Sliding into home.
Here's how it came about. Immediately after takeoff, one of the SMAs called for the gear up. I selected the landing gear handle to the up position and immediately saw that the result was an unsafe-gear indication.
The landing gear indication system in the T-44C consists of three indicator lights that illuminate green when the gear is locked; a red light in the gear handle indicates when the gear are in transit or unsafe. When I selected the gear up, both my student and I observed that the red light in the gear handle was still illuminated, and all three gear indicator lights were extinguished. Something was wrong, but we didn't know exactly what.
I took the controls from the student and told him that this was an actual malfunction. Per our preflight brief, the student took out his NATOPS flight manual, and I coordinated with Navy Corpus Tower to enter the delta pattern to try to troubleshoot the gear malfunction. The NATOPS manual said to place the gear handle back to the down position; the expected result would be that the red light would go out and that we would have three green lights indicating that our gear was down and locked.
I placed the landing gear handle to the down position, but the result was not what we had anticipated. The red light in the gear handle remained on, and only two of the three green lights illuminated. The left main gear indicator light was not illuminated, indicating it was either up or in an unsafe, down position.
The next step was a visual inspection of the landing gear. I notified the command duty officer (CDO) via base frequency of what our cockpit indications were and of my intention to conduct a low pass for inspection. I executed a low approach near the tower (the CDO was in the observer window). We coordinated a Dash 2, and I was joined by a fellow instructor pilot in the overhead pattern who made a visual inspection from his aircraft, confirming that our left main gear was only partly extended.
On the ground, the squadron jumped into action. Our senior pilots, NATOPS evaluator, Sikorsky maintenance reps and Beechcraft technical experts determined that a mechanical failure of the landing gear had occurred and that there were few options available to me that might remedy the situation.
As a last-ditch effort, we thoroughly discussed and elected to cycle the gear, manually extending the gear and G-loading the aircraft in an attempt to safely get the gear down. Nothing worked.
Given the high probability of gear collapse, the evidence was increasingly in favor of executing a gear-up landing with the left main partially extended. We thoroughly briefed the gear-up landing procedures with our NATOPS officer via base frequency and discussed our evacuation plan once safely on deck. We then elected to conduct a practice low approach to the duty runway to get a read on the winds and to practice the ensuing procedure one final time. Then it was time to reenter downwind for the real thing.
AS WE MADE OUR TURN ONTO FINAL, the aircraft was in position to make the runway, and the runway was clear. Per NATOPS, I called for both condition levers to be placed to the fuel-cutoff position, resulting in the shutdown of both engines. The silence was deafening as I worked to bleed off the remaining airspeed and focused on centerline, ensuring my touchdown was as smooth as possible. The partly extended gear on the left side collapsed as anticipated. I had prepared for a rough ride, but it was surprisingly smooth as we slid down the runway. I was even able to use the toe brakes since the wheels in the T-44C remain partly exposed in the up position. Once the aircraft stopped, we evacuated through the emergency hatch and were met by the crash and rescue.
Crash landing an airplane is not something I imagined myself having to accomplish as a flight instructor. In the months following this landing, I learned that there was nothing we could have done to correct or prevent the landing gear malfunction. A critical piece of material had failed. I attribute our success to thorough knowledge of NATOPS procedures and great teamwork. Most importantly, we didn't rush a bad situation and panic. We used our fuel state and favorable weather as a commodity in order to thoroughly discuss and build our situational awareness, rehearsing the most favorable course of action and executing our plan methodically.
BY LT RICHARD A. BOWERS
LT BOWERS FLIES WITH VT-31