January 10, 2012

Down Three Red

Waiting in line for takeoff from San Diego 
San Diego has a noise curfew that prohibits takeoff before 6:30am...no need to set an alarm clock if you live off the west end of the runway, the first MD80 departure of the day could wake the dead.  Most of the airlines push off the gate around 6:15, get in line and wait for the clock to click past 6:29.  As you can see from the picture, my flight was about number 5 in line this morning...we rotated at 6:36.

It was a beautiful southern California morning with good visibility, warm temperatures and light winds.  I landed almost three hours later in Dallas, Texas where the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit with cloud bases at 300 feet and visibility described in feet, not miles.  I was at the controls as Regional Approach vectored us in for an ILS approach to runway 36L.  "Turn left heading 030, maintain 4000 until established, cleared for the ILS 36L."

The visibility wasn't great, but it was a simple approach with enough room between the minimum approach requirements and actual weather conditions that I was confident we would land.  I left the autopilot engaged as we intercepted the glide slope and began our final descent.  We were in icing conditions and I needed to keep the engines spooled up to provide enough heat to keep the wings warm, so I lowered the flaps earlier than normal and asked the Captain to lower the gear as we descended through 1800 feet above touchdown.  I heard the nose gear doors open and felt the mains drop into position, but in my peripheral vision I could see three glaring red lights indicating a gear unsafe condition.

In hind sight, what surprises me most about what happened next was how much information passed though my head in such a short amount of time.  It was only after we were safely on the ground and the Captain and I began to talk about what had happened that we realized how much we had considered in such a short period of time.

I felt the gear fall into place and was reasonable sure at least one of the main landing gear assemplies was down...three red lights on the instrument panel indicated none of the three gear was down and locked...did I forget to turn the hydraulic pumps on high?  No, both engine driven hydraulic pumps were selected to high...check the nose gear indicating pin...it was up indicating the nose gear was down, but the light was still red...cycle the gear?  Maybe we'd get lucky...1600 AGL now, precious little time to salvage a landing...bingo fuel was 9,400 lbs. and we were passing through 10,800...not enough fuel for a go around and another attempt at the approach...what's my alternate airport...visibility was too low to ask the tower for a visual check on the gear.

As those last few thoughts were passing through my head the Captain lowered the gear handle a second time and in a few seconds we had three green lights.  Clearly the situation was much improved, but I still had work to do.  I was behind and needed to be fully configured by 1000 feet AGL or I would be required to perform a go-around.  I lowered the rest of the flaps and slowed the aircraft to approach speed and managed to stabilize the thrust as the aircraft announced "1000."  The surface report that I had rechecked only minutes earlier claimed a ceiling of 700 feet and visibility of 1 1/2 miles.  But as we passed through 700 ft, the rain that had been falling lightly for the past few minutes intensified and it became increasingly clear that the weather was worse than reported.

The Captain reported the runway lights as we descended through 300 feet, then called the runway in sight at 200 feet above touchdown.  As the mains contacted the runway, the tower controller reported runway visibility of 5000RVR.  I slowed the aircraft to taxi speed then stepped on the right rudder to steer toward the high speed exit before I noticed my heart rate...slightly elevated to say the least.


  1. Thank you for an inside view of an airline pilot. I have a friend who also a first officer. I used to try to ask him questions about his profession and I never seemed to get many answers. Usually my questions go unanswered. So thanks. However he did say one time that it is not as glamourous to be a pilot as people think.

  2. Great Post! :) Did you have to report this 'malfunction' (Not sure what to call it) or was it just fine like this?

    Kind Regards,

  3. Great "there I wuz" story!
    Speaking of the perils of landing gear, my goal is to grace the roof of that Cherokee that's always parked on the top of the garage off SAN 27 with the right main of my A320, lol!

    Hey come visit me at capnaux.blogspot.com ! I've added your excellent posts to my blogroll!
    (PS--Hi, Bas!)

  4. Bas, Yes we had to report the malfunction. We described the event in detail in the aircraft logbook and left the jet in their capable hands.

    Capnaux, I've added your blog. Thanks for checking in.

  5. Hey there! Do you happen to have any writing experience or it is just a pure natural talent of yours? Can't wait to see your answer.

    1. Hello Teegan. This blog is my only real experience writing. I'm sure it shows.