Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Dean Noses into the Turf!

"Hey Steve! Dean can't get his nosewheel to come down. Any ideas?" Edward called out to me. My knees momentarily went weak. All I could picture was Dean hurtling through the sky at 200 mph, and then having to land sans nosewheel with 7 elderly people and children on board. The mind can instantly play funny tricks on one. I hurried up the hill from the airplane docks into the office of Blue Water Aviation in Pine Falls, Manitoba.

Dean was a fellow pilot and friend of mine, and he was employed with a local air carrier that used our company's services for maintenance. The first thing that one questions when there is a problem is "maintenance". It is human nature, although unfounded in this instance as you will later see.

Dean had acquired a number of hours flying the Piper Navajo PA-31-310, C-FXOQ, during the past year and handled the aircraft quite competently. I had actually done all of his initial flight training on the aircraft type, and had recommended him for a Pilot Proficiency Check (PPC) with Transport Canada, which he passed with ease. He actually received a fine comment from the examiner, who after the check ride told Dean that he would be confident enough in Dean's ability to let his own family fly with Dean on a Sunday outing.

C-FXOQ was a 200 mph+ Navajo. It was used for freight, flying tourists to go fishing, and to transport the local aboriginal populations between their communities. It was an older aircraft, but in quite reasonable shape all-around, paint, interior, and engines included. It saw service everyday, and in the local area that it flew in, all the runways were gravel. During inclement weather that would persist, the surface condition of the gravel strips could deteriorate quite rapidly. This day in particular, Dean had left Matheson Island to take a load of freight to Poplar River. He had unloaded his freight, and was returning to Matheson when he found out the nose-gear wouldn't deploy. He headed for our base, as there were AMEs (Aircraft Maintenance Engineers) on hand, and also a grass runway, which was going to come in very handy. Also, what an opportune stroke of luck to be the sole occupant of the airplane.

I made it into the office and Edward was talking to Dean on the Base radio. "Have you tried the manual hydraulic pump?" Edward queried. "Yes", replied Dean, "it won't put the nosewheel down". Edward and I discussed the situation momentarily and decided to suggest Dean manipulate the aircraft through a few abrupt maneuvers, and if the nose-gear didn't dislodge, to approach the runway and bounce the aircraft and take-off again, with the main gear down and locked, hoping this would dislodge the nosewheel. Well, Dean did a fine job of trying to get the nose-gear down. He twisted and turned, but no nose-gear. He made 3 bounce- and-go approaches. Guess what? No nose-gear. Dean had had enough. "I am going to climb up, burn off some fuel, prepare and secure myself, and when I am ready, I will land, kill the engines, hold the nose off as long as possible, and try to keep her straight". He climbed away and we waited for the inevitable.

We notified the local authorities of the situation, and grabbed some fire- extinguishers, just in case. Then, we waited for Dean. We were informed by radio he was ready to land. I am sure he needed a little time to rehearse in his mind what he was going to do. He made a long, slow approach, and crossed the threshhold of the SE runway. He killed the engines as the two mainwheels greased onto the grass. He slowed down, down, down, all the while pulling back on the yoke to hold the nose up, until the inevitable happened. 'SMACK!' The nose dropped, both props quickly bent and stopped, the grass was flying, and I could see the rudder being manipulated to keep the aircraft straight. Then, silence. The aircraft stopped, no fire, and we raced to get Dean out. He opened the rear door, and jumped to the ground unhurt, and quite calm.

As it turned out, the roll-off bearing for the nose-gear had seized, and had held the nosewheel in place. The airstrip at Matheson Island had been lengthened and resurfaced, and there was quite a large amount of clay in the surface gravel, which is used to bind the gravel together, and once packed, becomes a very hard surface. We had had so much rain that the runway hadn't been able to shed all the water, and there was a thin slurry on the surface. Slowly, after repeated take-offs and landings, the slurry had penetrated the bearing, and then dried out, with the remaining clay dust hardening like concrete, and binding up the bearing.

As it turned out, there wasn't much damage to XOQ. The props and engines were changed, and the minor damage to the nose-cone was repaired. The 2 pitot tubes, and the nosegear roll-off bearing were replaced. All in all, XOQ was returned to service quite readily, and continues to surf the local skies. Dean has since moved to British Columbia, and continues his aviation career. He handled himself extremely well, and his actions limited the damage to the airplane significantly. I'm sure the day I have related here will be in Dean's mind until his final days, and is a day that Dean experienced that aviation-related phenomena, "The Pucker Factor"! Good job, Dean!

Both Dean and old C-FXOQ strike embarrassed poses. Both were soon back in service..... Posted by Hello

Due to Dean's exceptional skill, and the accommodating surface of the grass runway, old XOQ's injuries were not that severe.... Posted by Hello

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