“Major Crowley can't get the nose wheel down!” shouted Chief Johns as he jogged by my office. “Something's wrong with the nose gear!”
It was the spring of 1970 and I had been robo-signing the morning pile of routine 601b equipment requests. But the sight of the hulking Chief Master Sergeant jogging past my office window shouting about nose gear got my attention. Chief Ralph Johns almost never jogged.
I jumped from my desk and followed the Chief down the steps, out of the hangar and on to the flightline where a small crowd was assembling near one of the flight shacks where the flightline maintenance crews worked. Several dozen T-28s were buzzing around, flying patterns, doing touch-and-gos, and a few were taxiing, getting ready to take off — the usual cacophony over which everyone in the area had to shout. Maintenance people near the runway had Mickey-Mouse ear protection.
Several senior pilots were in the small crowd, shouting into their hand-held radios trying to find out what the hell the problem was.
“Get Wilkins out here!” shouted Johns to a nearby Flight Line sergeant as he jogged to the edge of the runway.
Master Sergeant Bill Wilkins was Chief of our "Aero Repair Shop," the shop that did heavy aircraft maintenance in the hangar. Chief Johns had personally recruited him from the flightline a few months earlier because Wilkins knew more about T-28s than anyone else at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi.
I walked up to one of the pilots without a radio and asked what was going on.
“All I know is, Major Crowley was lowering the landing gear, getting ready to land, when the nose gear stuck just as the panel was opening up,” the pilot replied. “We're trying to figure out what to do.”
Major Crowley was our most experienced check pilot who had been finishing up a check flight after a major phase (scheduled) inspection and engine change when he realized that the T-28's nose gear was stuck partway down as he began his runway approach.
Colonel Rollins, the Flight Operations Commander came running out of the flight ops building and immediately called the tower and ordered all other aircraft to land and clear the runway.
Rollins grabbed one of the radios from one of his pilots and asked Crowley, “How much fuel you got left?”
“Maybe two hours or so,” came Crowley’s crackled reply.
“Ok, we've got time to try to deal with this,” Rollins replied. “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary during your pre-flight inspection?”
“No. But I thought I felt a bump or something when the gear came up right after take-off. I'm going to crawl up to the front seat and try to get a look at the nose gear,” Crowley continued. “I might be able to open up some panels with my multi-tool pocketknife and see what’s causing it to jam.”
Within minutes the lanky red-headed Sergeant Wilkins arrived in the Aero Repair Shop's big blue maintenance bread truck and immediately started discussing the situation with Chief Johns.
I walked over to listen in.
“We've never had a problem with the nose gear sticking,” Wilkins told Johns. “The nose wheelwell is basically a big metal box with wires, fuel lines and hydraulic lines that the gear folds up into. The problem could be hydraulic. It could be mechanical. I guess it could even be electrical,” Wilkins said.
“Get them all out here, then!” barked Johns.
Wilkins ran back to the bread truck, called Maintenance Control and told them to dispatch the shop chiefs from the hydraulic shop and the electrical shop, along with his own Aero Repair Shop shift supervisor.
Colonel Rollins was now talking to Lt. Col. Buck, the chief of pilot training. They were both on the radio with Crowley.
While we were waiting for the shop chiefs to arrive, I asked Johns and Wilkins about the last phased inspection.
“No problems,” said Wilkins. “That plane went in to the hangar last Thursday and we finished it this morning. As far as I know Major Crowley had no problems taxiing out and no problems taking off.”
Sergeant Adams, the hydraulic shop chief showed up.
“Could this be a hydraulic problem?” asked Wilkins.
“Don't think so,” replied Adams. “That's not the way hydraulics fail. It sounds like the gear is stuck in a fixed position. What's the hydraulic pressure?”
As soon as Colonel Rollins heard this he radioed Crowley.
“Hydraulic pressure is normal,” replied Crowley.
“Anything funny about the electrical system?” asked Rollins.
“Not that I can see,” answered Crowley. “Battery’s good. No malfunctions indicated.”
“It's probably mechanical,” said Wilkins.
“Maybe the gear mechanism is bent or something,” I guessed.
“You're full of shit, Lieutenant,” barked Johns. “There's no way any of that structure would be bent short of a collision or a crash. We'd never miss something like that.”
“Those have to be reported. We’d see it,” Johns insisted.
“Just guessing,” I said.
“Guess again,” said Johns.
“Is there anything in there that could interfere with the mechanism?” I asked.
“Get the technical order and let's take a look at this,” replied Johns.
Wilkins had Jones grab the TO out of the bread truck while he and Johns went over to look into the nose wheelwell of a T-28 that was parked nearby.
Wilkins, Johns and I crowded into the nose wheelwell looking at the compartment full of electrical conduit, fuel lines, hydraulic lines, tubes, struts, braces, bolts, brackets, manifolds, etc. — it looked like a metal box of metal and rubber spaghetti surrounding the opening that the gear folded up into.
“I don't see how any of this could cause the nose gear to stick,” said Johns.
Wilkins stepped back out.
“Get that jack over here,” Wilkins shouted to a nearby airman who immediately wheeled a tripod style jack over to the parked T-28.
“Okay, let's run this baby up and watch this gear move,” said Johns.
“Just a minute,” said the crew chief. “You can't move just the nose gear, you have to put jacks under the wings first.”
“But if we run it up on jacks it might literally fly off the jacks,” I said.
“Not if we hook up a tow line to the tail skid,” said Wilkins. “Besides, we’re not going to engage the prop.”
“Okay, let's see if we can get this set up in a hurry,” said Johns.
“Get the base safety officer out here,” demanded Rollins.
“And the fire crew,” added training officer Lt. Col. Buck somewhat ominously.
Jacks were put in place under the wings and the nose by the flightline crew chief Sgt Mack and his crew.
A tow line from the tail skid was attached to a nearby tiedown.
Sgt. Mack removed the flagged safety pins from each gear, then climbed into the cockpit and started the engine.
“There's an interlock,” said Wilkins. “You can't raise the gear on the ground without disconnecting the altimeter and overriding the altimeter safety switch.”
Mr. Hobbs, the civilian electric shop chief, opened up a panel just behind the engine cowling and disconnected a couple of wires.
“Okay, raise the gear!” Johns shouted over the roar of the engine. The nose gear came up toward the rear and into the wheelwell and the wheelwell doors closed.
“I didn't see anything,” I said. “It moved too fast.”
“Okay bring the gear down again,” Johns shouted.
The doors opened and the gear came down.
“Is there any way to slow this actuator down or stop it partway?” Johns asked.
Wilkins asked Adams if he had any ideas.
“I guess we could put a smaller line in the hydraulics there where it comes through the bulkhead,” said Adams. “That would restrict the flow, but we'd lose some hydraulic fluid. And it would take a while.”
“What about just drilling a hole in the hydraulic line and leaking out some of the pressure?” asked Wilkins.
“That might work,” said Adams, “but you'd get a lot of hydraulic fluid spraying out under pressure. It would be hard to control. And of course we’d have to replace the line.”
“If I covered the hole with my finger,” said Wilkins, “I could control the pressure, right?”
“It'd cut right through your finger,” said Adams, “that's well over 1000 psi.”
“Ok, how about if I put a metal sleeve over the line where the hole is and hold it?”
Adams nodded. “I'll get on it.”
Adams ran to the bread truck and came back with some fuel line pieces and an hydraulic drill hooked up to the bread truck's external hydraulics.
Wilkins opened the panel outside the wheelwell and drilled a hole in the hydraulic line. Adams had slit the fuel line lengthwise so it could be fitted over the hydraulic line. Wilkins slid the short piece of sleeving over the newly leaking hydraulic line. Then Johns had the crew chief run up the engine again.
It worked. By squeezing down on the sleeve Wilkins could roughly control how fast the nose gear went up, although the line was leaking hydraulic fluid onto the tarmac.
“You're leaking fluid on the taxiway,” I noted.
Johns scowled at me.
Although the hydraulic line trick worked, it didn't help. We still couldn't tell what might be hanging up the gear.
By this time Major Crowley had reported that he had checked beneath the cockpit floor panels but had been unable to see what was causing the gear to stick.
“You got any other ideas?” asked Rollins.
“I guess I could try a pullout,” said Crowley. “I might be able to pull enough Gs to free the gear.”
“Okay,” replied Rawlins, “but be careful. Make sure you have plenty of elevation.”
“And don't go over about five Gs,” added Wilkins walking up to Colonel Rollins. “We don’t want the wings to crack.”
“I know, Sergeant,” replied Crowley over the radio.
Crowley was going to try a steep dive then a sharp pull up thinking that perhaps the maneuver might force the nose gear down by gravity and inertia.
We watched as Crowley took the T-28 up and almost out of sight and put it into a steep dive. About halfway to the ground he pulled back on the yoke while pushing on the landing gear’s down lever, yanking the nose up sharply.
Nothing moved. The gear wouldn't budge.
“Anything else?” asked Rollins over the radio.
“I might have to do a gear up landing,” replied Crowley.
“Have you ever done one?”
“I've practiced them in the air during touch-and-gos, but I don't think anyone would approve of me actually landing with the gear up,” replied Crowley sarcastically.
I had heard about a gear up landing a few years earlier when a student pilot literally forgot to put down the gear. He crashed hard. He was lucky to survive.
“If you're going to try it,” said Rollins, “better stay up there until all your fuel is burned up.
“Okay,” said Crowley, “anybody else down there have any ideas?”
“What’s the stall speed of the T-28?” Rollins asked.
“Depends on the weight,” replied Crowley. “If I burn most of the fuel and fly from the rear seat, it’s probably as low as 70 knots [about 82 mph]. But that will be hard to maintain without keeping the nose up, which will obstruct my vision in front.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” said Rollins. “Your own safety is more important than saving the plane.”
“Right,” said Crowley. “But I think I can do a safe gear up landing without doing much damage either.”
“Why don't you bail and see if you can get it to soft-crash in the Back Bay?” asked Rollins. (Most of the Back Bay of Biloxi is about 15 feet deep.)
“No, no no. No way,” replied Crowley. “I know I can pull off a gear-up landing. If I try to get it into the Back Bay, I'd have to bail at at least 1500 feet to allow for the chute to open. And that would mean it would be too hard to control where it finally crashed.”
Colonel Rollins reluctantly agreed that a gear up landing was probably better than trying to down the plane in the Back Bay of Biloxi.
Then Rollins called for the fire crews to position themselves alongside the runway and instructed them to prepare to foam the runway in anticipation of the sparks which would be generated by a gear up landing.
Sergeant Johns wanted to know who worked in the nose wheel well last.
Sergeant Wilkins said it was probably one of his guys but he wasn't sure which one.
“Get me the records then,” Johns said.
Within minutes the nearby flight shack's records binder for tail number 9327 arrived.
“Okay, looks like we had an engine change and a major phase inspection,” said Johns. “What do they do to the nose gear during a major phase inspection?”
“Not much,” Wilkins replied, “the gear has to be removed for an engine change, then reinstalled and cycled in the hangar. Then it's inspected, buttoned up and signed off. All routine stuff we do all the time.”
“If this nose gear was cycled, how could it be sticking now?”
“I don't know,” replied Wilkins. “Maybe it wasn't cycled, even though it says here it was cycled according to the technical order.”
“Better bring out whoever worked on this,” Johns demanded.
Staff Sergeant Abraham Lowry had signed off as supervisor of the phase inspection. Sergeant Wilkins radioed back to the Aero Repair shop to find out where Sergeant Lowry was. Sergeant Lowry worked the night shift and was not on duty.
“Send someone to the barracks to pick him up then,” said Wilkins.
We all craned our necks as Major Crowley made several low-altitude passes in front of the assembled crowd as several pilots with binoculars tried to get a look at the stuck landing gear. There wasn't much to see. The nose wheelwell panel was nearly closed.
“What's going to happen to the plane when you try to land with the gear up?” asked Colonel Rollins over the radio.
“I assume I’ll just skid down the runway on the belly of the fuselage,” Crowley replied.
Colonel Rollins walked over to the nearby T-28 on the ground where we gathered near the spilled hydraulic fluid. He walked around it, still talking to Crowley on his radio.
“What about the propeller?” asked Rollins.
“Not sure,” replied Crowley. “I’ll kill the engine and feather the prop during final approach and I’d guess that the propeller blades will simply break off when they hit the runway. They should break off underneath, and probably won’t get near the cockpit.”
“It will probably depend on the position,” Rollins replied, gazing at the nose of the T-28 on the ground. “These propeller blades seem to extend below the level of the fuselage. But if they're feathered as you approach it’s hard to tell what will happen.”
“I'll try to keep the nose up as long as possible,” said Crowley, “to minimize the amount of time the prop blades touch the runway.”
Sergeant Lowry soon reported to Sergeant Johns somewhat nervously. He was in civilian clothes having been awakened in his barracks room.
“Did you supervise the last Phase inspection of 9327?” Johns quickly asked.
“Yes sir,” replied Lowry, tentatively.
“Did you cycle the landing gear?”
“And it cycled fine?”
“Yes sir, as I recall. Didn't I check that step in the checklist?”
Johns looked at the forms. He had. “You know what's going on here?”
“On the way here Sergeant Robinson told me that Major Crowley can’t get the nose gear down.”
“Right. Do you have any idea how that could happen?”
“No sir. Not really. Like I said, it cycled clear.”
“Clear? What do you mean? Clear?”
“No hitches. No noise. Smooth. Like always.”
“Take a look here in this nose wheelwell and tell me if you have any idea what the problem could be.”
Sergeant Lowry bent over and stooped over into the nose wheelwell nearby and looked around for awhile. “No sir, I can't imagine what the problem could be. But this isn’t the plane I worked on.”
“This is unbelievable,” said Johns. “How could the nose gear stick if it cycled okay in the hangar?”
“I don't see how it could,” Wilkins replied. “I don't think anyone touched it between the time it was cycled and this morning when Crowley took off.”
Major Crowley reported that he still had about an hour's worth of fuel remaining and that he planned to make a few more practice passes at the runaway before actually attempting the gear-up landing.
“Any other ideas?” Rollins asked me. “We’re running out of time here.”
“No sir,” I replied nervously. “But we’ll keep looking.”
“I have to assume this is maintenance related,” Rollins said, somewhat accusatorily. “There’s no other explanation. I don’t see any way it could be the pilot or a malfunction.”
“True, sir,” I said. “But we just don’t know at this point.”
By this time my boss, Lt. Colonel Smith, Chief of Maintenance, and his boss Colonel Taylor, Commander of the 3380th Maintenance and Supply Group, had arrived.
“What do we have here?” asked Taylor.
“Major Crowley’s nose gear is stuck and won’t come down,” I replied. “Looks like he’ll have to do a gear-up landing.”
“Why’s it stuck?” asked Smith?
“We don’t know,” I replied. “We’ve tried to duplicate it over there [pointing at the nearby T-28] but nothing sticks out.”
“Maybe that’s what you should look for — something sticking out,” said Smith.
“We’ll take another look.”
Johns, Wilkins and the crew chief stepped into the nose wheelwell again.
“I just don’t see how this thing could cycle in the hangar and then stick in the air,” Wilkins grumbled, looking closely at the strut mechanism.
Johns came back over and added, “We just don’t know.”
“We’re out of ideas,” I reluctantly told Rollins, Smith and Taylor. “But we’re still looking.”
The four colonels looked at each other. “Shit,” grumbled Rollins, as they shook their heads angrily and nervously.
The fire crews finished foaming the runway and positioned themselves beside the runway as Major Crowley prepared for his final approach. He cut the engine and an ominous silence descended on what normally would have been the usual clatter of the busy flightline.
The sky was a clear blue, there was very little wind and Major Crowley was ready to bring her down. He glided down to the west end of the runway, pulled up a little and sort of floated quietly just above the runway, barely descending foot by foot with a slightly nose-up flare.
The tail skid under the T-28’s tail was the first to scrape the tarmac. It seemed to drag and spark a little, then the sparking stopped in the foam, then the nose gently lowered and the propeller blades hit the runway.
“Look at that!” shouted Rollins. “The propeller didn't break off!”
The propellers were not lightweight aluminum blades; they were wide heavy tempered steel and Crowley was being so gentle with the descent that the lower two of the three propeller blades were actually holding the plane barely off the ground like an upside-down Y.
We watched as the large bulky two-seater aircraft skidded down the runway basically on its two front propeller blades and the tail skid, barely keeping the bottom of the fuselage from scraping the foamed runway.
“I hope he stops before he reaches the end of the runway,” said Lt. Col. Buck.
“No problem,” Rollins replied.
Crowley had glided pretty far down the runway before touching down, and the foam was acting as a sort of lubricant reducing friction and letting the plane slide. And since the propeller blades and the tail skid were the only things touching the runway there wasn’t much friction and Crowley seemed to be drifting farther down the runway than he meant to.
“I don't like this,” said Buck. “If he skids off the end of the runway and the propeller blades sink into the ground, he could flip.”
“I don't think so,” replied Rollins. “All he has to do is lower the flaps.”
“But he's not lowering the flaps,” said Buck.
“He will,” said Rollins.
But he didn't.
“Lower the flaps!” Rollins shouted into the radio. “Lower the flaps!”
The plane continued to skid toward the end of the runway at a significant speed, gently scraping the runway with the plane’s lower fuselage, spitting up foam as it went.
The two lower propeller blades were worn down and bent backward, but when the plane reached the end of the runway, the nose-heavy aircraft seemed to abruptly stop short as the bent propeller blades caught in the ground. The round nose of the aircraft sunk and dug in, and, as if in slow motion, the tail rose up, and up… and after the tail tipped past vertical, the whole plane somersaulted over upside-down, falling to a hard thump, the fiberglass canopy smashing onto the grass as the tail fin came over and knifed into the soft ground.
(To be continued…)