By Keith Kaniut
The problem had to be an intermittent limit switch on the right main landing gear. The symptoms matched. The right main gear wasn’t showing “down-and-locked” to match the other two. The question was: What to do about it?
I had earned my Navy Pilot wings a few short months ago and my first assignment was in Kingsville, Texas as a flight instructor. I would fly with Advanced Jet Training Squadron VT-22 and teach student aviators the basics of flying the Douglass TA-4J two-seat Skyhawk, the Navy’s Advanced Jet Trainer at that time (1978).
I was qualified to teach Basic Instrument and Radio Instrument Phases (airway navigation/approaches) and could take students to airfields around the country for real world experience flying instrument approaches into unfamiliar airfields. Most of the lower 48 states have Air Force and Navy Air bases and we could use most of them.
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We flew these cross-country training trips on weekends, one student per instructor. We would fly multiple legs over three days, efficiently completing several syllabus flights.
This weekend my student hailed from Minot, North Dakota. There was a B-52 AF base there, a perfect destination for training and a place I’d never been. We made our flight plans and obtained the Schedules officer approval Thursday and on Friday morning we headed to North Dakota.
My student mentioned that his parents would be there to meet us. From my recent flight student days, I remembered the pleasure of flying where family could meet you so during our first fuel stop, after he flew some nice approaches into an Air Force base in Oklahoma, I offered a deal. If he flew another good approach into Minot, instead of just landing after the approach we would go around and do a fly-by for his folks. We would have plenty of fuel so the extra five minutes of flight time would help us lighten up a little too.
Now both of us were highly motivated for him to do well. I would get some stick time doing a cool 250-knot pass at 1000 feet over the runway before making a high-g decelerating turn to the downwind leg for a standard visual simulated carrier landing. I knew they didn’t see many of those at Air Force bases so I was anxious to show them “how it was done”! Heh – I was young…
The simulated instrument approach went well right up to the point when we lowered the landing gear. We had two green lights indicating a properly extended landing gear. We’re supposed to have three! The nose wheel and left main gear were OK but the right main showed “in transit”. Definitely Not down and locked. I’d seen this before. They were simple mechanical/electrical switches, spring-loaded to “Off”. When the landing gear was fully extended, it activated the roller arm on the switch and closed the switch, causing the landing gear indicator light to show “Full Down”. So I reasoned that the likely culprit was that limit switch. I was pretty sure that the right main gear was fully extended, but the switch just wasn’t registering it. I took the controls and radio’d the Approach Controller that we were aborting the approach to troubleshoot a minor malfunction. They switched us to the Tower frequency and cleared us overhead the field. My student pulled out the Emergency Procedures checklist and we started reading.
First step: Cycle the Landing Gear handle. I did. All three indicated up and locked and this time when I lowered the handle, we had three green lights. Great! All three down and locked. Finicky limit switch confirmed! Maybe we can still give the parents something to remember…(I would regret that thought later…) I called the Tower, telling them we’d resolved our problem and would like to exit the pattern to return for a high speed pass and visual landing. They approved. With that, I raised the gear – Yep, all three up and locked – and we headed for the pattern re-entry point as we accelerated back to 250 knots.
The high speed pass was one of my best to date and I enjoyed showing those B52 guys how well a little scooter like the Skyhawk could do a high-g decelerating turn for landing – just like we flew at the ship. We waved going by the Tower. Yep – his parents were standing by the fence, no doubt appreciating our amazing Navy flying skills! After the four-g decelerating turn to downwind, I lowered the landing gear at the downwind position abeam the landing area. I started the landing checklist. The first item: Landing gear: down and locked. Checking…all three down and…. Nuts! Two green lights and an “in transit” indicator again!
“Tower, Skyhawk 311 is taking it around to troubleshoot a problem. My right main gear is not indicating down and locked.”
“311, you’re cleared overhead. Let us know if we can assist.”
“Roger.” We reopened the Emergency Checklist. But this time cycling the gear didn’t resolve the indication. The right main still showed “in transit”. I tried yawing with the rudder. I rolled the wings back and forth, picturing myself “nudging” the switch to work. No good. The Tower reported that with binoculars, the right gear appeared fully down. Well, that was better news than if they didn’t look down.
By now the Tower had declared a possible emergency landing situation and the fire trucks and ambulances were rolling. They were ready to foam the runway if needed! I sincerely hoped against that. Worst case, I could lower my tailhook and take the emergency arresting cable to minimize my rollout in case the landing gear collapsed. But I thought the odds were good that once I touched down – gently – the indicator would show the gear fully down.
Acutely aware of the unwelcome show unfolding on the ground below, I finished the rest of the landing checklist, confirmed that my hydraulic pressure was solid, and after confirming clearance to land, I made the gentlest landing I’d ever made. We barely felt the touchdown. As I allowed the weight to settle onto the landing gear, my student called out “Three down and locked!” I’d been watching that myself. Good news. Bad switch confirmed. Normal landing roll-out was possible.
“Tower, that did it. I’m showing three green. We can do a normal roll-out.”
“Navy Skyhawk, switch to Ground frequency as you clear the runway. Have a nice day.”
It was easy to find our way to parking. The firetruck and ambulance complete with flashing lights, lead the way to the visitors ramp area.
We parked and climbed down after the ground crew brought the appropriate ladder. I thanked everyone, gave a wave to the fire crew and asked for an electrician to check out the landing gear switch. Then we met the parents at the fence. The phrase “white as ghosts” crossed my mind on seeing them. I had some “explaining to do”!
It took a few minutes to reassure his mother that we hadn’t just almost died. I tried to minimize the danger, explaining that the Air Force had reacted because of all the Strategic Command B52’s nearby. I halfway believed it myself.
The good news is that my student enjoyed a day off with his folks and our return flight was uneventful thanks to the Air Force having graciously replaced the suspect switch.
During the flight home, we discussed how I should have responded to avoid the excitement and to be in stricter compliance with our flying Bible, the Safety Manual. That manual doesn’t leave much room for young pilots to “assume” things. It kept it simple. As soon as we had the three green lights showing the gear “down and locked”, we needed to land. I should have skipped the fly-by. My only defense was inexperience and a misplaced sense of being able to meet any challenge presented. Eventually I learned to better balance the need to complete the mission against the need to ensure the safe return of both pilot and aircraft.