Flying Mishaps

Air sickness is one thing in more than fifty years of flying I have never suffered. Paul Burnham, one of my former Navy shipmate wasn’t so lucky. And what a shame it was. Paul had dreamed of flying all his life. I imagined Paul grew up wearing a flight helmet to school every day and probably had a dozen model airplanes hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom. Unfortunately, in flight training, the minute Paul left the ground he became ill. Flight instructors became reluctant to take Paul up because of the mess he made. Navy doctors tried a variety of medications to calm Paul’s stomach without success. But Paul was determined and begged and pleaded to be able to continue flight training. He was convincing and allowed to solo … which resulted in Paul’s final flight.

Shortly after takeoff that day, Paul radioed the tower, “Errrr, Saufley tower, Mentor Two One, Over”

“Mentor Two One, Tower. Go ahead, Over.”

“Tower, Two One, I have a problem, Over”

“State your problem, Two One, Over.”

“Errr, I can’t turn. Over”

“Say again, Two One. Can’t turn?, Over”

“Affirmative! Can’t turn, Over.”

“Two One, Tower. Why can’t you turn? Over.”

“Because I throw up. Over.”

Paul was heading west over Alabama. Two instructors flew out of Pensacola and caught up with Mentor Two One. Talking him through a gentle 180-degree turn, they then guided Paul to a straight in landing back at NAS Saufley Field.

It was reported that Paul made a perfect landing. The main landing gear simply chirped as Paul smoothly settled on the runway.

Good for you shipmate. Best of luck in the fleet as a swabbie.

My friends all agreed, our favorite Paul Burnham quotation was “I really love flying. It just makes me puke!”

One of the absolutes in military aviation is you would rather die than be recognized for making a stupid mistake. A classic pilot error that happens with some frequency is neglecting to lower the landing gear and making an inadvertent wheels-up landing. Oh, the humiliation such a miscue will bring …  if you survive.

Generally, such oversights happen during an emergency, such as an engine failure or a fire when the pilot becomes preoccupied and distracted.

Inexperienced student pilots are prone to such accidents, and for that reason the Navy placed an observer armed with radio and a Very pistol (a signaling device) at the approach end of student practice airfields watching for such oversights.

A first-time solo pilot flying a T-28 trainer was making a landing at Baren Field in Pensacola when the observer saw that the plane did not have its wheels down. First announcing on his radio, “Wheels not down! Wheels not down! Wave off! Wave off!” He then fired the Very pistol sending a brilliant orange smoke trail into the sky ahead of the landing plane. Still, the student continued, so focused on his line-up, airspeed, and altitude that he didn’t heed the frantic warnings.

The plane touched down amid a shower of sparks, smoke and flame and slid fifty yards down the runway. Just as it appeared to be slowing, a wingtip caught an obstruction at the runway’s edge that flipped the airplane over on its back.

The crash trucks, responding immediately, raced down the runway to the smoking aircraft. Inside the cockpit the mortified student, no doubt envisioning the hell he was going face for such a stupid mishap, had the presence of mind to remember the T-28 had a hand crank in the cockpit for lowering the wheels manually in event of a hydraulic failure.

As the firetrucks approached the smoking wreck, to their amazement they saw two wheels slowly emerging from the underside of the aircraft’s wings.

Did that student really think he was going to get away with that?

A well-known adage about wheels-up landings is that if you’ve never made one, someday you would try. What about me? Did I ever come close? Well … yeah, I did.

It happened while I was going through the RAG (Replacement Air Group training). Prior to reporting to my squadron after getting my wings, I was sent to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, for flight training in the P2V7, the aircraft I would fly in the squadron. The P2 is a large aircraft, slightly bigger than a WW II B-17. It is considered a four-engine aircraft with the unusual configuration of two reciprocating propeller engines and two jet engines. The plane could fly safely on just one reciprocating engine if the other had failed but landing in that configuration became rather tricky, since reversing the one engine was necessary in order to stop. Keeping the aircraft on the runway took a lot of one-sided footwork on the rudder pedals and brakes. For that reason, single engine landings were practiced on every training flight.

On a normal landing, wheels are lowered early in the approach, but because the landing gear adds excessive drag, during a single-engine approach the wheels are not lowered until the landing is assured.

I was practicing a single-engine landing with an instructor and the approach was going well. The jet engines were at idle, and I was adjusting the one-engine RPM as well as applying asymmetrical rudder forces to keep the plane aligned with the runway. A warning device on almost all aircraft is a gear horn which sounds if the wheels are not down when the throttle is reduced. The horn had been blaring during my approach which was expected but ignored. On short final and thinking primarily of the landing flare and the reverse procedure, it suddenly occurred to me that the wheels were not down.

Applying full throttle on both jets, I loudly announced, “I’m waving this one off, sir.”

“I think that is a damn good idea,” the instructor replied.

Such an error would normally receive a poor flight evaluation. However, during the post flight briefing, not a word was said about that last minute wave off. Had the instructor also been distracted and unaware? Or perhaps he just felt my lesson had been learned. Whatever the reason, never in the next 4,000 flight hours, did I ever come that close to a wheels-up landing.

4 thoughts on “Flying Mishaps

  1. Have had a few unconventional landing experiences but never flew a plane with folding feet so not a victim or near-victim. Glad you made the go-around.

  2. Jim, interesting information. You and Paul could have combined for some fun times in the saloon after the flights.`

  3. Some good stuff and typically well deserved..and the 4,000 hours is impressive.

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