It was a not so great day to go flying, the morning started with low clouds and gusting winds. But, I had cancelled my aircraft rentals two Fridays in a row and I was determined to get some time in an aircraft that I had recently been checked out in. By the time I drove to the airport, the overcast was breaking up and the winds had calmed down enough that I proceeded with the preflight.
The aircraft is a beauty, a 1980 Cessna 172, Cutlass RG, that has been totally refurbished. Her bright shiny paint glistened in the morning sun and the smell of her new leather seats was almost intoxicating. I commented to my flying companion that this bird was quite a departure to some of the other rental aircraft I had taken him up in.
She started with just two pumps of the primer and the engine produced a strong, reassuring, deep throated, roar as we taxied out to the active runway. I was sure to use the check list since this was a new aircraft to me but I have been flying Cessna products for years and they all pretty much fly and behave in the same manner. There is a reason that Cessna’s can be found on just about every continent on earth, they are very forgiving and easy to fly.
Everything checked out fine, we asked for a right down wind departure and we were off. The first sign of trouble was when I tried to retract the landing gear. It went about half way through the cycle and stopped. I then tried the lower the wheels and got no response at all. I could see that my companion was starting to have second thoughts about this trip, as was I. Well, the aircraft was working perfectly except for the under carriage. What we needed to do was to take our time and calmly assess the situation; after all, we had hours of fuel. After exhausting every effort as outlined by the emergency check list and some that weren’t in the book, I used my cell phone to call the rental base. As luck would have it I was able to get one of the mechanics on the phone and we discussed the emergency procedures. It was finally agreed that I would over fly the field at a low altitude so that the folks on the ground could make a visual assessment. Up to this point I wasn’t too nervous, but I was soon snapped back into the realization that this could be a serious situation when the control tower asked if I wanted emergency equipment to stand by.
The ground assessment wasn’t really going to tell us anything we didn’t already know, so we flew off, several miles to the south over Lake Del Valle to circle and do some more brainstorming. I thought about what Indiana Jones would do, but I wasn’t going to hang out the door upside down and try to reach the landing gear leg to lock it into position! One of the instructor pilots, who happened to be in the area, flew over to try and determine if the gear was locked. Since he was flying a much slower aircraft I pulled back on the manifold pressure, dropped 20 degrees of flaps and slowed to 75 knots. It was a very nice gesture, on his part, but it was plain to see that we were on our own.
I briefed my companion regarding safety procedures and what to expect if the gear collapsed upon landing. I was planning a dead stick landing (turning off the engine) to lessen damage to the aircraft and the possibility of fire. After facing up to the sobering fact that we were about to participate in a crash landing my companion decided to try to manually pump the gear down one more time. Well, what do you know, it worked! We got a down and locked light.
I radioed the tower that I believed that our problem was solved and that I would like to return for landing. We were cleared to land on 25 left and touched down very gently, just in case! The tower radioed “Good Job” as we switched over to ground frequency for taxi instructions. When we taxied up to the hangar we were met by the mechanic and the line crew all with smiling faces. Once we debarked there were high fives all around!
Lesson to be learned from this experience is that if you stay calm and don’t give up, miracles can happen! It also helps if you have a co-pilot who can apply some muscle to the manual pump.