|A LEARNING EXPERIENCE. Flying the first production Piper Mirage from Florida to Germany proved to be more than just a simple delivery.|
It was January 1989, and I had just delivered a new Grand Caravan to Comair in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was sitting in the manager’s office waiting for transport to the airline airport to start the 30-hour trip home when the call came through.
Wilfred Otto of the Piper distributor in Germany was calling. Happens all the time when I’m in South Africa.
Wilfred asked if I’d be good enough to fly back to Vero Beach, Fla., and pick up the first production Piper Mirage for delivery to Kassel, Germany. Sure, I said, why not? I was between deadlines at the magazine, and there wasn’t anything more exciting to do. I jumped on a South African Airways flight to London, changed to an American flight to Orlando and drove an Avis the last 100 miles to Vero Beach.
The Mirage was waiting, the first of the Lycoming-powered, 350 hp Malibus. After two days for tanking in Lakeland, I climbed aboard and headed north toward Bangor, Maine.
Talk about a change of climate. Lakeland was a balmy 22 degrees C when I departed, and predictably, things became progressively colder as I flew north. Level at FL210, I watched the temperature plummet well below minus-10 degrees C passing New York.
The temperature aloft was of little concern (I’d added Prist before departing Lakeland), but the temp on the ground was becoming downright frigid. As I picked up the Bangor ATIS from 100 miles out, they were reporting minus-25 degrees C.
I entered the pattern at BGR, selected gear down and watched as the three gear lights illuminated: one, two… Oh well, no big deal, I thought, it’s just a little cold and stiff outside. I’ll just recycle. I put the wheels back to bed, waited for a second and put the switch back down again. One, two…
I tried the same trick a half-dozen times, and the left main gear stubbornly refused to lock into place. Hmm, not good. I knew the problem had to be related to the frozen sky. Time to try the emergency system, I reasoned. I pulled out the manual, followed the checklist item by item and deployed the wheels.
Still no joy on the left main. I flew by the tower, and they verified the left main was only about half deployed. Now I was pretty much out of options…or was I? Somewhere back in the cobwebs of my brain, I remembered a procedure that a WWII pilot had mentioned using when the right main of his fighter had failed to extend.
He had put the airplane into a hard right knife-edge attitude and slammed the top (left) rudder hard against the floor, putting a download on the bottom gear. After several violent stabs of the pedal, he finally had a safe indication and landed without incident.
It didn’t seem to work for me. I tried the same trick a half-dozen times in the opposite direction and couldn’t get a green on the left. In failing light, I flew by the tower one more time, and the controller suggested the left main now looked “pretty much down.” Encouraged, I climbed back up to 2,000 feet east of the airport, and stabbed the pedal another four times. Finally—a green light on the left main.
I landed with the fire truck chasing me, taxied into Aerofusion, the primary maintenance shop at Bangor in those days, and retired to Captain Nick’s for some Maine lobster.
The following morning, the mechanic reported that the gear simply needed a special lubricant designed for cold weather, and pronounced it fixed. Sitting in the warm shop, the Mirage folded its wheels up and down several times without a problem.
I departed for Goose Bay reassured, but not totally convinced. Fortunately, the weather was typical January, severe clear but cold. I knew Goose would be colder than Bangor, and I couldn’t help but wonder “what if...?”
Sure enough, three hours later, with the Goose ATIS reporting minus-30 degrees C and the runway in sight, I put the wheels down and watched the lights—one, two… This is getting really old, I thought. Once again, I rolled the Mirage into a vertical left knife-edge attitude and slammed the right rudder hard against the floor. This time, it only took twice before I was blessed with three green lights.
Damn, I’m good, I thought after I had put the airplane into Woodward Aviation’s shop and hopped a taxi to the Labrador Inn. My next stop was Reykjavik, Iceland, 1,350 miles northeast, but Reykjavik should be warmer, I reasoned. Still, I had a plan to avoid the problem on the next leg.
The following day, Woodward confirmed that the gear was working perfectly and suggested the problem was likely the temperature. I departed Goose Bay early for the long hop across the Labrador Sea, the southern tip of Greenland and the Davis Strait to Iceland. The Mirage was running perfectly as I leveled at FL190, pushed along by 40-knot tailwinds in minus-40 degree C skies. Groundspeed was well over 230 knots.
About 300 miles out from Iceland, as I was handed off from Sondrestrom to Iceland Control, I asked the controller, “Iceland, could you approve a flight level of 10 for N3274B?”
There was a short pause, several other transmissions from other airplanes, and then, “N3274B, yes, we can approve FL10, but you’ll be out of radar coverage.”
“Roger that, Iceland, N3274B is requesting FL10,” I said.
“N3274B is cleared at pilot’s discretion to descend from FL190 to FL10. Report reaching.” Good, perhaps he understood the problem.
I disabled the autopilot and pointed the Mirage downhill at 1,500 fpm. I was determined to warm up the gear on this airplane with an hour at 1,000 feet above the relatively warm ocean.
A day without sunshine is pretty much night, and that’s nearly every day at these latitudes in early January. I had been watching the northern lights waving their green/blue flags across the sky, half listening to the jibberish over the radio as I descended through the clouds toward the dark North Atlantic. I leveled at 1,000 feet about 170 miles out from Reykjavik, and the temperature was a reassuring minus-5 degrees C. Certainly shouldn’t have any problem getting the wheels down this time, I reasoned.
I was still getting a little tailwind as I drove on toward Iceland, wondering if there were any ships out here. It’s a good thing there weren’t. I noticed a pale green phosphorescence ahead, and first attributed it to the northern lights, then, suddenly, realized I was flying beneath an overcast.
I immediately disengaged the autopilot and pulled up hard. I was amazed at my stupidity. I punched the mic button and asked, “Iceland, N3274B, could you give me the current Reykjavik altimeter?”
“Reykjavik is 29.03,” said the controller. It was the dreaded Icelandic low. Sure enough, I had been cruising perhaps 50 to 100 feet above the waves rather than 1,000 feet. I assume the controller gave me a current altimeter, and I missed it as I descended through 18,000 feet, leaving my altimeter on 29.92.
The gear worked perfectly on the ILS approach to Reykjavik. I landed and taxied to the ramp at Flight Services, still a little amazed at how close I had come to disaster. Obviously, I’ll never know if I was flying at 50 or 200 feet off the water. And, damn, I thought I was so good.
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].