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Gear down...maybe

No green light on the nose gear indicator

By Ben Berman

“Gear down, two green, landing checklist complete.”

Illustration by Mike Fizer.
Zoomed image
Illustration by Mike Fizer.

An unusual way to finish the checklist—but that’s how it is for us, coming into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on a mild, clear night. I’m flying an elderly Cessna Citation with Quinton, a brand-new co-pilot. The evening has already featured a nice flight over from Lancaster, with my flying partner doing a great job as pilot flying. On about a five-mile final, he calls for gear down.

I throw the switch and the left and right mains cooperate, but the nose gear’s position is a mystery. No green light on its indicator. We keep descending as I recycle the gear up, then down with the same result.

Is it just a burned-out light bulb? I roll the rotary test selector to its landing gear position and see all three lights. Too bad, it’s not going to be that simple.

Let’s go somewhere and work on this. ATC clears us to climb. We leave the gear selected down and retract the flaps to their first notch (7 degrees). I’m thinking it’s best not to mess with the gear system except as directed by the checklists we’re about to do.

We take vectors around the area. What could be the problem, and what can we do about it? Quinton and I start to talk. I say that we have plenty of time—with drag from at least two of the gear extended, we are burning about 950 pounds per hour and on that basis have 1:45 of fuel remaining. Let’s not rush things.

The nose gear might be in the uplocks, or it might be down and locked, or somewhere in between. What is the airplane saying about that? The red “Gear Unlocked” light is unlit. So, the nose gear is less likely to be in that in-between position. Quinton asks about the gear horn. I can’t remember the conditions under which we should hear it with 7 degrees of flaps. The airplane flight manual with the system description is way back in the aft cabin storage compartment. I suggest that we listen for the gear horn later, when we’re configured for landing. If we hear the horn when the flaps are set to full, it’s a stronger message of gear trouble. And then we’ll have to listen to it blare while landing. If we don’t hear it, on the other hand, that’ll be an encouraging sign about gear position.

Quinton is still flying and I’m on the radios. I declare an emergency with Harrisburg approach. They are immediately helpful. I report fuel remaining and souls on board. They want to know whether we want to land at our original destination, Capital City Airport, or the airline airport across the way in Middletown. Stand by, please!

Now it’s time to see if we can get the gear to come out, if it isn’t already down. Lucky that we have extra fuel, because as I leaf through Cessna’s checklists for emergency/abnormal conditions, it’s like hunting for that specific brand of olives I’ve never bought at the grocery. Looking for gear-related procedures, I end up searching the entire grocery store of checklists.

“Landing Gear Will Not Extend” looks promising, even though two out of three are extended. The checklist instructs us to ensure the gear handle is down, pull the gear control circuit breaker, and then pull out on the emergency gear T-handle that’s by my right knee. This manually releases the uplocks and should allow the gear to free-fall. With a bit of hopeful expectation amid a bit of stress, I pull the handle and lock it to the right.

No change in the unlit nose gear indicator. There isn’t any clunking sound of gear extension, and there’s no change in air noise or apparent drag. This is unlike when I did this a few months ago in the simulator—then, there were all kinds of satisfying improvements when I pulled the handle. Hmm, on to the next checklist step: Use the rudder to yaw the airplane. Also resulting in no change.

Now the checklist issues a caution. The Citation has a pneumatic blowdown feature to help ensure the downlocks are set during an emergency extension. The caution note says that if the downlock lights do not illuminate, the crew should assure visually if possible that all gear have been released before using the blowdown system. It explains that the blowdown will not remove the gear from the uplocks.

We’re concerned that the nose gear may still be on the uplocks. We’ve already discussed and dismissed the idea of doing a low pass—that’s no longer recommended because of its own risks, plus, an outside observer can’t tell, anyways, whether the gear is in a safe, down-and-locked position. A low pass might have identified that the nose gear at least was unlocked and hanging down. But it’s too late to change our minds. Darkness has fallen while we’ve been touring south central Pennsylvania at 4,000 feet.

The wording of the checklist is finally starting to raise my blood pressure. Will we hurt the system if we blow the pneumatic bottle with the nose gear up and locked? The checklist is silent on the issue. I’d like to have the best chance of extending the gear, but I also want to respect the caution note on the checklist. After a couple more vectors from ATC, we decide to do the last step of the checklist and blow the bottle.

You accomplish this by pulling out on a red ring that’s on the same shaft as the emergency gear release lever. I pull the ring out to within about an inch of the end of the shaft. We both recall that you’re supposed to pull the ring all the way to the end. I remember, too, learning from a Citation instructor that the cable to the pneumatic bottle can be too short, or obstructed by a plastic sheath, on a lot of aircraft. I can’t pull the knob out any more. But Quinton, pulling with all his strength at an awkward angle, gets the knob to full travel. He’s pulled so hard that the knob badly pinches the palm of his hand when it slides to the end. He grunts with pain, and I take over the flight controls for the next few minutes until he’s feeling better. The nose gear indicator is no greener than before.

I’ve looked through the whole book for any other procedural advice from Cessna. There are several checklists for abnormal landings, but none for gear-up or partial gear-up conditions. I’ve seen these in other airplanes’ handbooks. We put the abnormal checklists aside.

I’m not too worried about runway length, as I expect we’ll have normal braking after touchdown. The 5,000-foot runway at Capital City looks more than adequate. I’d rather not close down the airline airport, which has a single runway of more than 8,000 feet. I’m concerned, though, about the possibility of going off the side of a runway, so I ask about airport rescue and firefighting at each airport. The fire crew can respond to Capital City in a few minutes. Quinton and I talk it over, and I choose Capital City. ATC will let us know when the airport is ready down there.

Quinton has some good thoughts about our approach and landing. Hold the nose off as long as possible. Consider using only partial (approach) flaps to touch down at a higher pitch attitude. I appreciate the discussion and note to hold the nose off. We plan on partial flaps at first, but then I reconsider and choose full flaps so we won’t float as much in the flare. This is all sound advice and a good discussion. It’s replacing what I would have hoped to have gotten from a partial gear-up landing checklist, if there had been one.

Just about the time we have the perfect amount of fuel left in the tanks (about an hour’s worth), ATC says the fire trucks are in place. I wave to Quinton for the flight controls. There is a moment when we’re both struck by the thought that we’ve done all we can to prepare. And then, together, we both say, “Let’s get it done.”

After a couple of final vectors, I’m flying the airplane with the autopilot engaged, using an LPV approach as backup and viewing the runway several miles ahead. I use angle of attack indications to fly the perfect speed. Full flaps, and there’s no gear horn. I turn off the autopilot about three miles out and keep things stable. We do that unusual landing checklist, confirming two green, and wait for the moment of truth when the nose will come down after landing.

Smooth touchdown on the mains about 1,000 feet down the runway. I’m able to hold the nose up for quite a while.

Suddenly, I realize why it might have been a good idea to land on a longer pavement. We’ve sailed a good way down the runway trying to keep the nose off the ground. In a flash I know it’s time to be done with that and get to the stopping part of the landing roll. As I put on the brakes and the front of the airplane touches down, we’re fortunately rolling on rubber.

So, it all ends well enough. Tomorrow, maintenance will find out that a sensor failed to signal that the nose gear was down and locked. We’ll learn that Quinton had actually torn the blowdown cable off with his massive feat of strength (but not until after the bottle had discharged). We’ll talk to Cessna about those checklists. And I will kick myself about not thinking ahead about the extra runway consumed by the unusual landing I was about to perform. Better to have recognized the situation beforehand and coped with it without surprise and concern.

Ben Berman flies Citation jets and is a former airline captain, NTSB accident investigator, and NASA human factors researcher.

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