I had just dropped the keys and logbooks for the new Caravan on the South African Cessna dealer’s desk when his phone rang. He answered it and motioned me to sit.
He spoke for a few seconds, then said, “Well, he just walked into my office,” and commented, “It’s for you.”
“Bill, this is Wilfred Otto at Henschel Flugzeug Piper in Kassel, Germany. Hope you had a good trip in from Florida. What are your plans now?”
I told him I’d be catching the first flight I could find headed back to California.
“How’d you like to fly back to Florida, pick up the first Piper Mirage in Vero Beach instead and ferry it to Germany?”
Silly question. Four hours later, I was sitting on a British Airways 747, lifting off from Johannesburg for London with connections to Orlando.
Two days after that, I fired up the first customer’s Mirage in Lakeland and launched for Bangor, Maine. It was mid-January and, just as on the Caravan trip a week earlier, Maine was in the grip of a -30-degree F cold snap. Of course, Bangor was totally dark when I arrived. At least the weather was decent, though it was bitterly cold.
When I turned onto the 45 inbound to the Bangor Airport and selected gear down, the left main and nosewheel extended normally, but the right main refused to lock down.
Probably just a little stiff in the frigid, winter sky of northern Maine, I reasoned. I tried cycling the wheels several times, but the right main gear stubbornly refused to lock down. I advised the tower of my problem and asked for a low altitude fly-by. The tower reported that the right gear looked to be about three-quarters down but definitely wasn’t locked.
Hmmm. I wasn’t about to put Mr. Otto’s premier Mirage on its belly, or, worse, try to bounce it on the left main gear and hope the right would oblige and swing out and lock down of its own accord.
As I droned around a few miles from the airport, trying to think of something clever, I remembered a story I had heard at Oshkosh a few years before about a pilot in a warbird who had a similar problem and had reasoned his way out of the situation.
In that case, it was the left gear that refused to lock into position. The pilot had tried the emergency procedure without success and was faced with a similar situation to mine. Since the wheels extended outboard, he theorized that he needed to find a way to “G” the airplane in a manner that would exert a download to push the left main gear toward the wingtip. The only way he could do that was to put the airplane into a left, semi-knife edge attitude, then slam the top (right) rudder to the floor. That would cause the airplane to yaw hard right, but since attitude was already in a vertical left-knife edge, the result would be a download on the left main gear that might help push the left wheel outboard toward the low wingtip.
He tried this trick several times, and to his utter amazement, it worked. The left gear light finally blinked on, and the pilot saved the situation by landing the warbird safely.
Accordingly, I decided to try the same technique on the new Mirage. I banked hard right, established a near-90-degree bank and slammed the top (left) rudder to the floor. The nose arced hard up, but still no right gear light. I tried it six times, punching the top rudder as hard as I could, and the right green gear light finally flicked on.
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Convinced that I was now a full-fledged superhero, I called the tower, returned to Bangor airport and landed normally. Once on the ground, I taxied to the FBO, ordered fuel and advised the desk manager that I would be back in the morning for some maintenance.
The next day, the service manager’s first question was, “Did you come in nonstop from Florida?” When I answered “Yes,” he smiled and said he had seen the problem before.
“We used a different kind of gear lubricant for the extreme cold temperatures we encounter in Maine, and that usually solves the problem,” he told me.
They had towed “my” Mirage into the shop two hours before I had arrived, so the airplane was up to room temperature. Next, they put it on jacks, lifted it off the floor, lubed the gear and cycled it several times. Everything worked perfectly, of course. The crucial test would come at my next stop, Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, where I knew it would be even colder than at Bangor.
Sure enough, when I arrived at Goose Bay, the temp was closer to -40 degrees F, not an uncommon occurrence in deep winter at 61 degrees north. I held my breath and flipped the gear switch to the down position.
Again, no right green. Okay, at least this time, I had a rough idea of a trick that might work again. I advised the tower and turned back out of the pattern away from the lights of Goose Bay Airport to see if I could get some assistance from gravity.
If the folks in Bangor had been right about the nature of the problem, i.e., extreme cold temperatures, the same technique should work a second time.
Roll hard right, push hard top rudder. Nothing. Try again, still nothing. Again, no reaction. Again and again. Finally, after 10 progressively more violent, frustrated stabs at the top rudder, the right gear light finally illuminated.
I advised the tower that the problem was solved, and the controller immediately cleared me to land.
Father Nature wasn’t quite finished with me, however. The runway had recently been plowed clear of snow, but here was a sheen of ice complicating matters. Just when I thought I was back to normal operation, both main gear brakes turned out to be frozen solid. The airplane touched down normally and immediately began sliding on the ice. Fortunately, I was somewhere near the centerline, so I managed to get it stopped before I lost complete directional control.
Again, I advised the tower of the problem and they notified Woodward Aviation to send out a goat to tow me clear of the runway.
In the shop again the next morning, it was the same diagnosis, extreme cold weather. This shop also lubed the gear, cycled it up and down several times and pronounced the airplane good to go.
After another day of delay, I finally hit upon a plan that might solve the problem. I filled the 50-gallon ferry tank in the back of the airplane and filed for FL210 direct to Prince Christian Sound (an NDB on the southernmost tip of Greenland), direct to BIRK (Reykjavik).
That’s just under 1400 nm, but as usual in winter, the winds at 60 degrees north were wailing at 40-50 knots out of the west up high. With 170 gallons on board, I would have an easy seven hours’ endurance at probably 250 knots groundspeed and for a range of 1,750 nm.
I had been through Iceland several dozen times, often in winter, and I knew the influence of the relatively warm Gulf Stream kept Iceland unusually warm for a country near the Arctic Circle. Reykjavik rarely saw temperatures colder than 0 degrees F. I decided to fly at normal altitude for most of the trip, then ask ATC for an early descent to warmer air an hour out of Reykjavik to let the gear warm up and preclude any extension problems.
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Predictably, the flight went well for the first four hours at 21,000 feet. I called the controller and asked for the lowest altitude he could approve. He dropped me down to 7,000 feet, which put me right in the middle of clouds.
The temperature aloft was still very cold, but he advised that the floor of IFR airspace over the ocean was 5,500 feet. I agreed to cancel IFR and report position as I neared the joint U.S./Icelandic ait base at Keflavik.
I descended in solid darkness out of the clouds, but there was nothing to see. It was black on black.
I finally leveled at 1,000 feet and advised the controller that I would pull back to 2,000 to cross Keflavik and continue to Reykjavik 30 miles further inland along the coast.
The temperature was warming nicely 100 nm out of Keflavik. I did notice a slight blue/green tinge to the airspace below. That seemed a little unusual.
It suddenly dawned on me what the slight color was. I punched off the autopilot and pulled back hard on the yoke. The Mirage climbed to 2,000 feet in about 30 seconds.
Once my heartbeat dropped back to normal levels and I fully realized what had almost happened, I called up Iceland Control and asked them for their current altimeter setting.
“November flight, Keflavik altimeter is 28.96.” I had been flying a few feet above the water without knowing it.
When I descended out of FL210 and dropped below 18,000 feet, I had either forgotten to reset the altimeter from standard to local, or the controller had forgotten to remind me. Either way, it was my error. The difference was nearly a full inch, a 1,000-foot error. I had heard about the bioluminescence in ocean waves at night, but I had never seen it before.
I’ll never know how low I was or how close I came to dumping the new Mirage into the ocean, and that’s probably just as well.
Of course, the gear swung down normally in Reykjavik and on the following day’s flight into Kassel, Germany.
I survived a very stupid and very basic mistake, and you can bet I’ll never make that transgression again. I’ll find some new ones.