Congratulations, you’re a captain now

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

Citation X
How do you know for sure if the gear is down?

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.”

Stewart Airport
When in doubt, take the longer runway.

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.

8 Comments

  • Great story. You made the only decision that a competent PIC could make. If you trust your instincts, maintain a solid working knowledge of your airplane and ask yourself what would you want your pilot to do if you were in the back, then always pick the choice with the safest outcome given the current circumstances. Having an astronaut as a copilot, or pilot not flying should not sway you as commander. Sometimes those that have “done it all” and are not backing you up, should cement the fact that they are a passenger as well. It’s your neck, your license and reputation. It’s also your job to save cranky passengers from themselves. You would never live it down if you let yourself get pushed into doing something that you know isn’t right. Experience only comes with experience, not necessarily time. I would have gone to the longer runway for sure. Now. But when I first got cut loose as Captain,….? I’m a conservative pilot by nature, so probably I would have.
    You won’t be fired for NOT bending an airplane

  • Good call. Had the decision gone the other way, you landed at the original field and the gear collapsed, the outcome could have been far far worse.

  • This is where systems knowledge pays off. Unfortunately, sometimes it is learned the hard way by the company, the pilot and the passengers.

  • Chris,
    Do you remember what the caused the gear horn and red unsafe light? What did maintenance find was the cause?
    Thanks.

  • Well done Chris as all have said as the pilot in command you made the decision and stuck to it. Okay the passengers may have been upset but worst case better upset than injured or worse. I the medical field we have to make the same type of decisions you choose based on your training, your understanding, and the circumstances you find yourself in. You don’t get pressured by others agenda to make rash decisions. Well done again.

  • I am a very firm believer now that Devine intervention happens and we never realize it.
    I was flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk from Meacham Airport, Fort Worth, TX. to San Angelo, TX. I was near Dyess, AFB. My Vor needle was centered in the donut. I was having a smooth enjoyable flight. Suddenly my needle drifted to the left. My training taught me to obey my instruments so I corrected to the left to center the needle in the donut. Immediately a Bonanza was approaching at the position and altitude (wrong altitude) where I had been. If I had not obeyed my instruments Immediately there would have been a mid-air collision. From then on my flight to San Angelo was perfect. I know of two other times where my life was most definately saved by Divine Intervention as I was flying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *