August 14 started out as a great day for an easy flight from Teterboro, New Jersey (KTEB), to Lewiston, Maine (KLEW), in our Commander 840. Ten days earlier we had replaced the tires on the main landing gear at Northeast Air, a Commander service center in Portland, Maine (KPWM). The old tires – Michelin 8.40 x 10 Aviators – were worn and it was time for replacement. After replacing the tires I returned to Lewiston and then flew with our two grown children and their spouses back to Teterboro without incident.
As we approached Lewiston I dropped the gear about 10 miles out and noticed that the light for the right main remained unlit. Looking out the window I could see that the gear doors were open but the wheel and strut were not visible. I flew out of the airport area and climbed to about 3,000 feet and exercised the gear again, yielding the same result.
At that point I climbed to 6,000 feet and explained to my wife, Carolyn, that I was going to go through the steps of the Emergency Gear Extension, although the hydraulic pressure was normal and I did not think the procedure would be successful. We climbed, pulled back the power, hit the IAS button on the autopilot at 90 kts, and dropped the gear lever. As I feared, the nose and right main came down but the right stayed up.
At this point I called Portland approach and explained the situation. I asked them to get Will Andrews at Northeast Air on a frequency with me, which they promptly did. After explaining the situation to Will, I asked him to call Dan Smock at Eagle Creek. I bought and refurbished the plane at Eagle Creek in mid-2007, and they and their sister shop in Naples had done most of the servicing of the plane in the intervening years.
Remembering the training I had received at FlightSafety from Hugh Davis, Freddy Sandoval and others, I thought about what resources were available to solve the problem. In essence I wanted all of the help I could muster.
I later learned that Dan Smock had conferenced with Scott Dillon in Naples, and that Eagle Creek CEO Matt Hagans was in Indianapolis and sat on the phone with Dan. Carolyn moved from her favorite spot on the couch to the copilot seat to act as my eyes on the gear.
For the next two-and-a-half hours Carolyn and I tried whatever the folks on the freq could think of. They were pretty certain the gear itself was operative but that something, some broken piece of metal, was in the way of the gear dropping.
We porpoised the airplane, put G-forces on the gear by doing steep turns with a steep nose-up climb, and slipped the plane hoping to create a windstream in the wheel well. Air traffic control closed KPWM to all other planes, and we even landed twice on the left main with a bank angle to keep the right prop from hitting, hoping the impact would shake the gear loose.
Lesson 1: I am often criticized by friends for carrying too much fuel. “Why ferry a lot of fuel around?” they would ask. I decided a long time ago that within reasonable weight restrictions you can never have too much fuel no matter the weather. Of course, I had no specific reason in mind, just a sense that it might prove useful for unknown problems that might crop up.
Two-and-a-half hours after first dropping the landing gear we were still flying around troubleshooting and looking for solutions. We probably had one-and-a-half hours of fuel left so we had time.
After the second left-gear landing at KPWM we climbed out to the “safety zone” (FlightSafety speak). Scott Dillon, convinced that there was some impediment in the wheel well that needed to be broken loose, suggested to Will that he tell me to exercise the gear 12 straight times in succession. On number eight Carolyn yelled “The gear dropped!”—three of the sweetest words I ever heard come from her mouth. I looked over and the green light was on, the gear looked over center, and I was convinced it was in normal shape.
We told Portland approach the gear was down and we were ready to land. The landing was normal (if you consider landing on a runway lined with fire engines normal) and as we pulled up to the maintenance hangar at Northeast Air and opened the door the first person to greet us was a Fire Officer in a silver Hazmat suit. He was a great guy, thrilled that all turned out well and very complimentary about our performance.
Lesson 2: Cockpit Resource Management – they drilled it into us at FlightSafety, and now at Simcom. Until you experience an emergency you may not realize how many resources outside the cockpit are available to you. Think about the expertise that had been rounded up to help us. How much Commander knowledge is represented by Will Andrews at Northeast and Dan Smock, Matt Hagans, and Scott Dillon at Eagle Creek/Naples Jet, let alone my wonderful wife, who knows when a landing gear has dropped.
Throughout the whole two-and-a-half-plus hours of burning holes in the sky I just kept thinking, “I’m in the sim and I am not going to think about what comes next ( a belly landing, undoubtedly) until we have exhausted all options and fuel is running low. I did try it in the sim at Simcom in February and, as you would expect, everything was great until the screen turned bright red as we hit the ground.
What caused the gear to hang up? Almost six months later we don’t know. The back of the wheel well was torn almost like a sardine can and the tire was scuffed. After the plane was jacked up and the gear retracted there appeared to be no room between the tire and the back lip of the wheel well. The obvious conclusion was that the tire was too big. We checked the inflation; it was normal.
I had the tire sent to an independent tire-testing lab that confirmed the diameter of the tire was within the tire spec. The rigging of the landing gear was proper in the view of both Northeast Air and Legacy Aviation, where the plane later travelled for installation of a Peter Schiff CCU.
Presently, no one is certain of the cause of the incident. I have spoken often with Matt Isley of Twin Commander since the incident occurred. His team has looked over all of the facts, including the tire report and the pictures of the plane taken after the incident. While they have a theory as to what might have happened, I think he would agree we still have no specific cause.
Conclusion: I hate to think about anyone else going through this experience and I hate that we do not know what caused the problem. At this point my takeaway is that I will never change tires again without having the shop do a gear swing and observe how the tire sits in the wheel well. After speaking to several shops, they all confirmed that it has not been their normal procedure to do a gear swing when replacing tires except in some cases where retreads are being used. Saving the cost of a gear swing isn’t worth risking our experience.
By the way, the hero in this story is my wife, Carolyn, who remained as cool as a cucumber and proved to be an excellent copilot. She told me afterward that her only concern was thinking about how long the plane would be out of service if we had to make a belly landing, and how she would get all her “stuff” from up north to our Florida home if we didn’t have the use of 840PS.