Phone Home

This is an emergency, we can do whatever we want


Up until last week, I was one of the most anti-cell phone pilots around. I always thought cell phones were worthless because the reception was never consistent. It seemed as though the more cell phones and pagers a person had, the more difficult it was to reach them. More importantly, cellular phone use in flight has always been a no-no. Last week, I was in a situation that completely changed my mind.

I was flying some people to Philadelphia International Airport in their Piper Chieftain. Everything about the flight was going as planned; it was a sunny VFR day, the previous legs of the trip had gone flawlessly and air traffic was at a minimum. A few miles from the airport, my co-pilot read off the landing checklist. I moved the landing gear handle down and, much to my surprise, one of the main landing gears did not lock down.

We asked Philly Tower for a go-around, and I proceeded to recycle the landing gear. I thought, Its probably a stuck indicator switch. By this time our passengers realized what was happening, so my co-pilot explained that we would go through a few procedures, and more than likely we will get a down and locked indication. After unsuccessfully recycling the landing gear three or four times, it was clear that we would have to go through the manual extension procedure.

My co-pilot methodically took out the emergency gear extension checklist, and he proceeded to read each item one by one. After pumping the manual extension lever 25 or 30 times, the indicator lights still showed that one of the main gears was not locked. Usually in a Chieftain, the landing gear handle automatically is forced back to the center off position by hydraulic pressure once all of the landing gear is down and locked. In our case, this was not happening; the gear handle remained down. All of us in the airplane realized that this could be a serious situation.

We asked Philly Tower for a fly-by, and they told us the gear appeared to be down. We then asked Philly Approach if we could enter a holding pattern so we could troubleshoot.

We tried everything we could think of and read every checklist over and over. We tried manual extension a few more times. We tried rocking the wings and yawing the tail in an effort to throw the gear into position. After exhausting almost all ideas, we then began reading the Gear Up Landing checklist. One of the first items was Burn off as much fuel as possible. We had two hours of fuel, so we continued circling.

Many thoughts went through our minds, Should we land with all three gear up, or take our chances with two out of three down? Should we do the landing at Philadelphia, or fly back to a large airport near our home base? I had my co-pilot brief the passengers on emergency landings.

Finally, my co-pilot had one last idea, Ill call someone on my cell phone and ask them what to do. I said, I thought airborne cell phone usage was prohibited? He replied, This is an emergency, we can do whatever we want. He then proceeded to call a corporate pilot we both knew. The reception seemed horrible, all of the words we heard were broken up. But surprisingly, our friend at the other end of the phone heard every word from my copilots mouth.

His first question was, What approach frequency are you on? Our friend then proceeded to call every pilot he knew who had ever flown Chieftains.

Within minutes, Philly Approach called us and said, Your Chief Pilot called, and he recommends moving the throttles back below 12 inches manifold pressure to see if the gear unsafe warning horn sounds. We tried this procedure, and the warning horn sounded, indicating the gear was still unsafe.

A few minutes later, Approach control called us again, Your Chief Pilot recommends putting the flaps down and have someone check the gear from the back window of the airplane. I lowered the flaps, and my co-pilot looked out a rear passenger window. He said the gear appeared down. I asked him, Why lower the flaps? and he replied, When the flaps are down, you can see the landing gear very well through the slot between the flaps and wing.

More time went by, and then Approach called us again, Your Chief Pilot recommends moving the landing gear handle to the center position. I did this, and it worked! Three green! I said, as everyone in the aircraft rejoiced.

We then proceeded back to the airport. We landed with five minutes of fuel to spare. After careful inspection of the landing gear by a mechanic, it was determined that the gear locking latch was gunked up with residue from exhaust and oil, which made it very stiff. What may have compounded the problem was that the hydraulic reservoir was low. I asked the mechanic, If we had landed on that gear with the unsafe indication, would the gear have collapsed? He said Most likely.

This flight was a perfect example of cockpit resource management. As PIC, I delegated tasks to my copilot. Likewise my copilot gave me as much feedback as possible. But what really saved the airplane was that cell phone. Use the tools you have, if thats what you need to get down safely.


Shortcut to Chaos
As we neared our destination, we were in the clouds and on an IFR flight plan. I made several checks of the AWOS info and got repeated reports of conditions clear below 12,000 feet and visibility 10 miles. However, there were rain showers in the area and a field five miles to the west had AWOS conditions of six hundred feet broken and 1-mile visibility.

ATC gave us vectors to final with a restriction not to leave the assigned altitude of 200 feet above the crossing altitude for the final approach fix until on final.

I had a solid GPS picture of where I was, backed up by VOR and ADF. While arcing to the FAF, I decided to cut the corner a bit because we were running late. This proved to be a tactical mistake.

Because we started out 200 feet high and then cut the corner, we broke out high and too close to the field for a comfortable approach to the runway. The surrounded showers ruled out a VFR go-around, so I elected to make S-turns down final to dissipate the excess altitude. In my eagerness to land, however, I neglected to shut off the autopilot.

During the S-turns and on short final, the nose kept trying to come up and I battled with the airplane briefly until I figured out my mistake. When I disconnected the autopilot, the airplanes handling returned to normal and I landed uneventfully.

The tendency for the airplane to go nose-high, however, set up the potential for a stall on short final, without enough altitude to recover – especially given the distractions caused by the weather.

I should have flown the approach properly, which would have given me adequate room to descend normally. That way, I wouldnt have broken out with excess altitude.

Even so, I also should have abandoned the approach when it became clear that abnormal maneuvers would be required to land and when the cause of the airplanes handling problems was unknown.


Mountains? What Mountains?
I live near Albany, N.Y. and fly upstate fairly often. I never considered the Adirondacks real mountains, so I didnt worry about mountain flying techniques. One evening at about 7 p.m., I checked the weather with FSS and everything looked good, so my wife and I took off from Lake Placid in our Archer.

Skies were clear and the wind was out of the northwest at about 20 knots at 6,000 feet, which was the altitude we were holding. As I remember it, we approached two peaks that rose to about 5,000 feet and were shooting some beautiful photographs. As we passed between the peaks, I saw another vista I wanted to capture on film. She was holding the camera bag in her lap.

Suddenly we were smacked downward with force I barely thought possible. As the plane dropped, the camera bag hit my wife in the face. For a sickening five or 10 seconds we were out of control and dropped about 500 feet.

The episode was severe enough that, after we landed, I checked the airframe for warping.

The importance of clearing terrain by more than a few hundred feet has taken on new significance for me. I always try to allow at least 2,000 feet. I have put more effort into learning about mountain flying. Fortunately for us, the wind wasnt stronger or who knows how that trip might have ended.


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