A woman I worked with (Janice) had an elderly father (Bill) who had terminal cancer. He wanted to spend his last weeks or months back at home in Middletown, but was living in Sarasota, Florida. He was too ill to go by commercial airlines, or by a long trip in a car. It would have cost thousands of dollars for a charter medical service to bring him back. I told Janice I could bring Bill and his wife (Dottie) back to Middletown for less than $1,000. While in southern Florida, Liz and I could spend a few days scuba diving in the Keys.
Our passengers to Sarasota were Beau and Margaret. They were going to drive Bill and Dottie's car back to Middletown. The trip to Sarasota was near-perfect. After three days of scuba diving Liz and I returned to pick up our passengers. When Dottie got into the airplane she was very apprehensive, but Bill seemed excited.
My planned halfway stop was Milledgeville, Georgia. The weather was VFR and I flew a routine approach. I put the gear down and reduced power. The gear warning horn sounded and the gear down light was not green. I looked out the windows and at the radar pod mirror. All the wheels appeared to be down. But the warning horn and indicator light disagreed with what I saw.
I now needed three things. One, an airport with a control tower to examine the
landing gear in-flight. Two, a maintenance facility capable of repairing the airplane. Three, available emergency medical assistance.
Milledgeville did not have a control tower, and probably had only basic maintenance
capability. I executed a missed approach and began climbing. After discussing my problem with Atlanta Center, they asked that infamous question, "What are your intentions?" The first thing that popped into my mind was that I wanted to play volleyball in Middletown that evening! I did not actually say that. Center then recommended either Atlanta Peachtree or Macon. Since Macon was closer, I elected to go there.
The thirty-mile flight to Macon was rough and bumpy, and Liz became quite airsick. She was unable to help me take care of the airplane or the passengers. As soon as we arrived over the airport, a student pilot taxied to the active runway and asked Macon tower for takeoff clearance. The tower granted the clearance but warned the student that if the 210 (us) wrecked, the airport would be closed indefinitely. The student would then have to land elsewhere. He taxied back to the ramp. Apparently he was restricted to local flight.
Macon tower then asked us, "Who do you want us to notify?"
I had to think for a minute. What did they mean by that? Then it dawned on me that they would have to know who to notify, if we were killed or severely injured. I leaned over toward Liz, and asked her the same question. Even preoccupied with airsickness, she understood the question. We agreed to give them her father's name and number. I also gave them my Hospital's number.
We flew just over the control tower so they could look at the landing gear. I have
always wanted to buzz a control tower! They said the gear looked like it was down. But of course they could not tell whether it was locked, or whether it was going to hold.
I had two options. I could land either gear up or gear down. If I landed gear up, the skin of the airplane would be scraped, the propeller bent, and the engine damaged. In spite of all that, a gear up landing is usually a controllable event and there are rarely any serious injuries. The other option was to land gear down. If the landing gear held, it would just be a normal landing. If the nosewheel collapsed, the airplane damage would be similar to the gear up landing. The personal injury risk should be
However, if only one of the two main gears held, the wing of the airplane would strike the ground at eighty miles an hour. The airplane would do a ground loop and maybe roll over on its back risking some serious injury. I thought the main gear looked normal. I was not sure about the nose gear. So I decided to land gear down, and hope the mains would hold. I briefed the passengers on my decision and began to secure all loose articles, especially Bill's oxygen bottle.
In spite of the pressure of the situation, I was amazed and interested by the reactions of my passengers. Dottie's reaction was predictable. She was terrified. She was apprehensive from the start. In contrast Bill was sitting calmly. He smiled and nodded in response to my requests and briefing. His perspective was different, I suppose. He knew he only had a few weeks or months to live. This would
probably be his last great adventure.
As I circled the airport for the last time, I looked down on the fire engine and rescue squad. It was a sick feeling, knowing that they were there for us. I set up for final approach. My goal was to touch down with the nose as high and as slow as possible. I had heard that if you land in a nose-high attitude, the weight of the 210 would force the main landing gear in place, even if they were not locked. I still do
not know if that is true.
On final approach I made my prayers short and to the point. The power was at idle
and the runway was approaching quickly. I pulled the nose back and the main wheels hit the pavement. The main gear held (they did not collapse). We were not going to cartwheel in a fireball down the runway. We were going to live.
In an instant my mind shifted from the gratitude, relief and certainty of life, to the doubts and concerns of my airplane's survival. The only question left was whether the nosewheel would hold. It took a few seconds between the time the mains hit, and the nosewheel finally contacted the pavement. I always wondered what the sound of a propeller striking pavement would be. Fortunately I did not have that opportunity. The nosewheel held, and the airplane rolled out without incident.
As I taxied by the rescue squad and fire truck they actually appeared disappointed. I think they wanted to see some bent metal and flames. Radio and TV crews were also at the airport. When there was no crash, they left. Only the newspaper reporter thought we were a newsworthy event. Our story was in the Macon paper the next day.
The maintenance people decided there was a bad electrical relay giving false information about the gear. The gear was in fact down and locked. After we paid the bill, they could not find our airplane key. They left a message on the chief mechanic's home phone. Luckily he answered this message before he left for the weekend. Finding our key in his pocket, he delivered it an hour later. The total delay in Macon was at least three hours.
Much to my surprise, Bill, Dottie and Liz got back in the airplane. In spite of our experience, the 210 was still the quickest and least complicated way to get home. We completed the trip without incident.