Never Again: Reluctant passenger

October 1, 2009

I had said no before, not only to the offer for a ride in this aircraft, but many others as well. My standing rule is not to fly in any airplane, or with any pilot, that I don’t know well.

But my friend had caught me at a weak moment and he knew I didn’t have anything else to do that day. Besides, I felt a little guilty for having turned him down a couple of times already.

My friend’s Glasair III had a history of landing gear trouble. It had a gear failure the same day my friend picked it up after his money became someone else’s. He didn’t even get it home. It all started with electrical problems, an alternator caution light, and an open gear pump circuit breaker.

He thought the gear was down, but had no gear lights to prove it and ended up with a prop tip strike before pouring the coals to it and going around. He pumped the gear down and made an uneventful landing. The antenna on the aft belly was exactly one inch tall now, where it used to be four. Of course he needed to have the engine torn down, inspected, and gears replaced, as well as a new propeller.

My ride took place on a clear day, and we were on our way back to the airport to land. During a straight-in approach from nine miles out with the gear down, the over-amp caution light came on and the gear pump circuit breaker popped. My friend, the PIC, informed the tower that he was going around. He did not climb to a safe altitude, and I found it strangely funny that he never turned off the music we were listening to.

Then my friend informed the tower of our little problem. He pulled out the emergency gear handle and started to pump as we turned crosswind. The nose of the aircraft bobbed up and down with every pump. I also noticed the airspeed drop.

“Look,” I finally said. “Either you fly and I’ll pump, or vice versa. And turn off that music.” I took over the pumping. He then reset the gear pump circuit breaker and cycled the gear handle so many times and so fast I lost track of where it was.

We made a fly-by of the tower and asked if the tower controller could see the position of our landing gear. The controller responded, “Your landing gear appears to be down.” I could see the fire trucks on the airport rolling.

On downwind I asked, “You want me to keep pumping?” He did. I was pumping for all my six-foot-two-inch, 205-pound frame was worth. Then, something occurred to me. Even with two hands on the handle, it was very hard to pump. There would have been no way to fly the airplane while pumping this hard.

We turned final and he informed me that he was going to hold the nosegear off the runway as long as possible in case it collapsed. I looked at the gear lights again, and to me it looked like the right gear light was out, not the nosegear light. Well, it wasn’t my aircraft and I didn’t know squat about it, so I just kept quiet.

We touched down and, let me tell you, if the nosegear was going to collapse it sure would have been justified to do so on this landing. We slammed down as if we had just arrived on the deck of an aircraft carrier. But nothing collapsed.

We continued rolling down the runway. Then, to my surprise, the pilot asked for a clearance to taxi to his hangar. The fire trucks followed us and waited while we shut down. No fewer than three right turns and two lefts were required to get to the hangar.

It turned out that all that pumping hadn’t accomplished anything. The right hydraulic strut had snapped at the rod end and was hanging down in the gear well. It also turned out that the right gear had been down ever since the pilot put the gear handle down the first time. If fact, they had all been down. Only the over-center arms had kept the gear from folding up on landing, or during our long taxi with multiple turns.

The only thing all my pumping had done was to jeopardize the other gear actuators. My vigorous, adrenaline-backed pumping registered six times the required pressure on the hydraulic gauge. It’s a wonder I didn’t blow the hoses off.

What did I learn? A lot, as it turns out, but most of the lessons I already knew:

1. Don’t fly with anyone if you don’t want to, ever.

2. Climb to altitude when trying to diagnose and fix a problem.

3. Fly the airplane first and delegate responsibilities if you have the option to do so.

4. Take time to think about the problem and know how your systems operate before flipping switches and pumping handles.

5. Let the aircraft roll to a stop on the runway. Get out and check the gear right then and there, then push or tow the aircraft slowly off the runway. (We could have easily folded the right gear during braking or turning while taxiing. In addition to damaging the airplane, it would have tied up a runway or taxiway.)

6. Know your aircraft and its systems. It turns out that Glasair had issued a service bulletin concerning the landing gear actuator rod ends. It seems they were breaking.

7. And turn the music off.

Gary Bunn is a single- and multiengine pilot and has logged more than 1,800 flight hours since learning to fly in 1976.