I Learned About Flying From That: Breaking In a New Airplane

An old airplane brings new surprises.



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I was in the grocery store picking up some food for Super Bowl Sunday when I got the call. The offer I made on the 1970 B58 Baron had been accepted. A quick look online showed that there was one flight leaving that afternoon for Arkansas, and in three hours I was on my way.

The airplane was old and tired and had been ridden hard and put to bed wet. The logbooks were missing prior to 1980, and maintenance in the last five years was questionable. However, the engines were almost new and the aircraft served my purpose well. I live on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, and was looking for an island hopper. I just wanted enough airplane to be able to feel safe and secure as I explored the Caribbean. My plan was to do a compression check and a thorough inspection of the airplane. If it looked good, I was going to fly it out to Colorado for an annual inspection.

Well, things seldom work out the way they're supposed to. The next day the weather was terrible. Although it was supposed to be IFR certified, as am I, the fact that I had never flown this airplane made me very squeam­ish about flying in bad weather on the first flight. I decided not to leave that day, but instead elected to spend more time looking over the airplane.

The Baron was pretty much what I expected it to be, old and ragged. In the last eight years, it had been flown less than 150 hours, and it had flown less than six hours in the past four years. The interior was not too bad and the radios, while old, were working. Both of the engines looked good, and the compression test showed both of them were in the very high 70s. I decided to go ahead with the purchase.

The next morning came, and the weather was still bad. I resisted the temptation to fly and spent Super Bowl Sunday in a restaurant reading through the logbooks. One thing stuck out to me. Several times over the past 10 years the gear had been tested during the annual. This is not unusual, but the entries all said the gear had been "retracted and extended at least three times and the system checked good." I wondered why. Maybe it was no big deal, but I read through the emergency procedures several times that evening just in case.

The next morning was beautiful. I considered doing a circuit at Little Rock to test the landing gear but decided against it. After all, I was just being sensitive about the whole thing: There was nothing wrong with the gear, right?

The takeoff was uneventful and the gear rose without any problems. I flew to Colorado Springs in just under four hours. The tower cleared me to land on 35L. I lowered the flaps, and the flaps came down. Next, I lowered the gear … nothing. No familiar motor sound, no lights, nothing. Even though I had anticipated there could be some problems, I really was surprised.

I flew over the tower and it confirmed my gear was not down. I ­departed the area to the east to manually extend the gear, and it was at this point that the excitement started. The autopilot, which was working wonderfully the entire flight, did not want to turn on for me. OK, I don't need an autopilot. I went through the checklist and recycled the gear and tried to yaw the airplane to get it to drop. Nothing. I began the manual extension procedures. Another issue arose: I couldn't turn the crank. At this point I thought the gear might actually have come down during the recycle phase, but another fly-by indicated the gear was still up.

No matter how hard I tried I could not turn the crank. So I did what any self-respecting pilot would do. While holding the yoke so I could fly straight, I got my feet behind the seats and stood on the crank. Still nothing happened, so I jumped on it. This time something broke. When I say something broke, I mean the crank turned. However, I wasn't sure if I broke the mechanism, or if I just broke it loose. I got back into the pilot seat and started turning the crank. The book says you have to turn it 50 times. Here I was, flying toward the airport, cranking like crazy. I cranked the handle over 100 times, but it was still turning. Then the unthinkable happened. The left engine stopped. Suddenly the gear didn't seem so important.

I kept flying the airplane, heading back to the airport, which was 5 miles away. Not wanting to land gear-up on one engine, I decided to take the time to attempt to restart the engine. I assumed there was gunk in the tank, so I cross-fed and attempted the restart. The way the flight had been going, I thought I was wasting my time, but it started. At this point, I had about 15 minutes of fuel left and decided I would fly past the tower, ask if the gear was down and tell them that, regardless, I'm going to land on Runway 17R.

I flew past the tower, which told me that my gear looked like it was down but not all the way down. I made another run at the tower, all the time still cranking, and they said it looked like my gear was down. I entered a left downwind for Runway 17R. It was time to get on the ground. I was pretty sure the gear would collapse when I landed.

As soon as I turned final, I prepared for a gear-up landing by shutting down the engines and turning off the fuel and power. The engines were the most valuable part of the airplane, and I wanted to make sure to protect them. I was plenty high.

It seemed to take forever, but the next thing I knew I was in the flare. I kept the airplane in ground effect as long as I could and touched down gently on the back wheels, keeping the nose off the ground as long as possible. Finally it dropped. To my surprise, the gear did not collapse. I got about 10 feet off the runway, and the airplane came to a stop.

The gear problem had been caused by the left gear door binding and the system being poorly rigged. The shop had the problem corrected in hours.

Looking back at the situation, I did several things right. I did not succumb to the temptation to fly home in bad weather. I did a very thorough preflight of the airplane, including reviewing emergency procedures. Reviewing the logbooks had given me a bad feeling about the gear, and I was relatively well prepared to handle the situation.

But there are also several things I'd do differently. It would've been easier to handle the gear situation with another person on board. I had considered bringing another pilot along, and should have. Since I had a bad feeling about the gear, I should have done a touch-and-go at Little Rock. I think maybe I should have been more forceful with the gear handle on the first attempt to manually extend it. I wasted 15 minutes, and if I'd had any less fuel, that could've been an issue. The engine quit running due to sludge in the tank, which could have been expected considering how long the airplane had been sitting. I had sumped the fuel tank and checked the fuel, but there's no way to get everything out of the tank. I think if I ever do this again, I will have the tanks drained completely and flushed.

I have been required to go to simulator training at least once a year, sometimes twice a year, for 15 years. I've got to say, all the training and repetition paid off for me one very cold February morning.

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