I held three jobs on one flight

It was a day like any other day. I was the flight test engineer/observer on the Cessna M310 prototype and we were taking off on a routine test flight, the purpose of which I’ve forgotten, but it was to be a long one, so we had a full load of fuel and in our Spartanly-outfitted cabin, 700 pounds of c.g. locating ballast sewn in individual twenty pound canvas bags and loosely anchored behind the main wing spar just aft of our seats.

Cessna 310 prototype
Cessna’s prototype 310, a radical design for the company in 1953, featured retractable landing gear.

Right after lift off, a loud metal popping noise was heard at the nose of the airplane and while two lights showed the main gear retracted, neither the extended or retracted lights for the nose gear were lit. This was distracting – which is probably why I have forgotten what we were supposed to test on that flight – and, after we gained some altitude, I sat passively as the pilot tried the prescribed emergency techniques for retracting and extending the nose gear – but no lights came on. We then were pretty sure that our aft retracting nose gear was dangling. Of course we wanted confirmation of that before deciding what to do next.

We didn’t have a tower at Cessna field, while adjacent McConnell Air Force Base did, but they kind of thought our airplanes operating from Cessna were sort of a nuisance to their high performance B-47s – so we opted to get in touch with our engineering staff by radio and notify them of our predicament and see if there were any production test flights aloft. There were, so we rendezvoused with one of our L-19s whose pilot nonchalantly confirmed that we did indeed have a dangling nose gear.

Our Chief Engineer was now on the radio and he, truly worried about our safety, gave us a choice – parachute out of the airplane and let it crash, or find a place for an emergency landing. We pondered that for about five seconds and we, not wanting to lose the only 310 in existence, chose the latter course. (Maybe we were a little chicken about bailing out, too.) We then had two concerns, all that fuel on board (even in tip tanks) and that 700 pounds of ballast that might come cascading on us as we jolted to a halt.

The other concern was where to do the landing. We might ask the air base to land on their two mile long concrete runway, but that might scar up the bottom of the airplane. Better to land on our own short, grass field and have the crashed craft not interfere with ongoing operations (there was an alternate grass runway east of the one we chose to use, which instead was the one closest to the factory). It would have been especially disruptive if we landed at the air base because at that time it was also our city’s municipal airport, and additionally the runway at our field would be convenient to where the airplane would be repaired.

With that settled, what to do with all those twenty pound bags of shot? At that time the city was building a new municipal airport, to be called Mid Continent, on the other side of town to separate commercial and air force flight operations. They had constructed one long runway there, but not yet any buildings or other facilities, and we elected to fly low and slow alongside that isolated runway while I threw out, bag by bag, that 700 pound load.

I went to the aft of the cabin and, while still wearing my parachute, and bracing myself low down on the floor, ejected the emergency escape window – which flew harmlessly over the horizontal tail like it was supposed to, while I stayed firmly rooted to the floor, weighted down by that parachute. Then it was like driving about 70 mph with the windows open on a car, which was not unusual in 1953 before air conditioning was common.

Still, would those heavy ballast bags, thrown out of the escape window, strike and damage the horizontal tail? I got one and cautiously dropped it out of the window. It was so heavy and unaerodynamic (that may be a new word) that it cleared under the tail by three feet.

So we flew up and down that runway, slowly, while I retrieved and threw out each and every shot-loaded bag. Later, when a crew went there to pick up any bags that survived, they recovered over six hundred pounds of them essentially undamaged. I guess the remainder broke open and spilled out their contents.

Cessna Field Airport
Cessna Field, where the grass runway is still barely visible in this overhead shot.

The actions of trying to actuate the nose gear, meeting with the L-19, and deploying all that ballast weight had used up a good amount of fuel, so we headed for our home field.

The pilot and I, who had been partners on certificating the Model 180, were loyal, cost-conscious employees so we devised a plan to minimize damage to the airplane on the “crash” landing, and I think we thought it would minimize damage to us, too.

I was close to receiving my Commercial license, so was familiar with the airplane’s controls, and we conceived a plan where we would cooperate closely and share the final duties of safely landing the aircraft under these unusual conditions. We opted for a gear up landing, expecting the dangling nose gear to move aft upon contact and not affect the path of the plane on the ground.

We also wanted to be as slow as possible upon contact, so approached with flaps down, but to minimize damage I would retract them gradually starting just before touchdown. The pilot would make a complete stall, elevator full up landing, while shutting off the power with the mixture control and trying to feather the props so that they would not be rotating and stop with one of the three blades on each engine straight up. I was to shut off the fuel flow valves at that point, and the final action was to be the pilot turning off the electrical power.

It got very quiet as we neared the ground, power off, and we dutifully executed all those actions in the proper order, and I could then hear the sound of grass on the fuselage as we skidded or sledded on it. It was a short field, and we veered slightly to the right but stopped well short of the end of the runway. The only hitch was that the pilot shut off the electricity before I had the flaps fully retracted, which resulted in some slight damage to their trailing edges. There was some propeller tip dinging too, but the most damage was to the elevator balance horns, which with the pilot pulling up hard on the elevator struck the ground before anything else and dug into it.

We were too busy to note that the event had attracted a crowd at our field and the Chief Engineer, worried about our welfare, had arranged for the air base emergency crew to be there for our landing. The cabin door was on my side, and on the prototype had an escape mode where I was to turn two handles and the whole door could be pushed out – but the releases on one side didn’t work and, after cursing, I opened the door normally, exited the airplane over the wing, now at ground level, and found myself facing two of the air base emergency crew approaching menacingly while together holding a hose with a nozzle the size of a cannon aimed directly at me.

I thought they were going to activate it and blow me back into the airplane. (Not entirely in jest, that evening I told my fiancée, now my wife, that unexpectedly encountering them just when I was convinced everything was going to be OK was about the scariest thing in the episode.) Thankfully they didn’t activate whatever was supposed to come out of the hose, as there was no hint of fire.

Our plan had worked pretty well, as the airplane was flying again in about three weeks, we hoped with a much improved nose gear installation. Those jobs of mine other than flight test observer on this flight? Manual laborer and co-pilot. I’ll be forgiven if I didn’t get around to recording any data that day.

12 Comments

  • Looking at that picture of the prototype 310 I am reminded that the first version of any airplane is often also the prettiest. The Lear 23 and the Model 35 Bonanza also qualify.

  • I remember reading about the “new” Cessna 310 in a (1954)? edition of Air Facts in the Auburn Engineering Library. That sleek airframe looked like the best aviating machine I have ever seen.

    Good to hear about the aircraft that set Cessna on the way to a great set of twin models.

    • Yes,the production Cessna 310 was introduced for sale in 1954.I think we finished the company certification of the prototype about mid-1953.

  • Whew~ I had a landing gear problem once in a H model Bonaza where the R/H MLG wouldn’t come all the way down and lock because of a generator failure half an hour before destination, and because of an unknown bent rod between the LG gear box and the R/H strut I couldn’t hand crank it to the locked position. I managed to get it safely onto the runway power off and hold the right wing up until the very last before the gear folded. Both of my pax exited hastily with me right behind them.
    . The MLG doors and the nose gear doors were scraped, the R/H MLG wheel was scarred and one propeller blade tip was bent. I had an adrenilan fix for about two days.

  • I’m surprised Cessna used shot bags for their tests! Why not a water tank with a dump valve? Then if things got scary you could just dump the water in a minute or so.

    My flight instructor who was a X Air Force fighter pilot and cool as a cumber let me ride in the back seat of an early Cessna 310. The copilot and he practiced an actual engine out (not zero thrust) and couldn’t get the dead engine started again. While they were trying to get it started I noticed that my cool instructor started to sweat. It took them some time but they finally got it started and we landed normally. I trust he would only use zero thrust for engine out practice in the future!

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it.

    • I think our attitude about problems was as in my first sentence – it was a day like any other day, and we faced it with little concern, and maybe an attitude bordering on boredom. Then that popping noise in front jarred us a little.
      We had the emergency escape window, I think carried on in production airplanes, and that special cabin door with quick exit capability (that didn’t work, but might have been affected – but I don’t really think so – by structural distortion due to the unusual landing), but no dumping capability with the tip tanks.
      Your comment reminds me that on the prototype and early production models we had what was called Blooey Tubes to entrain engine cooling air and they had to be fine tuned to perform well – we had several instances of engine stoppage due to vapor lock on the prototype, but only on one engine at a time, thank goodness. Still that resulted in nervous engine out landings.

  • I have heard this very same popping noise on gear retract! I put my 310Q (N7783Q) down on two wheels in Feb 2008 at Oakland Int as a result. Maintenance had serviced the front oleo with 100% hydraulic and no nitrogen. As a result, the strut didn’t extend after liftoff, the wheel didn’t clear the gear door hinges, the whole mechanism bound up fast, and the much maligned idler bellcrank right under my feet tore free and broke apart. I loved my 310 for 4 years after that event — she was fast, stable and had a magnificent useful load — but I never did trust the gear before or after. They look great sitting tall on the ramp, but it’s a complex and fragile system…

    • Own a ’62 CE320. Heard loud popping sounds too (like bolt heads failing under pressure) while on retraction, and once over Oakdale in a gentle 30 degree bank, while reversing course to return KHWD: on inspection nothing apparent.

      Then later that week, departing LVK on rotation, had a violent shimmy- and mirrors confirmed nose wheel jammed far rightt(to the stop). Also, I have only one down/ lock indicator light(not3)- I did not retract gear.

      So, 25 minutes later,I made a full stall/minimal speed landing on mains and held back hard on nose. On contact- nosewheel broke free and tracked straight. (thank the lord)-and the strut held.Turbine Air (on field) had no explanation-but only said “out of adjustment” ….the previous week, they’d said it was “all rigged perfect”)-

      and so I had the entire strut assy rebuilt at Mather Aviation ,at other end of field.Mather found old and bent bolts, that had been missed at Turbine’s “annual”- but no sheered anything that explains the loud popping I had experienced.

  • also of note, after landing- inspected the gear, and found nose steering cables drooping a full foot (Loose- not separated) down below nose well, and alongside the strut linkage assy.

  • I would bet that a large percentage of 310s, 340s, 401s and 402s have never had their landing gear properly checked and adjusted (210s too but that’s another story).
    I worked for a guy who was DOM for a large aerial mapping company and he was a whiz but always consulted his laminated and bound copy of the maintenance manual landing gear chapter when rigging mechanical Twin Cessna gear.
    If your shop doesn’t have the special tools, fixtures, scales and experience look elsewhere. Too many simply jack em up and watch them go up and down.

  • Guessing that the ballast you tossed was lead shot, present day, you guys would have been out there for weeks with tweezers recovering each and every piece.

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