Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

From Hero To Bum—Almost

You can learn from your mistakes…if you can just survive them

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.”


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