglas Winters, AOPA 4366573, is chief of airspace management at Altus Air Force Base. He holds a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating and has accumulated more than 1,330 hours of flight time during 31 years. He has flown more than 100 missions as a major in the Civil Air Patrol.

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the December issue of AOPA Pilot. Terrain and unforecast weather got this pilot in a jam.