NOT by the BOOK - Faced with a unique landing gear malfunction, a C-130J crew had to get innovative to return home safely

  • Published
  • By Lt. Joshua Fulcher
  • U.S. Coast Guard liaison officer and instructor pilot, serves as the 314th Airlift Wing flight safet
"... Arrow 96, wind 240 at 11, cleared to land." "Roger, cleared to land, Arrow 96. ... Alright guys, this is it. If the gear collapses, I'll do what I can to keep it on the runway. 'Co,' if the plane starts to settle, feather the props as soon as you feel it lean. If that happens, once the aircraft stops, everybody get out as quickly as you can -- a fire will most likely be on the right side of the plane, so crew entrance door is the primary exit. Alright (deep breath), let's do it ..."

As many have discovered in the history of aviation, there are sometimes situations where "the book" simply doesn't help. A case in point happened one semi-sunny Arkansas summer afternoon at the Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., C-130 Center of
Excellence "schoolhouse."

The mission for the day was rather routine: Get the mighty C-130J "Super Hercules" airborne, fly a couple of low-level tactical routes, and end the day with some touch-and-go/assault landing practice.

The students on board the aircraft that day were at both ends of the experience spectrum. The copilot student, Capt. David Snow, was a high-time Canadian C-130E/H-model pilot who was in town to get qualified in the new J-model Hercules. Loadmaster student Airman 1st Class James Year, by contrast, was a young Airman with little aviation experience. In fact, it was only his second flight ever in a military aircraft (welcome to aviation young man; hope you brought your thinking cap!).

Maj. James McAlevey served as the instructor pilot and aircraft commander, while Master Sgt. Patrick Carter led operations in the back of the aircraft as the instructor loadmaster.
The crew had completed two tactical low-level routes without incident. Both instructors were impressed with the performance of their students and were returning to base to complete the pattern/assault work and call it a day. The mission was going smoothly, and both students were looking at great write-ups. ... But the flight was far from over.

Cleared inbound on the visual overhead approach, McAlevey called for "gear down." Snow moved the gear handle to the down position, and that's when the "smooth" mission got rough.

The C-130J's gear system showed a safe "down-and-locked" indication by the illumination of three green lights. If the gear is in transit or doesn't register as down and locked, the corresponding light will simply not light up. Only two green lights were on that day -- the nose and left main gears.

The J-model has cool technology called the Advisory, Caution, and Warning System that provides visual and audible indications when malfunctions are detected. Hearing the "caution" sounds through their headsets, the pilots looked down to see "RIGHT GEAR NOT DOWN" on their flight management system displays.

"The right gear light is not on, eh," the Canadian copilot said.

"Roger, let's get a place to hold and run the checklist," McAlevey responded.

The crew contacted air traffic control, and five minutes later found themselves holding at a nearby navigational aid running the "Landing Gear System Failure" checklists. Among a host of other things, these checklists require the loadmaster to visually inspect the landing gear assembly from inside the aircraft.

That was easier said than done.

The aircraft had a significant load in the cargo compartment that was to be used for ground training once the flying portion of the event was complete. To reach the landing gear access panels in the cargo compartment, Carter and Year had to move the pallets while the plane was in flight -- no easy task on an airborne aircraft in a holding pattern. Despite the difficulty of the challenge at hand, the loadmasters moved the loads, removed the panels and performed the visual inspection in accordance with the checklist.

Once eyeballs were on the affected landing gear, the loadmasters knew they had a significant problem on their hands. Not only had the gear not moved from the up position, Carter noted multiple broken components on the gear itself.

The next 20 minutes were spent following the checklist guidance and trying to get the gear down via alternate methods in the book, but none of them worked.

In the process of trying to lower the gear, the crew contacted multiple ground agencies, including Lockheed Martin technical support, which offered suggestions on how to best deal with this emergency. Using an iPhone camera, the crew sent pictures of the structural damage to the maintenance professionals on the ground, which were analyzed and used to help guide them.

Finally, the loadmasters managed to partially lower the gear. Each of the C-130J's two main landing gear is comprised of a forward and aft gear assembly; the right forward gear was full down, but the aft gear was still about 4 to 5 inches up.

All said and done, the aircraft held for two hours, losing fuel weight, prior to the crew making the rather tense final approach and landing. The loadmasters' innovative method to secure the gear (see "Turning Lemons into Lemonade," page 21), not covered in the J-model flight manual, worked swimmingly, and the gear did not collapse. It was later found that the right-side main landing gear had moved up a few inches after the plane landed, but the fix held and the plane sustained no further damage.

The crew shut down the aircraft on the runway and walked safely away from only a minor mishap.

It could have been far worse.

For instance, one of the worst situations a C-130 crew can find themselves in is when the landing gear on one side collapses. The outboard propeller of a Hercules is only about 6.5 feet off the ground and sits nearly 30 feet from the aircraft's centerline. Thus, it will impact the ground if one of the main landing gear collapses and the other stays down and locked. The wing extends another 20 feet or so beyond the outboard propeller and will also hit the ground in this situation. Having the prop and wing tip hit the ground at a C-130's landing speed (about 100 knots or 115 mph) means only one thing ... disaster.

Instead, the crew used training, teamwork and innovation to come home safely.