Clock Runs Out

Balky landing gear and fire trucks lead pilot to make two go-arounds - one too many.


Pilots love control. From the first flying lesson on, instructors preach the need to be in control of the flight and the airplane.

And despite the fact that those FAA people on the radio are called controllers, most pilots secretly believe those folks are really coordinators. Theres no question whos really in control. After all, FAR 91.3 says the PIC is the final authority and you can do what you gotta do.

However, situations routinely develop where competent and qualified pilots who know what they have to do fall into the trap of letting outsiders dictate a course of events that run counter to the pilots safety. This goes beyond ATC, of course. Pilots find themselves pushed by mechanics, FBOs, passengers and the whole regulatory structure. Then theres the cruelest taskmaster of all: themselves.

A pilot may push the limits of the airplanes fuel supply because he doesnt want to disappoint his passengers with a late arrival. An FBO eager for revenue may urge a student pilot to go take a look if the weather doesnt measure up. A mechanic who cant easily find the source of a problem may urge the pilot continue to fly but to keep an eye on it. Fear of FAA enforcement may induce the pilot to make bad decisions in an attempt to stay out of trouble.

While none of these factors absolve the pilot of his responsibility for the flight, they do help to explain some of the most mysterious accidents out there – the ones in which competent pilots come to grief because it takes them too long to put the airplane on the ground.

Consider the pilot of a Cessna 210N, who was flying out of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in suburban Atlanta. The weather was clear, winds were blowing at only four knots and the temperature was 70 degrees. It was a great day for flying – or so the pilot probably thought.

At 10:31 on that November Sunday morning, the pilot contacted Peachtree Ground, reporting he was on the ramp and wanted to depart northbound VFR. He then taxied to runway 2L to await his turn for takeoff. After a successful run-up, the pilot was cleared for takeoff at 10:42. He reported a straight-out departure.

About four minutes later, the pilot of the 210 called the tower, saying he would like to return. The controller asked if he needed any assistance or if he was just coming back. He responded, Coming back inbound.

The following exchange then took place:

Tower: … just, uh, turn, uh, southbound and enter right downwind for runway 2R and youll see Cessna traffic youre following at your, uh, 12 oclock and a mile and a half, 2,300.

Cessna: 17A

Cessna: Ive got smoke in the cockpit. My gear wont go down.

Tower: Who has smoke in the cockpit and the gear wont go down?

Cessna: 17A

Tower: Centurion 17A, would you like to just make a straight-in for 20L?

Cessna: uh, 20L. Thank you.

Tower: Centurion 17A, wind 350 at five.

Tower: Centurion 17A, the airport at your, uh, 12 oclock and four miles.

Tower: Centurion 17A, it looks like youre heading more southbound. Did you want to make the left base for 20L or want to just come in for 27?

Cessna: I was going to make the right base, uh, 2R.

Tower: Centurion 17A, roger. The, uh, downwind for 2R.

By this time, the controllers had alerted the fire station on the field of the incoming emergency. Two trucks were dispatched from the station on the northwest part of the field. As was standard procedure, they planned to station themselves slightly ahead of where the airplane would land on the runway and then chase it as it rolled out.

They drove south on taxiway A, the main taxiway that extends the length of the airport parallel to runway 2R/20L, the longest one at the field. They planned to station themselves at the intersection of taxiways A and F, which is the first turnoff from the approach end of 2R. As they rolled, the drama in the air continued to unfold.

Cessna: 17A, I dont think I have my gear down.

Tower: Centurion 17A, roger. Say your request.

Cessna: I think I would kind of like to try to get the gear down. And I still got this smoke.

Tower: Centurion 17A, roger. Did you want to just do a fly-by to check and, uh, you dont have the smoke anymore?

Cessna: Yes, I do. I just have the window open.

Tower: Centurion 17A, roger. And, uh, just, uh, if you want to do, uh, uh, a fly-by on 2R to check for the gear.

Cessna: OK. Will do.

The pilot apparently was flying a non-standard traffic pattern, perhaps in his quest to resolve his problem. The fire trucks saw they would not reach their planned waiting spot before the airplane got there, so they turned off the taxiway and onto runway 27, right where that runway intersects with 2R.

Tower: Centurion 17A, youre just doing short base for runway 2R or are you going to make inbound 34?

Cessna: I was just going to go down 2R and let you look at the gear.

Tower: Centurion 17A, the gear appears down. Say your request.

Cessna: Ill land if it looks down. Looks … feels up to me.

The controller cleared the airplane to land on runway 2R and for 30 long seconds the airplane swooped toward the runway. As the airplane touched the ground, witnesses on the ground and in the tower saw the gear begin to fold back toward their retracted position. The controller said, Centurion 17A, it does not … Im not sure whether the gear is down. Go around.

But in the time it took her to say those words, the pilot had already applied power and was climbing out. The tower broadcast to the pilot some information he probably already knew, that when he began to climb out again smoke once again started pouring from the airplane.

The pilot of another airplane, watching the drama from the ground, broke in to suggest pulling the circuit breaker on the gear pump. Meanwhile, the Cessna pilot was banking steeply to the right, nose-high, with the prop clawing at the air. He circled around to land on runway 27.

The fire trucks were waiting for the airplane to turn back for another attempt to land on 2R when the Tower controller realized they were now parked directly in the Cessnas path. The ground controller called the trucks, telling them to move immediately. At the same time, the tower controller called the pilot, Airplane 17A, youre, uh, there are just vehicles on 27. Can you go around?

At that point, a transmission unidentified on the tapes but possibly from the troubled Cessna came across the airwaves. Get out of the way. A few seconds later: Gotta pump er down.

The firefighters reported the airplane was heading straight for them as the trucks scrambled off the runway onto the grass just to the south. They vacated the runway before the airplane got to them, but apparently the pilot could not commit to a landing with the runway obstructed. He pulled up, the airplane trailing heavy smoke. One witness tried to look into the cockpit and saw it opaque with smoke.

The tower controller immediately cleared the pilot to land on any runway. The airplane began a banking left turn back toward the safety of concrete once more. It struck the ground, left wing low, in the grass between runways 2L and 2R and cartwheeled.

Firefighters were on the scene in less than 15 seconds to foam the airplane. When they looked inside they confronted the gruesome reality. The pilot had not been wearing a seat belt and, in the words of one, was obviously deceased.

The Smoking Gun
Investigators found the floor beneath the pilot seat to be severely fire-damaged and the skin on the underside of the airplane had been made brittle by the heat. Beneath the floor, they found the source of the problem.

The Cessna 210 retractable landing gear does not contain uplocks. Like in many light airplanes, the gear is held up by hydraulic pressure. The gear is also extended by hydraulic pressure, and the downlocks are operated by hydraulic pressure. Without hydraulic pressure, there can be no down and locked.

The hydraulic lines that power the gear were routed under the pilots seat, along the outboard edge. The aluminum lines had melted away, as had some flexline connectors. Only a few ounces of hydraulic fluid were recovered from the wreckage. The system should have contained 64 ounces.

Also routed under the floor was a 30-amp wire used to power the electric flaps. The electrical system is designed such that the wire always has power. If the flaps are up, the power goes to the motor. If the flaps are down the power goes to ground.

The hydraulic fluid used has a flashpoint of 180 degrees F. Once ignited, it burns with almost the same heat of combustion as gasoline. The fire must have been intense. To melt the hydraulic lines would have required sustained temperatures of more than 1100 degrees F.

The wires fore and aft of the fire-damaged section were in good shape, with no broken insulation, but the final NTSB ruling points out that there was evidence of electrical arcing in the vicinity of the hot spot. The pilot either ignored or did not know about the cardinal rule of electrical fire in flight: turn off the master switch.

The heat required to cause the extensive pre-crash fire damage makes it somewhat surprising that the pilot could maintain control as well as he did and for as long as he did. In fact, the fire even compromised the integrity of the pilots seat track, which may have been the final straw in the eventual loss of control.

Investigators also examined the training and behavior of the crew in the tower cab. Among the questions to be answered: Why were the fire trucks on runway 27 rather than on a taxiway? Why had the pilot been instructed to go around twice when the airplane was trailing smoke? What could they have done differently to change the outcome?

The tower and the fire department have a letter of agreement that divides the airport into a grid, but the controllers said they never used it. It was standard procedure to refer to spots on the airport by using runway and taxiway designators. In fact, one controller didnt even know such an agreement was in place.

The controllers as a group agreed that emergency training in the form of actual drills was never done. All emergency training was based on written documents or a computer-based form. However, they also said they did not believe a lack of controller training caused the accident to be worse than it might otherwise have been.

The controllers said they agreed that the airplane should have been sent around on the first pass because the pilot had specifically said he wanted to try to make sure the gear was down. In addition, the controllers had told him it appeared down and they didnt want to mislead him with incorrect information.

The firefighters said they elected to turn onto the runway because the aircraft appeared that it was about to crash near the intersection of 2R and 27, and their station on 27 would allow them to get to the crash in the least amount of time. They did not get a clearance because, in their opinion, the situation had escalated to the point where it required immediate action.

Its tempting to fault the controllers for instructing the pilot to go around. Yet if the end result would have been only a collapsed gear on the runway, they would have been blamed for telling him the gear was down when it was not.

Clearly from both an intellectual and legal standpoint, the onus for landing sooner rather than later fell on the pilots shoulders. But add in the emotional factors and the waters are considerably muddier.

In his nearly 800 hours of flying, the pilot had been taught – indeed even ordered – to defer to the instructions of the controllers. The same FAA that issues that decree has made it clear that violating the rules or having an accident can have grievous consequences.

And besides, most pilots are confident in their abilities or they would never take off. This pilot was trying to minimize the potential for damage. First he wanted the airplane undamaged. Then he wanted to protect the fire crew. Unfortunately, his time then ran out.

While the simple lesson to take away from an incident such as this is that a smoking airplane belongs to the insurance company and needs to get on the ground now, there is a more complicated lesson to be learned as well.

In cases of emergency, dont follow instructions, past or present, if they are in conflict with what you have to do. If you need to land against the rest of the traffic flow, do it. If the gear collapses, so be it. If the runway is blocked, use the grass.

Given the number of airplanes (and fire trucks) operating at the airport at the time, the risk to people on the ground was substantial. The pilot deserves credit for avoiding harm to others. If only he was around to accept it.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Deadly Chain.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here