I did well on my check ride and my landings are decent so I must be ready, right?
About an hour out of Salt Lake, we were cruising along peacefully at 41,000 when I noticed the green landing gear-down light flickering on and off. It shouldn’t be doing this. The gear wasn’t down because in a Citation X in cruise if the gear comes down it gets very noisy.
I looked over the emergency checklist and couldn’t find anything that was helpful. I used the cockpit phone to call our flight operations department. If we were going to have a problem, it would be when we dropped the gear, so it was agreed it was probably just a light. So we will continue the flight to White Plains
Two hours later, we turned final for runway 34 and put the gear handle down. Three steady green appeared but surprisingly we also got the gear unsafe horn and red unsafe light. And they wouldn’t extinguish.
Back then, I was young, in my first year as a captain. I’ve always wanted this, I thought: to command a jet, to be the captain. My copilot, who was twice my age, had flown F-4s in Vietnam and did 30 years at the airlines, looked at me and said, “So, what do you want to do?”
I felt small. I had passengers in the back and a jet I barely understood, and I was trying to figure out what to tell ATC. I was also asking myself, “What are you going to do?” I must decide. Then training kicked in: “Cycle it, [I wouldn’t do this today] and if it doesn’t work, tell the tower we’re going around. If we have to go around, we will manually extend…” Wow! Where did that come from? I’ve got it in me, I thought. That’s more like it. I’ve got this. Nothing to it.
We recycled, but the gear stayed with the same three green, gear horn and red unsafe light.
So we went around and ran the manual extension checklist – still the same condition. I was sweating again. We decided to fly by the tower to see what they had to say. The tower told me the left main may not be all the way down
Huh? This can’t be happening.
My copilot thought it was fine because three green is all you need. At least in his book. My sense, though, was that he had seen a lot in his life and simply didn’t worry much these days. I could respect that because he’s dogged SA-2 missiles, but I also reminded myself: don’t get drawn too deep into his experience. This job is really just a hobby for him at the end of his amazing career. For me, it was the beginning. I couldn’t afford to screw this up. We might be sitting three feet apart, but, in some ways, our realities were decades apart.
I walked back in the cabin to brief the father and his two children on the situation. “We are going to fly to Stewart Newburgh to make the landing… longer runway… safer.”
Then another curveball: “You can’t do that,” he said. “I have to be at a black tie party in Manhattan in two hours. Land in White Plains.”
I was in disbelief. My copilot was getting impatient with me because he believed this was taking too long. Apparently I’d been on the phone too long with maintenance, I was also feeling pressure from ATC to get out of their airspace, and I had an angry father in back. Somehow I was the villain. It had gotten lonely again.
But I was able to do something very wise. I centered my thoughts back up on one principle: “Will I be able to justify my actions at the hearing that will certainly take place if I bend metal?” I told myself, “Hold your course, Chris. Stay calm and be thorough. Don’t let others talk you out of what you feel you need to do.”
I responded to the father: “Sir, you are the customer, but at this point we have an emergency and as the captain I have to make the best decision based on what is safest for everyone. We are going to land in Stewart Newburgh.” He was silent.
So we declared the emergency and flew up to Stewart and landed. The gear didn’t collapse. There was another delay while I had them tow us off the runway.I was the bad guy again.
The passengers disembarked, irritated. My copilot was just happy that I hadn’t delayed him any longer.
Welcome to command.
As I look back on this situation 16 years later, I see I was inexperienced and wasn’t always confident about knowing exactly what to do. But if I visualize the board of inquiry, stay open to others’ input and emotionally detach the best that I can, I seem to come up with a reasonable solution. I also remind myself that while being open to others’ ideas is important, I must be careful about getting talked into something that just doesn’t feel right to me.