Recovery: (noun, U) the process of getting back to a normal situation after experiencing a difficulty.
Hello, dear readers. I hope you’ve had a great week, and that you had a chance to finally go fly again.
I will today try to bring back to life the story of a mechanical failure that happened on one of the countless days that I was spending in a control tower.
As it is the case with many of these mishaps, it all started with an uneventful flight, on a calm day. Two friends just went for a small IFR practice flight in our airspace, and wanted to fly a few ILS approaches in a nifty little airplane, a Cessna 177, with retractable landing gear.
As a matter of fact, I had a personal connection to this aircraft as I had had the chance to fly it myself some 15 years before (!), along with my instructor, at the occasion of a flying trip to Northern France.
So, after a normal taxi and run-up, the flight took off, and we were busy sequencing it into our stream of arrivals, when the pilot suddenly reported that he had a technical problem: the landing gear wouldn’t retract.
As many would think, our first thought was that it was not that serious. After all, better that than the opposite, right? If the wheels are extended, no problem to land.
But, as it turned out, the problem was in fact much more serious. The pilot asked to make a low pass over the runway for us to have a look at the undercarriage, and when we saw the state of the airplane, it immediately became a different kettle of fish. Indeed, the gear had actually started retracting, but did not retract completely.
Now, if you haven’t seen or flown RG Cessna’s before, the way in which their gear retracts is rather peculiar. First, the main gear unlocks and “drops” below the fuselage, and only after, pulls up into its chamber.
This is approximately the position in which the main wheels of that Cessna had stopped when the pilot noticed the problem.
In such a configuration, attempting a landing seemed very difficult. Everybody understood very quickly that it would have been by far better if the wheels had actually completely retracted and were blocked in their “up” position. But this is what the pilots had to face, so we had to accept the predicament and start working around it.
First, we asked the pilot if he had an idea of what the root cause was, and more importantly, what endurance he had. Fortunately, he had over 4 hours of fuel, and a very clear diagnosis of the problem, a hydraulic failure caused by a leak of the fluid. He was actually not sure how he lost that fluid, but was at least certain that there was either none or too little left to operate the system.
We started investigating all the options at our disposal, including quite bold approaches, like reviving an old grass strip that had been in use on our airport (in fact, a patch of grass between the runway and the taxiway) but since then long decommissioned, and of course we notified the local rescue services as well as the national Rescue Coordination Center that we had quite a hairy situation developing.
After a few minutes of scrambling all available resources, we were actually pleasantly surprised when a rescue helicopter of our Air Force showed up on our RADAR displays and called in, announcing their intention to come and try to assist. After just a few minutes, they landed at the airport, awaiting the right moment to help, and the crew started working out on the apron with sit-ups and push-ups to pass the time 😊.
In the meantime, of course, the situation in the air was not getting better, the pilots had no clue about what more to do to try and solve their issue, and in the tower, we had resorted to calling the owner of the airplane to let him know of the ongoing situation. A few minutes later, though, we did receive what was going to be a life-saving telephone call.
-“Hi, I am an aircraft mechanic, and a friend call me that his airplane was stuck in the air with a problem, I may have an idea how to help them, do you know how we can work this out?”
Of course, we were willing to try anything, so, the mechanic was promptly invited to the tower, where we gave him a seat and a radio to chat with the pilot, on a separate frequency…
GND: “OOABC, Peter, this is Vincent, I am a mechanic and I can try to help you. I don’t suppose you have a spare bottle of oil or hydraulic fluid with you, do you?”
ACFT: “Negative, we don’t have”
GND:”Any other fluid at all?”
ACFT:”Well, all we have is a bottle of milk that we took on board as a drink, but nothing very useful”
GND:”Ok. We are going to try. One of you needs to step over the seats and go to the back of the airplane. You have to locate the cover of the power pack compartment, unscrew it and find a thin tube with a screw on top.
ACFT:”Ok, my copilot is going”
GND:”Switch off the powerpack and hydraulic pump by pulling out the circuit breakers, then unscrew the opening of that thin tube, pour the milk in and close it again. Then, put the breakers in, switch on the pump and cycle the gear as quickly as possible before the fluid leaks out again”
All the controllers were hanging on the edge of their seat, thinking of the pilots having to perform mechanics in a flying aircraft, and almost jumped in happiness when the voice of the pilot came out crackling from the loudspeakers:
ACFT:”All done, we have 3 greens, gear seems to be down and locked”
After a last low pass over the runway to confirm visually that the undercarriage appeared to be in a good position, the aircraft performed a last circuit to give time to the local rescue services to take position around the runway, and finally came back to land, as if nothing had ever happened.
All this story, dear readers, to illustrate one thing. Air traffic controllers are not mechanics, and pilots aren’t either. We all have our own specific skills and if you asked ATCOs to fly an airplane, presumably not all of them would be able to, and vice versa. Same goes for rescue workers, aircraft mechanics and everybody involved, of course. But it is as a team that we are the strongest. Using everybody to the best of their capacity is the best way to overcome difficulties.
But let’s even go one step further. What saved the day once again? The fact that the pilot did not wait, called ATC immediately with his problem, and put all his trust where it belonged. I like to tell my students that no matter why you are in this business, as a PPL/hobbyist, or as a weathered professional pilot with thousands of hours, we are all professionals, to some extent. As long as we do not forget that we are all working towards a safer sky and do everything for it, we are going to stay as safe as imaginably possible.
Stay safe, my friends. See you next week.