It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time - John Messerly

It seemed like a good idea at the time” is one of those phrases frequently listed in the top ten “Famous Last Words”.  Fortunately, these weren’t “last” words.  This story is probably best told by the participants, but since that hasn’t happened yet, I’ll give it a go.  The prime players are the FAC (we’ll call him “Wild Bill” since I’m not 100% sure of his real identity), his Covey Rider and their Cessna O2-A “mixmaster”.

            The mission was a Prairie Fire Support.  I remember no details of the mission, but the real drama started to unfold as they returned to Pleiku for landing.  The weather was very pleasant and it looked like another great Central Highlands day until Bill visually scanned the landing gear prior to landing!  Yup, the gear handle was down, the indicators in the cockpit showed three green, but the main landing gear were not in their accustomed place! Now, that in itself was no great cause for concern.  The Oscar Deuce was famous for its unusual main landing gear retraction and its propensity to do its own thing from time to time.  Thoughtfully, Mr. Cessna had provided a backup plan.  Located between the front seats was a hand-operated hydraulic pump which, with enough expenditure of energy and patience, would usually lower the gear to a down and locked condition.  This was a ritual every O2 pilot had practiced at least once during checkout in the “Push-Me-Pull-You”.  Bill gave the handle an energetic workout, to no avail.  Since the Covey Rider was a hard-as-nails type, he volunteered to exercise the pump handle while Bill flew the plane and planned for the contingency of a gear-up landing.  After much pumping and breaking into a genuine sweat, the Covey Rider had to admit he was unable to coax the gear any further toward the down-and-locked position.

            A fly-by of the control tower confirmed the nose gear appeared locked down, but the mains were trailing back like a wounded duck’s feet.  It was at this point of nearing desperation that the Covey Rider had a flash of real brilliance.  Equipped for any eventuality, he had a length of nylon rope used for rappelling from helicopters and would fashion a loop, lasso the truant gear and pull it forward and down to the safe position.  Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  I believe the idea was even run past the maintenance folks and although it received a less than enthusiastic endorsement, no one had a better plan.  The really astonishing part of the drama at this point is that the Covey Rider actually succeeded in getting the rope around the gear, in spite of the slipstream of air around the fuselage!  The next part didn’t go so well.  The Rider tugged and pulled, sweated and swore, but the gear would not budge.  Fuel was getting to be a concern now and it was becoming evident a gear-up landing was the only remaining option.  Bill was busy on the radio coordinating the final preparations for landing while the Covey Rider rested from his recent exertion.  Unfortunately, he forgot to monitor his grip on the rope.  The slipstream worked and tugged the rope out of the cockpit until “WHAP”, the rear propeller caught the rope, ripped it out of the hands of the Rider, wrapped it around the prop shaft  and strangled the engine to a dead stop!  Now, the O2-A is not overpowered with two engines running and losing the rear engine, especially with two men on board, meant the aircraft was struggling to stay airborne.  Due to efficiency lost pushing air around the fuselage, the front engine and prop was actually less efficient than the rear engine.  The airplane would fly fine on the rear engine, albeit a bit hot on the cylinder head temps, but on the front engine it was far from a sure thing.  It was time to “fish or cut bait”, so Bill put the crippled bird down as gently as he could under the circumstances.  With the front gear locked down, at least he could make a power-on landing without the front prop hitting the runway and destroying the front engine.  Taxiing was out of the question with the plane sitting on its nose gear and rear fuselage, so Bill and his Rider deplaned with as much dignity as they could muster under the circumstances.  The airplane suffered little damage and flew again several days later.

            It turns out this was far from being an isolated incident for the O2s and the landing gear resisted all attempts by maintenance to make it reliable.  Within a few months, the twin-boom wonders were being refitted with a pair of steel I-beam skids fastened down each side of the bottom of the fuselage so gear up landings could be accomplished, as they inevitably would be, with very minor damage to the airframe.  I often wonder someone didn’t come up with the idea just to weld the gear down permanently!  It seemed like a good idea at the time!