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On rare occasions in my career I've been in a small group of pilots who, usually under some evil influence, and only after swearing each other to silence forever, begin relating the dumbest things they've ever done in or around airplanes. I don't drink, but somehow it has become traditional for me to have a Margarita at "Polo's" on the Saturday evening of the seminar in Ada. After that, George, Walter and I "debrief" at George's house: They use some weird substance called "Bookers," while I try to sober up from the Margarita with Diet Coke. Somehow the subject of gear-up landings of the inadvertent kind came up during one of these sessions, and it was probably the Margarita that prompted me to tell the story of how I once came very, very close to being the only person to land a 747 with the gear up. They both suggested it would be a most appropriate way to restart my Pelican's Perch column.
Ever stand in a high place, unprotected (Grand Canyon, for example), and feel "The Pull?" There is an awe, an emptiness, an attraction that seemingly beckons, pulling one ever closer to the edge of the abyss. It is not fear, for fear keeps most people well away from such places. It is a feeling, a numbness in the mind (must be like skydiving), a little voice back there that says, "Come closer, closer." No, I'm not suicidal, and I'm not going to succumb. But I know the feeling.
That's the precise feeling I get when the subject of inadvertent gear-up landings comes up.
Never one to get to the point when my fingers are talking, a little history ...
My folks were glassblowers (Bohemian style) in Matawan, N.J., in 1949. Dad had worked on the Manhattan project ("The Bomb") making glass-to-metal seals and scientific apparatus. He used his savings from that to convert a fruit stand to a cozy home with a small shop open to the public, selling the glasswork. He had learned to fly before the war, and after it he bought a PT-19 and was also partners with a few others in a BT-13 "Vultee Vibrator." But times grew tough, the flying went away, and a truly terrible location (no tourists) finally drove them into bankruptcy. Dad loaded up the old '39 Plymouth station wagon, hooked up a huge trailer with all we owned, and moved us to Sarasota, Fla., for a new start. He found an abandoned Army Air Force barracks building on the southeast corner of the former military training base, rented it for something like $20 a month, and started making it livable. He also put a glass working shop and display area in the end facing Desoto Road.
It was a wonderful place for nine-year-old. Rotten, old, WWII barracks everywhere, and piles and piles of rusted junk that were pure treasure. I found a beat-up, bent, and rusty old bicycle on one pile, bent it mostly straight, and sanded it down with some used sandpaper (coarse). Found some leftover paint and brushes in another junk pile and smeared bright red paint all over it. That was my first airplane, for I would ride it with the wind in my face, making believe. Where there was a crack in the road, or a curb, I would approach it at a shallow angle, flare gently as if for landing, and just touch it as gently as I could, somehow mentally transforming the horizontal to the vertical. Silly, I know. But it's a powerful memory.
As my courage grew, and I ventured further away from home, I discovered the airport flight line, something over a mile away. From that point, and for the next eight years, that old bike wore a groove forming the shortest path to the flight line. All that separated me from heaven was a three-foot-high chain-link fence. A local flight instructor took pity on me, invited me in, and put me in the front seat of a 7AC Aeronca "Champ." He was Harry Louden, once a Piper test pilot and personal pilot for "Pug" Piper. Years later he would sign me off for my first solo, for my Private, and for my Commercial. Someone else did my instrument instruction, for Harry never acquired the instrument rating, much less the Instrument Instructor rating. He loved primary instruction, and I'm not sure he even knew how to use VOR, then fairly new. The Champ, N1943E, would become my second solo (Cessna 140 was first).
"Bob," another local pilot, worked for Wallace Aircraft, whose primary business was making fume detectors for boats (they later became the local Piper dealer). I made a pest of myself there while he worked on the gadgets. I still remember the smell of micarta being drilled and cut. I'm not sure who got the contract to deliver the local paper by airplane, but Bob flew the Piper Clipper that did that job for a few years. I'd streak over there after school every day, help load the little bird, and off we'd go. Basic route was south to the Venice airport (another ex-military airport), to Punta Gorda, north to Arcadia, then home. On each of those legs, we'd make deliveries by air-dropping, or by landing on a road, or in a field. Air drops were fun: We'd fly right by the front porch of the farmhouse, and put the single paper right on the porch -- most of the time. I'm not sure what the then-CAA would have done if they'd known about it.
Harry and Bob were my first heroes. Harry is gone now, and I've lost track of Bob.
(Pan American World Airways would later sue Piper over the use of the name "Clipper," and Piper, then a very small company, eventually caved in and changed it. I hated PanAm for that, and for their arrogance. Never failed to irritate me to hear a position report beginning with "The Clipper.")
One day Dad and I were outside the family mansion, and we saw a U.S. Navy Skyraider overhead, making his left base for runway 31 (now 32). The gear was still up! We watched it disappear down behind the trees, and we were looking at each other in utter silence. We heard that awful scraping sound, and both of us ran for the car. We were nearly first on the scene, with the huge, hulking aircraft sitting pitifully on its belly, and a Navy pilot in shock at what he had done. Or hadn't done. It took months for the Navy to repair it, and during that time, I got a lot of surreptitious cockpit time in the AD, out behind the huge, wooden, WWII hangar! The local discussions about gear-up landings fascinated me.
Then there was "Manny," with the heavy Cuban accent, also Harry's student, who owned a Globe Swift. Three times Manny retracted the gear on the runway instead of the flaps, and each time his comment was, "Aiiiii, 'arry, aye heet zee wrong sweeetch!" Again, I was fascinated by the discussion, and pondered how someone could do that. By this time, Bob had started his own engineering company, and had bought a new Bonanza, N329B. There's still a 1955 G-model currently listed under that N-Number, probably the same one. Bob had talked about how landing the Bonanza gear-up was "impossible;" there were too many clues, a warning horn, lights, and, "The airplane would be nearly impossible to slow down," "It would feel too much different," etc. A litany I'd come to hear for nearly half a century, and I hear it still.
Then one day Bob showed up without the Bonanza, but with a shame-faced look. He'd done it landing in Georgia. I'd flown a lot with Bob, and knew we was a truly superb pilot -- very highly respected locally, always very safe and conservative.
Now hey, one expects things like that from a Navy pilot, and it was easy to dismiss Manny as a hamburger (he was), but Bob? Bob, my friend, mentor, and hero? How on earth could that happen? His words were, "Johnny, it's easy." All the usual things: a bit of distraction, and "Ooops, oh, %$#@!" When the airplane was fixed, Bob asked me to go fetch it, a demonstration of trust that touches me still, for I only had a brand-new Commercial. I rode the bus to Valdosta, and brought it home without incident. You can bet I made sure the gear was down. In fact, I considered just leaving it down!
As a result of these and many other such incidents over the past 50 years, I developed a very healthy respect for the possibility of a gear-up landing, and never came close, not even once. I never landed gear up, I never caught myself about to do so, and no one ever caught me with the classic, old, "You gonna put the gear down on this one?" (That was a favorite practical joke in the old days: Say those words to someone just in the flare, and watch the flinch! Best do that over the radio though; it's likely to draw a punch in the nose in the cockpit. Nobody has a sense of humor.)
But all the while, I knew, absolutely knew, "It's easy." I told myself over and over, "Yes, I could do it, absolutely." And one late night in a 747, I nearly proved it. I shudder still, thinking of it.
Those long, late-night, back-of-the-clock, oceanic flights are killers. The radios are generally turned down, position reports occur more than an hour apart, the conversations run dry, and the big event is the crew meal -- sometimes two of them. One Japan Airlines flight I used to fly was a cargo flight from Tokyo to San Francisco, arriving about midnight, San Francisco time. This particular night the assigned crew consisted of three very senior captains -- possibly the three most-senior in the system -- and two very senior flight engineers. All were Americans, all good friends, and if I may toot my own horn a little, the three pilots were probably the three highest-time 747 captains in the world, as well as very, very good pilots. No hamburgers, here! One of the engineers had looked around the cockpit and observed, "You know, there's more than 100,000 hours of flight time in this cockpit, right now." The five of us were good enough friends to watch each other very closely, hoping for a small mistake, so that we could have a good tease and a story for the rest of the bunch in the bar. Everyone got a turn in that barrel!
I was the PIC, and I was in the left seat for the landing. The out-and-back trip only has two takeoffs and two landings, so it's impossible to share equally among three pilots, but this was my lucky night, my turn for the landing, which I love most of all. The cockpit usually starts coming to life about an hour out. By 30 minutes from landing, everyone is usually in a cockpit seat, with everything tidied up and stowed. The strongest thought is, "Let's get this thing on the ground, and head for the beds." The thought of having to clear U.S. Customs is enough to make everyone grumpy.
Arrival routing then, as now, is usually over Point Reyes, descending to cross over the SFO VOR (on the airport) at 10,000 to 12,000 feet, speed 250 knots, then a long, eastbound descent over Oakland, then a right teardrop reversal to join the ILS to 28R at SFO. Easy enough, but I like to play little games, and set myself little challenges. My usual game on this approach was to make several things happen. One was to cut to idle thrust beginning the descent, and never touch the thrust levers again until 1500 feet on final. Then I do everything very smoothly, playing altitude, airspeed, flaps, and the all-important reversal turn to arrive at precisely the 3D spot in space that was my target. Variables are the altitude at which the descent begins, the distance either side of the VOR, when flaps are extended (five steps, each with a maximum and minimum speed, some of those with small "windows"), where the turn is started, angle of bank, airspeed in the turn, etc. In all those years, I never did it perfectly, but I used to come awfully close a lot.
All this was going very well this night. The cockpit conversation had stopped (sterile cockpit rule, a good one), and full attention was on the job. I remember pulling the thrust back to idle over the VOR at 10,000 feet, which sounds the landing gear warning. The FE let it sound (as a test), then silenced it. It would not sound again unless the thrust levers were advanced somewhat, then pulled back again. Started bleeding off a little speed, sneaking the flaps out, hitting the half-way points between the max. speed for the "next" flap setting, and the minimum speed for "this" setting. No vectors for traffic (there wasn't any, no one else was stupid enough to be flying this time of night) so I rolled right into the reversal at exactly 6 DME. This blocked my view of Oakland to my left and below, and all I could see in the turn for many long seconds was the inky blackness of San Francisco Bay. I remember clearly thinking, "Boy, this is a black-hole moment," and I double-checked both my altitude and the radio altimeter, both OK. I also looked for the glide slope, now just starting to come in, and we were nicely above it, descending about 2,500 fpm, and out of 5,000 feet. Another constraint that is pretty standard in the jet world is a rate of descent no more than half the altitude, and I was right on track on that, too -- the rate of descent slowing, staying right at half-altitude. Am I good, or what? And was I setting myself up with too much attention on the non-essentials, or what? I doubt anyone else in the cockpit was even aware of my little game. Somewhere in the turn, we hit 20 flaps, the "Approach" setting. Landing flaps are either 25 or 30, usually extended at five miles.
I hit the localizer and glide slope right on, about 7 DME and 190 knots, and as the descent rate reduced, began the final reduction to about 160 knots, the final "Ref" speed that should be held to the landing flare. As the speed dropped, and right at 1,500 feet, I eased the thrust up to catch the speed and maintain the glide slope, and my job was done, as near perfect as I'd ever get.
Passing about 1,300 feet, I glanced around the cockpit: All was well, right side showed the same thing as the left, guy in the right seat was awake, gear handle was off, speed brakes/spoilers were armed ... yup, all set. Watching my instruments, I got a funny little feeling. Gear handle off? Off? Why is it OFF? It's not supposed to be off, it's supposed to be Down. It felt like someone dumped a bucket of ice water down my back. I had forgotten the gear, and the landing checklist!
The only points I'll give myself that night are that I didn't flinch, or look. I just said very quietly, "Gear down, please, and landing check."
The response was as if four cattle prods had been stuck straight up through the middle of each seat. Four men stiffened, then leaned forward, the better to see the gear handle. Four men simultaneously sucked in their breath. And four men watched as the gear handle went down, the green lights came on, and red light went off as the doors closed. I called for the final flaps, the checklist was completed passing 1,000 feet, and the landing was uneventful. Everything was within limits, if a little delayed by customary JAL standards.
We landed, completed the usual drills, cleared Customs, and split up to go our separate ways. No one said a word about the (near) incident, then or later. I knew my knees were shaking, but they didn't. I didn't tell the story for at least 15 years. There is no doubt in my mind that all five of us had slipped a gear somewhere during that approach, and we all thought the gear and flaps were down, and the checklist was complete. No, all five of us KNEW the gear was down and it wasn't.
How did I do it? It was easy. I made the mistake of paying too much attention to my stupid little game, and not enough to the basics of just getting the job done. So many accidents are caused by distractions outside the essential tasks. This one was because of self-imposed distractions within the job, which are equally dangerous. I'm a lot less willing to add non-essentials to my workload, these days.
What about all the safety devices? Landing gear warning horn? Well, cargo airplanes are often very heavy on landing -- 200,000 pounds or more heavier than passenger flights. Normally, the thrust levers can be reduced to idle when the wheels are still 50 feet off the runway, but with that much extra weight, the 747 tends to crunch the landing if you do that, so most of us kept some thrust until well into the flare. I would have done that, that night, and the warning horn would have been too late to do anything about it.
Red lights? None when the gear is up. GPWS (ground proximity warning system)? Hadn't been invented yet.
I can't help but wonder what it would be like to be the only man in history to ever belly-land a perfectly good 747. When I think about it, I keep getting that funny feeling, kinda like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, back before they built all the protective fences. It's not a nice feeling, either way.
Be careful, up there!