Nov 30, 2006

Lever Down, Three Green, ... oops?

Log Entry 1975 - B727 S/O - CYXE - Final Approach

I'm may still be a rookie Second Officer, but I know it's not supposed to happen like this.

The Captain called "Before Landing Check." That's normal. The First Officer and I moved the appropriate switches, levers and buttons, and chanted the usual incantations. That's normal. The trusty old Boeing 727 responded with its arcane dialect of flashing lights and flickering needles. That's normal. But the landing gear control panel is now showing a complete set of both red and green lights. That's not normal.

The Captain swings into action. "Now look what you've done!" he accuses the First Officer. "Recycle it!" The First Officer, looking rather peevish, does so.

Recycling is a 'Pilots Favorite Remedy.' It generally provides a two-pronged approach to any aircraft abnormality. Hopefully it will just cause the problem to go away. More importantly, it stalls for time as we recover from the confusion of this unwelcome break in the routine, and then wonder what to do if the problem persists. Which it does. We stare sullenly at the three green and three red lights glowing at us from the landing gear sub-panel.

The Captain now turns to me: "Checklist?"

I have been frantically flipping through the manual. Let an engine quit, let a generator fail, let the gear not come down at all, that's okay. We've got a routine or a procedure to follow. But nowhere in our extensive catalog of emergency and abnormal procedures can I find anything to help with this case of all the red lights and all the green lights being on together, and deciding which ones to believe.

"There's nothing here for that particular abnormality," I tell him, "therefore this can't be happening."

He flashes me a look that suggests he is re-evaluating his belief in Crew Resource Management. He turns back to the controls and commences a go-around. Good decision. It's difficult to convince anyone that the touchdown was merely "firm" when the wheels collapse after landing.

Now the situation drastically departs from the day-to-day routine of line flying. It also departs from the routine of simulator training, where I've gained most of my experience with abnormal procedures. I begin to fully realize just how many things the simulator doesn't simulate; like other aircraft in the circuit and surprised air traffic controllers who really wish you wouldn't do this as their pattern is full right now. It doesn't simulate company dispatchers and local agents who want a new ETA. It doesn't simulate flight attendants who want to know what's happening, and should they tell the passengers or will you. Worst of all, neither line flying nor the simulator have prepared me for what I'm faced with next. as we turn downwind and the Captain says to me, "You'd better go back and check the viewing ports."

Now wait a minute! I've only been on the line for two months, and when I looked through those little ports during training nobody said I'd ever have to do it for real. Well, maybe they hinted there might be a small chance someday, but I'm really not up to it today. Besides, the first officer is more experienced. Wouldn't you rather trust him to do it? And where are those little windows located anyhow? And, worst of all, that cabin is full of PASSENGERS, and the simulator definitely never simulated passengers.

"On my way."

I wonder why I'm having difficulty getting up. Could my knees be so weak at the thought of performing in public? I unfasten my seat-belt. Ah, much better. I fumble with the 'Quick Reference Handbook.' My mind has gone blank regarding the exact location of the viewing ports. I picture myself running breathlessly back to to the flight deck after ripping out all the carpets. Hey guys! Just where are those little window-things anyway? It's not a pretty picture.

After refreshing my memory, I turn to leave the cockpit, pausing just an instant to assume what I hope is the proper air of calm authority, to reassure the passengers. Swinging open the door I brace myself expecting to confront one hundred and thirty anxious faces. Fortunately, there are only four. Unfortunately, they're the flight attendants. This shakes my confidence wondering what they know that I don't. The passengers are too preoccupied with the view of the city or their newspapers to notice me.

My calm air of authority begins to waver as I collapse to my knees, clawing at the carpet. I'm pretty sure one of the junior attendants makes a move towards the first aid oxygen, but the steady hand of a more experienced colleague stops her. It's just a new second officer falling apart under pressure -- no big deal.

" What's happening? Can we help?" they inquire, stepping closer.

Get off the carpet! "Er... it's just a small problem with an indicator. No sweat. Could you step back a little please?"

I peel back the industrial strength tapestry to expose the round wooden cover and pry it loose. Then, pressing my nose against the floor while my rear end waves reassuringly towards the assembled crowd, I am just able to see the two key red lines. The nose wheel is locked down. Gathering what's left of my composure, I head further back into the cabin.

An elderly lady raises a hand to catch my attention and I prepare to calm her. "Excuse me young man," she begins, "if this is going to take long, could I get another cup of coffee?" She's in much worse shape than she appears if she's prepared to drink another cup of airline coffee. I leave her in the capable hands of the flight attendant.

Then I'm on my knees excavating carpet again. The nearest seam is two rows away from the viewing ports and as I burrow along on my elbows, I suspect that my calm air of authority is lost forever. After confirming that the main wheels are also locked down, I retreat towards the sanctity of the cockpit, exiting the cabin with a last graceful stumble -- note for maintenance: get carpet fixed -- and arrive back in my seat with a crash.

"All three gear are showing down and locked," I report.

The Captain acknowledges this and continues his radio conversation with a military training jet which is sliding by along our left flank allowing the instructor to take a look. I resist wondering if this particular student pilot is one of those inevitable washouts encountered even in military flight schools, and why is he flying so close to our airplane.

Meanwhile, the First Officer is talking to Company maintenance personnel on the other radio. "Did you recycle it?" I hear them ask. Recycling is also a 'Mechanics Favorite Remedy.' Working my way through the checklists, I ensure that all is prepared for landing. I'm surprised at how quickly one low level circuit has used up our 'contact' fuel reserve. We are now slurping up the emergency fuel and landing with or without red lights is starting to seem like a very good idea.

As we roll out on the final approach track, ATC confirms that the crash vehicles have been called out. An unfortunate choice of terms I think to myself as I crane my neck for a view out the front window. I see a station wagon, and a jeep with a fire extinguisher in the back. It's comforting to think that if the galley catches fire at least the crew meals might be saved -- if we don't mind eating them well done.

The Captain scans the cockpit one last time. I figure he is checking, with his mind's eye, the intricate schematic diagrams of the landing gear system, calling upon his thousands of hours of experience and profound technical knowledge, to provide the missing piece to this puzzle. I'm certain that any moment he will turn to us lesser mortals and reveal in a Captainly Manner why all the red lights can be on if the gear is, in fact, down and locked. Instead he leans across the pedestal and gives the landing gear lever a sound thump on the end.

"Stupid thing," he remarks.

The micro-switch which senses the gear-handle position makes contact. Presto -- all the red lights go out. I am reminded of another 'Pilots Favorite Remedy,' thumping. Of course, I think to myself. How many times have I used the same technique on a recalcitrant television or vending machine. Why should a multi-million-dollar airplane be any different?

"You should have thought of that earlier," he growls at us, "and saved all this nonsense. Oh, it's lonely at the top."

We land smoothly -- well, not that smoothly, but the Captain assures us he just wanted to make certain the gear was truly locked down.

That's normal.


Aviatrix said...

Soooo funny. I read the whole thing aloud, everyone laughing the whole way.

Recycle it, hit it, check the QRH, check it out visually and then snag it.

Too familiar.

moe darbandi said...

That's VERY well written and quite an exciting read. I'm very grateful to have discovered your blog! You're on the list with FL390.

Kenneth said...

Hahah, just discovered your blog late on a Friday night. When I was 6, I dreamt of piloting one of these commercial babies!...Fast forward to my mid 20s, rather than training on a single-engine, I'm on rotations/clerkships as a doctor hehe. Thanks for sharing your experiences even to us specialized in different fields!

Callsign Echo said...

I'm sure waving your behind at the passengers and flight attendants did nothing to damage your air of authority...obviously it's imperturbable if little old ladies are thinking about snagging more coffee rather than wondering why the flight crew is ripping up the carpet :)