Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Preparing For a Gear Up Landing

By Kelly O'Dea

So tonight I had an interesting experience during my checkride to become an CFI at a different flying club. I have a new student starting her commercial rating training on Tuesday and the aircraft needed for this job is at a club other than the one I instruct at currently. Fred Thomas is the check airman. He is the powerfully knowledgeable senior pilot. His old school, comprehensive curriculum is very thorough and his delivery and criticism are scrutinizing almost to the point of being intimidating, but Fred is a teacher and I feel he can read a person and know if they are eager to learn. Then, he is generous with his knowledge. I have no problem with people like Fred. I am like a humble sponge in his presence. I flew with this club during my commercial multi-engine rating but never was a CFI instructing others in their airplanes. Tonight I had to fly in an aircraft I had never flown before with one of the most highly respected pilots on the field as my check airman.

This was the first time I had ever seen this plane. It was a Cessna Cardinal, retractable gear, constant speed propeller and about 35 years old, and it looked like it. It was faded and tattered and extremely simple in the cockpit. I had never even seen a VOR that old. Fred handed me the checklist and told me to get to work.

The preflight went fine and the plane appeared to be worthy for the checkride.

We left Palo Alto and headed over to the coast for maneuvers at 3500ft. He had me do some 50 degree steep turns, a couple stalls, and a stall-spin recovery. Then he had me put the gear down for some slow flight maneuvers, all maneuvering went well and my performance was very good, if not close to perfect. For the first time in this airframe, I was pleased with myself. I knew I needed more time to get used to power settings, but all in all, to this point, Fred was pleased and we progressed.

After slow flight, he told me to recover, get the gear and flaps up and get ready for the next maneuvers. Well, the gear didn't go up, it dangled half way between up and down. He deferred to me for what I would do. I told him we should recycle the gear, to start, and see if that worked. Well, it didn't work. The gear was half out and the green indicator light was also not illuminated. I said we needed to resort to the checklist. He said he wanted to try a G-force dive and hard pitch up to see if that would swing the gear into the locked position. I gave him the controls and he tried with no luck. I said we need to pull the circuit breaker and use the manual extension, and follow the checklist, which said about 40 hand pumps would eventually create enough pressure to the point you couldn't pump it anymore. I pumped and pumped at least 50 times and there was zero pressure building and the gears did not move. I made the first call to the Palo Alto Tower to notify them of our position and our situation and to let them know we needed to orbit for a while over the Woodside VOR while we exercised and discussed all our options. Fred tried pumping the manual release lever as well and confirmed we had lost all hydraulic pressure. Fred decided to ask the tower to contact Evan Williams, the owner of the flight club. A woman's voice came on the radio (later to find out it was Sue Ballew) to notify us that we could use the tow bar to pull the gear up into place through the window. BRILLIANT! I had actually seen this done before in a video and it was done by a friend of mine. The only problem????? We don't have normal windows in the Cardinal. There is a tiny wing window and there is no way a tow bar would fit through it. I said I'd open the door and try it that way. I crawled over the front seats into the baggage compartment and released the tow bar and came back into the front seat with it. I pinned it together, then prepared the cabin for the vacuum effect by tossing our pilot bags and charts and notebooks into the baggage compartment. Fred configured the plane into stable flight at minimum controllable airspeed. I opened the door and had to press and hold it open with all the strength in my leg in order to have enough clearance to grab the strut and hopefully swing it into a locked position. I heaved and grunted with all my might, counting to three with the "three count" being the hardest pull. I tried about a dozen times. I exhausted myself and had to stop.

The tower called us to advise of traffic passing off our left and also to tell us that Evan said we should dump our fuel and prepare for a gear up landing. I replied to the tower that I was looking for the traffic, copied the directions from Evan, and I watched the last sliver of the sun set below the horizon. Time for the navigation lights and strobes now, heck, let's light this plane up like the Fourth of July, landing lights, taxi lights, everything went on. I took control of the aircraft and Fred started dumping fuel and watching the gauges. The gauges didn't move. No surprise there. You can never trust gauges anyway. I asked him if he knew how long it would take to dump out all the fuel. He said he had never done this before and he had no idea. Suddenly I realized we were two people with zero experience in this situation. I'm not sure why I assumed he had experience, but I did. We both remained calm and since I was the designated PIC, I determined that I needed to make progress with the checklists and also communicate very clearly with my co-pilot. I reviewed the procedures for all possible scenarios of gear up/partial gear up landings. We both remained calm and communicated perfectly. If he was doing something, I was flying and communicating with the tower, and vice versa. There was never a moment of uncertainty as to whom was in control of the aircraft. He decided to open his door and try to use the tow bar on his side of the plane, the left side. He had a knee pad with some papers that looked vulnerable so with one hand, I held his leg and the knee pad so he wouldn't lose it, and flew and communicated with the other. I was gripping on to him pretty tight. I noticed he had taken down his harness and I didn't want anything to happen to him. He worked out the door for several minutes and said he thought he had it engaged, but the green gear down indicator light wasn't working for us so we still had no idea if we had three locked gears.

The tower told us that emergency crews were standing by the runway. They also told us twice that the tower was getting ready to close and that they were unable to provide traffic services after 9pm. They said they were trying to get a hold of their tower manager for advice in this unique situation. We looked at each other and agreed to head towards the airport for a fly-by tower observation. He asked if I wanted him to handle the flying and I asked him if I would have a gear up landing on my record if I I landed it. He said this wasn't a situation of pilot error, and no I wouldn't have a mark on my record. I said I wanted to fly it.

I stabilized the aircraft at 65 knots and did a low pass to 50 feet above the runway. The tower said they observed all three wheels in the down position, but could not confirm they were locked. We still did not have a green light indication, so I flew back up to traffic pattern altitude and we discussed our options again. I handed Fred the checklist and said all we could do is prepare for the worst and do our best. I would fly it and he would shut off the fuel, pull the mixture, and turn off the master and magnetos. He said to do one more pass above the field at 50 feet. This was the last practice run, I had to confirm I could be stable and slow on approach and not panic or lose control, we were going to cut power on the next run. The tower announced that they were closing, and advised all approaching aircraft of our distress. They also wished us luck.

While on downwind, an aircraft approaching Palo Alto airspace was unaware of our distress and called in his intentions to land. Palo Alto airspace becomes class G airspace when the tower closes. Fred announced our imminent situation and I prompted Fred to tell him we would wait for him to land just in case we were to disable the runway. The pilot wanted to stay airborne and wished us luck from above. Evan came on the frequency and wished us luck as well and reminded us that crews were standing by for our aid. I'm pretty sure I heard other voices wishing us good luck as well.

Fred and I finalized our final approach plan. I would fly a stabilized, full flap, tail low, at the slowest possible airspeed. He would handle the mixture, fuel cut-off, master and mags. We agreed the fuel wouldn't be cut-off until at the asphalt thresh hold of the runway. We cracked our door handles in case the impact bent the airframe and could potentially lock us in. I flew it slow and slightly below glide slope, keeping power on and stabilized with full flaps. Fred was looking down and getting prepared for his duties, and when he looked up and saw I was very low on glide slope, he reminded me not to hit the dyke. I had it under control and told him to get ready. I crossed the thresh hold and I held it off for as long as possible and kept my nose high and tail low. I felt the rubber gently make contact, I continued to hold the yoke back to its fullest extent and wanted to keep it rolling and not let the nose wheel touch. Fred shouted we were on the ground and rolling!!! I still held the nose wheel up and was able to roll off the runway. Fred pushed the mixture back in to keep us powered up and we were able to clear the runway on our own!

We heard cheers on frequency and were thrilled to be on the ground. Evan came on frequency and said we did a great job. Fred said that it was all me on the flying. Evan said something to the effect that it takes a great CFI to handle a situation like that. I asked on frequency if this meant I got the job. He said they weren't ever going to let me go. I'm pretty sure Fred and I hugged, shook hands, and shared some sort of camaraderie, then did our after landing checklist and taxied to maintenance.

During the taxi, Fred and I discussed how effectively we worked together. He said I handled it great. I referred to effective CRM (crew resource management) and the importance of remaining calm and focused in situations like this. In my slight ten years of flying, I've had my share of incidences, accidents, and emergencies. I remained calm and focused during all of them.

Also, during the taxi, Evan reminded us over the frequency to get our flaps up. Well, our flap indicating switch was in the full up position, this was done during the after landing/ pre-taxi checklist. Fred told Evan of this and then chuckled and said "Hey! Look at that! But the green landing gear light suddenly just illuminated." We both laughed and shook our heads.

Fred reminded me of the very tight taxi lanes and to pay extra special attention while taxiing between the parked planes on the way to the maintenance hangar. This is exactly the character of a focused, knowledgeable pilot. He or she is able to put everything that just happened behind them and focus on the present situation and keep ahead of the plane. Also, A really good CFI is always teaching and sharing their knowledge. I am grateful to Fred for his ability to engage with me as a team on our very first flight together. Also for having the faith in me to follow through with what needed to be done. I rose to the occasion and am now an even better pilot.

We got out of the plane and were greeted by smiling faces and hearty congratulations. The woman who's voice we heard telling us about the tow bar trick over the tower's frequency walked up to the group of us and I recognized her immediately from Facebook. Ironically, we became friends on Facebook many months ago, due to the fact we know so many mutual flying friends and also we both have a fondness of the Boxer breed of dogs. I introduced myself and we both smiled and were happy to finally meet each other face to face. We started talking about our dogs like we'd known each other for years.

All in all, this was a very successful experience that I was excited to share with you. Some people will shake their heads and wonder why I keep willing to jump into an airplane after situations like this, but I know in my heart, I am here to fly, I am good at it, and sharing the experience is what I am meant to do with others.


  1. Wow, Kelly, thank you SO much for sharing your experience! You are an inspiration. I'm very glad for your positive outcome. Also very sorry that PAO checked out while you were on downwind - that's simply inexcusable.

    Sue, thanks for posting! (and for saving the day with your suggestion)

  2. Another informational, enjoyable post to read.......thanks for putting it together.