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.
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.
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.