When it Takes Full Power to Taxi

The old aviation joke says, “How do you know that you’ve landed with the gear up?
Answer: It takes full power to taxi!!”

Sitting around the hangar, or hanging at “Hotdog day,” or congregating wherever pilots like to congregate, that dumb joke will always bring smiles…except for me…It’s not as funny since August 19, 1985.

It was a beautiful morning as the other student and I met with our Air Force Instructor Pilot (IP) at the Squadron Ops desk to discuss the morning’s training sortie. It was a Monday morning and at “oh-dark-thirty,” after talking about our weekends, we were looking over the clipboards with the tele-typed weather reports of various airports around the surrounding area and discussed where we would go on our third flight in the glorious, Vietnam era, C-130.

Jeff-C130Life was good! We were student pilots getting our C-130 transition after getting our wings. We were being paid to learn to fly an airplane that really was a “Pilot’s airplane.” Weeks of ground school and workbooks and time in simulators in the middle of the night preceded this day…and to again be flying an actual airplane, only brought smiles.

Our IP, a great guy and an Air Force Major who had at one time had been “Chief, Stan Eval” chose Blytheville, Arkansas to be our destination that morning; and that’s where we would do a lot of “pattern work.” It would be a 5-hour “mission” where we would leave Little Rock AFB, fly to Blytheville, work on instrument approaches, “engine outs,” accuracy landings, etc, and then return.

Piece of cake.

The weather was great and we would have some more entries in our logbooks at the end of the day.

With me starting out in the right seat, we launched from Little Rock and flew the quick flight to Blytheville where we began the day’s “work” of landings and approaches and “emergencies.” ‘Round and ‘round we went around the pattern of the one runway SAC base seeing the arsenal poised around the base ready to launch if the Russians pulled the trigger.

After being “beat up” for 2.5 hours or so, we landed and swapped seats. I moved from the right seat to the “Nav” position—one of 5 seats and two bunks in the expansive cockpit—where I promptly started delving into my Air Force Box lunch. The other student, a Marine, went to the left seat where Marine’s learn to fly, and the IP moved to my old, hopefully not too soiled, right seat. Off we went doing the same thing I had been doing…’round and ‘round the pattern!

On our 19th landing…yes, our 19th…we were simulating a 3 engine approach with number 4 throttle pulled to “0” torque. On short final, the IP said, as they are oft to do, “Go around! Truck on the runway!”

With perfect precision, the Marine student added power on 1, 2, and 3 and announced: “Go Around!” Adjusting for the yaw with his rudder and ailerons, he then commanded, “Positive Rate! Gear up!”

The IP, in the right seat, reached for the gear handle and selected “Up” and promptly, as designed, the GEAR WARNING HORN sounded a very loud “Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeppp” since the gear was not down and number 4 was pulled back to nearly idle.

The gear warning horn is very annoying. But thankfully, Lockheed designed a button that can silence that annoying noise. With confidence honed by years of training and experience, the IP pushed the “HORN CUTOUT” button and we could all think again without that loud and obnoxious noise.

Climbing out on runway heading, we were cleared for “right closed traffic” and my buddy began briefing the next approach and landing.C130-Climb

“Well crew, this will be another 3 engine approach and landing” he starts.
“We will reverse the symmetricals….” blah, blah, blah…

We have heard this before. Like 19 times.

Turning from crosswind to a right downwind, my buddy called for “FLAPS 50.”

From what I remember, the C-130 basically lands with either FLAPS 50% or FLAPS 100%. Since we were “engine out,” it made sense to just use the lower flap setting. Interestingly, the engineers who designed the C-130 placed a “micro-switch” around FLAPS 70 where, if any gear was not “DOWN AND LOCKED,” that pesky, obnoxious Landing Gear Warning Horn would sound and there was no way to silence it. But that switch wouldn’t be tested that day.

Established on the downwind, my fellow student was just about to call “Gear Down, Landing Checklist” —when the Blytheville tower radioed:

“HORSE THREE-TWO, DO A LEFT THREE SIXTY IN THE PATTERN FOR OPPOSITE DIRECTION C-130 TRAFFIC DEPARTING THE RUNWAY.”

Whoa! This was different!

Our flow got interrupted and my buddy began a flawless 360 degree turn to the left. He was concentrating on “needle, ball, and airspeed” and the rest of us on that flight deck, began looking out of the windows for that other camouflaged C-130 that was taking off in the opposite direction we were landing.

As we were rolling out on the right downwind almost abeam the “numbers” someone said, “Oh! There he is!”

Two o’clock, low, climbing out, was another C-130 like us. Tower’s intention was, since we were all in the training environment, to have that newly airborne C-130 do a course reversal and follow us to the landing.

Blytheville tower radioed: “HORSE THREE-TWO, TURN BASE NOW. CHECK WHEELS DOWN, CLEARED FOR THE OPTION.”C130-Panel

The IP, looking at the proximity of the other airplane and our closeness to the runway radioed: “HORSE THREE TWO—ROGER. WHEELS DOWN, CLEARED FOR THE OPTION” and then he immediately looked at my fellow student and said, “If I were you, I’d pull the power all the way back to idle!”

Now, normal Air Force traffic patterns when you are learning are BIG. This was going to be really different than what we were used to. This was going to be a tight, challenging approach to landing.

My fellow student quickly took the remaining throttles (1,2, and 3) and brought them back to (almost) the idle position and began his turn to base.

(I say “almost” because the C-130 engines with their massive propellers can actually produce “Negative Torque.” This is when the prop begins driving the engine verses the engine driving the prop. This can occur when the power is pulled to idle and thus, experienced pilots keep their hands at the base of the throttle quadrant and make sure that there’s enough thrust being called for and that the props don’t activate the “NTS System” that is designed to limit the negative torque. It was a hot day that day. With the ambient conditions, the throttles actually had to be forward of the aft stop to keep “0” torque on the indicators…apparently a “gnat hair” away from the micro-switches on the other throttles that would re-establish that obnoxious gear warning horn!)

We were in a diving swooping turn, and we were all focused on whether-or-not we would “overshoot” the runway. Again, this was “unusual!”

Rolling out on a short, 3/4 mile final, we began congratulating ourselves as my buddy rolled out perfectly on centerline. Almost in Blue Angle precision, I remember seeing all of us look up to the “landing data card” strategically placed in the “eyebrow” window above the co-pilot’s seat to see how our landing speeds (which change with the weight of the airplane) were doing.

We were right on. This would be “textbook.”

With a slight left to right crosswind and directly on centerline, my buddy with a left wing down correction touched down…

At first it felt like we had a flat tire. The airplane was “skipping” and felt very similar to a landing with a flat tire. But then….

But then the noise started! The nose came down and we began sliding down the runway. The high wings prevented the propellers striking the runway and we slid mostly straight for over 3000 feet. The event was startling! I remember looking all over the cockpit trying to figure out what was happening and then I saw it—

Between the shoulders of the Flight Engineer whose station is at the base of the console, and the IP in the right seat, the gear handle was in the UP position and a red light was glowing in the handle and there were three “UP” indications.

Like Luke Skywalker finding out that Vader was his dad, “NOooooo!!!!”

We had just landed with the gear up! My stomach was in knots. If only we could be like Superman and back up time just a couple of minutes!

Sliding to a stop, someone commanded a Ground Evacuation. Training kicked in and we performed the items on the checklist and quickly evacuated the plane. I remember the crew door opening and hitting the runway. “Watch your head fellas!” I shouted.

Smoke was pouring out of the crew entrance door. Our young Loadmaster, who was asleep in the back of the plane, came out with eyes as wide as plates. The other student and I went to the side of the runway and watched with such a sinking feeling the other C-130 that we turned inside of “go around”…and the IP and Flight Engineer trying to find the battery compartment door on the side of the airplane that was now several feet lower. And then—the sound of sirens from 2 miles away as the “equipment” was sent.

With consternation, I remember my fellow student exclaim: “The gear doors?! They’re closed!”

“Yeah,” I replied. “We forgot to put the gear down.” (He had thought that perhaps the gear had collapsed on landing.)

Nothing else had to be said.

Runway

I won’t bore you with the aftermath—the safety team interviewing each of us, the grounding of all of us until the JAG Colonial made his determination, the nickname given to my fellow student of “Wheels” by his Squadron, and the whispers of fellow aviators at the AF Base when me, the Coastie, and him, the Marine were walking around and we would hear, “Those are the guys!”

Yeah. That stunk.

My career, and that of the other student, would continue—but for the Flight Engineer who had 33 years with the Air Force and was going to retire on his next flight and the IP/Aircraft Commander—they would never fly again for the Air Force.

It was just a moment. A break in the normal chain of events that we had been accomplishing all morning. A distraction, a different circumstance, a pressure to accomplish something that would help ATC…it all equaled to a damaged airplane, damaged egos, and ruined careers.

I confess in my cocky days I used to be one of those guys that would consider anyone forgetting to put the gear down as a complete buffoon—but having experienced it and saw how insidious it can be, I have learned to listen to my body and know that if my hair on the back of my neck is sticking up to pay attention!

…and I have also learned that when you land with the gear up, it does in fact take full power to taxi.

 

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