Landing gear lights
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So I’m flying along, fat, dumb and happy in my Lancair IVP thinking, “What a great airplane! It’s so fast with its big three hundred fifty-horse, twin-turbo engine and retractable gear (more on this later) why— it’s a poor man’s fighter jet!”  I almost thought to myself “Look Ma, no hands!” but then squelched that thought, because it was way too nerdy, and no one was must ever know that I even thought of thinking it.  Ever.

I had blasted off out of Fargo, North Dakota’s international airport, KFAR. Don’t don’t let the name fool you—it’s “international” because the Canadian border is about twenty-eight feet north of the airport, give or take a few billion snowflakes, (each one different but boy do they look the same on the fields.  Hector International Airport—two doors to get into the terminal, one escalator.

There is good news and bad news about the frozen North. OK, the bad news first—it’s really cold here.  Did you know that the wretched Celsius system is the same as the Fahrenheit measuring system in Fargo?  Well it is— at minus 40 degrees.  Yep you don’t need a “C” or an “F” at minus forty degrees—there’s only one minus forty.  You know it when you feel it, trust me.  I’m going to write a formal recommendation letter to ForeFlight to have the “C” and the “F” removed at -40 because then if they do it, then I can tell everyone it was my idea. I’m going to write that letter as soon as my pen thaws out,  which should be the first day of spring, which is July 8th in Fargo.

But I digress.

So I take off outta Fargo, and did a touch and go at Grand Forks, North Dakota (KGFK), whose motto is “We’re like Fargo only colder!”  I managed to get only get a mild verbal spanking by the tower who said:  “I know what you meant Lancair 214DK, but you’re cleared the RNAV 35 LEFT.”  Ahem. I don’t know what I said, because 35 right doesn’t even have an approach.

So I do to touch and go, all fine and good, and then pull a closed pattern so I could relive my T-38 days in the Air Force, then exited the pattern to Grafton, North Dakota. KGAF. Turns out Grafton’s Hutson field—named after a guy named “Hutson”—is only twenty eight miles away from Grand Forks. Who knew?

Between fooling around with my glass cockpit (“the heads-down display”) the autopilot, the radio and thinking about how Grafton had beaten us in the first round of the North Dakota boys high school hockey tournament 1979 (although I am SO OVER THAT) and wondering why some airports have so many names, like “Orange County John Wayne Santa Ana Airport,” and then I start daydreaming about warm weather—BAM, I’m still at about 4,000 feet about zero miles from the field.

In my defense, I uh, never mind, I have no defense.

So since I was lined up with the runway, which looked like a black Sharpie line in the snow it was so far away beneath me, I lowered the gear and flaps for practice.  I would have had to do a 360 to get down, is what I’m saying, I was so high.

Did you know there’s a woman who works for Garmin in a small windowless room in Olathe, Kansas whose full-time job is to tell me when to raise and lower my gear and whether or not it’s down or up?

Her name is Martha Kimball. Maybe – I’m just guessing at the name.

So I slap down the gear handle and instead of Martha saying “GEAR IS DOWN, THANK YOU!,” She said “GEAR STOPPED!”

Just like my heart.

The left main gear light was not green like the nosegear light and right main light.

Landing gear lights

The left main gear light was not green like the nosegear light and right main light.

The Garman lady said loudly “PUT GEAR DOWN NOW! PUT GEAR DOWN NOW!

She was angry I sensed. I blurted out two pronouns out of fear: SHE-IT! and stared at the two green lights.  The two green lights seem to me to be kind of cocky, like “Hey we’re green what’s your problem?”, taunting the unlit left light.

So I look at the view from my handy-dandy partially oil-covered video camera mounted on the underside of the aircraft to look at the gear. They looked all down, but the Garmin lady was insistent. I finally raised the gear handle and held my breath, and “CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK,” they all came up and she snipped “GEAR IS UP, THANK YOU!”

Sweet—at least they’re up. Now then, where is Fargo again? Oh yeah like ninety miles behind me, but I have tons o’ gas so off I go to Fargo.

Suddenly, I really have to go to the bathroom I noticed. The body is a funny thing and reacts to fear like that.  Good thing I brought a great big metal jug with a screw top lid on it which wasn’t full of water.  Suddenly I was also aware of where every single airport was that was sorta near me, and which roads were near me, and which ones were straight—which in North Dakota is all of them, even the gravel ones.

So I fly back to Fargo at about 7,500 feet, slow down, and lower the gear way north of town to check it.  I’m on Fargo approach freq 120.5— oops 120.4!— calm down there hot shot, I thought to myself.  “Maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take proper action,” they drilled that into us in the Air Force.

Two green lights again and the Garman Medusa bleated “PUT GEAR DOWN NOW!!”  I cycle the gear again—no go.  I was handed off to Fargo tower and tried to sound cool, saying to approach “Over to tower thirty-three eight, four delta kilo,” and approach said “Good day,” like some friendly ATC people do.  Especially, here, some forty miles south of the North Pole, where the ATC folks actually work in igloos, and they’re just happy to hear a pilot’s voice on their short-wave hand-crank-powered radio.

Out West in places like Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, the ATC folks can be chatty.  One time an ATC controller way out in the middle of nowhere gave me a groundspeed readout, when I asked him for one. I and a buddy were flying a T-38 westbound at FL 390 in the jet stream, and we were curious how fast we were crossing the ground since we couldn’t tell, because in 1990 the airplanes were made of wood and there was no electricity.  The lonely air traffic controller said “Hoo boy Roper 35—you boys are really haulin’ the mail today!  I got you at 904 miles an hour groundspeed!”  And then he spit some tobacco juice into a can eleven feet away.  Ding!

The Fargo tower!  I’m so close to home, with multiple plowed runways and my friendly awesome mechanic!  (And those good pretzels in the FBO.)  I tell the Tower my gear lights don’t indicate three green down in locked and I say I’m declaring a “precautionary landing.”

The young man’s voice asked me “Would you like a flyby?”  At first I thought he meant a chase ship, and I pictured some Air National Guard Reaper drone off my wing, but then realized he wanted to know if I wanted to “fly by” the tower for him to look at me.  I said yup.

Then he asked me “How many souls on board?”

Flying is all fun and games flying until you hear “State the number of souls on board.”

I told him “One,” and that I have four hours of fuel remaining.  The US Air Force controllers always said “State of nature of emergency, number souls on board, and fuel remaining in minutes.”

Somehow the “souls on board” radio call and the flyby request got me nervous.

Suddenly it was real—I’m in class D airspace near the ground, and my gear isn’t necessarily down and locked.

There’s an airliner taking off on Runway 18 and I’m going to fly perpendicularly right across Runway 18, parallel to Runway 09 so the tower can look at my gear.

The young boy tower voice said “They all appear to be down. Would you like us to roll the trucks?”  I key the mike to talk, but can barely eke  out a call.  I said “Sure you can roll the trucks four delta kilo,” and realized I had almost no saliva in my mouth.

Oppositely speaking, the Garman fishwife’s voice was fine, and she kept belting out “PUT GEAR DOWN NOW!  PUT GEAR DOWN NOW!” until I pulled the “gear minder” circuit breaker.

Oh I forgot to mention – since I did not trust my somewhat fuzzy-looking belly-mounted video camera or the tower’s “all three down” call, I did the emergency gear lowering procedure.  This involves:  get below 120 knots, pull the hydraulic circuit breaker, put the gear handle down, and then use the massive floor-mounted gear pump panel to “pump until stiff.”  I’m just saying what the POH says.

Well I pumped on that handle like a North Dakota farm boy on a well handle, until it was by golly stiff. I lined up on final, thinking, “Put it down easy, easy, very gently,” and while I was on the final the approximately fifteen-year-old tower boy started calling out to the firefighters “Crash, One Crash Two proceed on taxiway, alpha.”

Holy Sierra. “Crash?!”  Could you not have thought of a better call sign?

I landed uneventfully. On landing rollout the approximately twelve-year-old Tower Boy called out “Four Delta Kilo, all looking good?”  I keyed the mic but could not speak. I had no moisture in my mouth at all—turns out you need that to speak. I closed my mouth—a rarity—and moved my tongue around and around and finally, I squeaked out “All good, Four Delta Kilo.”

I taxiied off the runway onto a taxiway—and not a snowbank—and shut down.  The crash guys rolled up in their big green trucks and their firefighter outfits, looking like heroes.  They seem to be glad to “get out of the house,” and I sorta felt like they “owed me one” for getting them out.

I talked with them and they were commenting on the weird paint job on my airplane, which looks like an American flag.  I said,” You think that’s weird, look underneath.  There’s a full-size bald eagle painted on the bottom.”  So they looked, and there was.

After chatting with them a bit, I walked to my hanger to get my robot aircraft tug.

In the 10°F air with the wind blowing, no hat, no gloves, light jacket.

I was so happy to be safe on the ground, it felt like summer.  I started singing.

Matt Johnson
Latest posts by Matt Johnson (see all)
14 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Matt, Great story! Brian Shul was the 1st A-10 driver I ever met. I flew into Myrtle Beach on a T-38 X-C (from Vance where I was an IP) and he let me climb up the ladder and answered ALL my questions about the Warthog. A few months later, I was at Vance flying them! BTW, have you ever heard Brian’s ‘Speed Check’ speech? Google it and enjoy!

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      Major Shul was giving a briefing one day, and he told about “the scariest thing” he ever saw. Since he had crash-landed in the jungle in Vietnam, and flew the SR-71, etc., one might think “the scariest thing I ever saw” would be –I don’t know what I thought it would be, actually. He said “The scariest thing I ever saw was when I penetrated a thunderstorm in an A-10, totally lost control of the aircraft. I was up, down, inverted–lightning was flashing all around, and hailstones this big” (he made a circle with his hands the size of a volleyball) “were floating around me.” I thought holy doodle, note to self–do NOT fly into a T-storm.

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      Thank you, Joe, will do. There are a lot of interesting little things that happen while flying. The other day we flew back to Fargo, saw a bright-white shaft of rain, very isolated, just BLASTING down to the ground out of a low isolated mean little thunderstorm, just off of the final approach course. The guy in the other seat said “THAT farm is getting drenched.” I looked again out the window. Sure enough, the white rain-shaft was hitting only a farm. The rain bounced off the ground and dispersed out and upwards–it looked almost like pictures of a downburst. Right before we turned to final, dodging thunderstorms, BIG ones, the air traffic controller, who was a little new, or rattled, talking to all the pilots who were also dodging “moderate to extreme” precipitation, said to us, when we were twelve miles from Fargo, going for final: “Cirrus 2597X, contact Minneapolis Center, uuuh, I mean, uhh, Fargo tower…..” Weather….

  2. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    I think it would cool if the Garmin lady’s voice could be reprogrammed to a Scottish male voice that would say this when you are at full power and only climbing at 200 FPM: “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain! She cannae take anymore.”

  3. Jim Van Laak
    Jim Van Laak says:

    Fun story Matt.

    I was an F-106 and A-10 driver years ago, and almost every time I came to ND it was the middle of winter. Yee Hah! Nothing like a ND winter wind to clear the old sinuses. Most trips were to Minot and a few to Grand Forks. Landed in Fargo a few times to see the Hooligans who were flying F-4s in those days I think.

    One time at Grand Forks, the wind started blowing my T-33 sideways. Told the tower they needed to either clear me for takeoff of send a tug to pull me out of a snowbank.

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      Ja, Fargo and Grand Forks–we get the “real” winters, not some snowy mild-temp winter like Utah or wherever. No, Fargo has weather so cold in the winter that people talk about winter in like August–“Winter is coming,” etc. It’s like “Dude, it’s August,” you may think, if you’re not a Fargoan, but if you’re a local, you say “Ja, I got new snow tires this year.”

  4. Shawn Goans
    Shawn Goans says:

    Great story Matt. I have a little time in a IV I was brokering years ago. Hard to beat for a high performance GA plane. Keep writing – I enjoyed your entertaining take on the situation. Tailwinds!

  5. Butch Gilbert
    Butch Gilbert says:

    Matt, the T-38 was, is and always will be the White Rocket.

    On FedEx weekend layover in the B-757, the wind chill temperature Saturday night at KGFK reached -60F. The high on Sunday was -5. I never went back.

    FedEx moved their NoDak operation from KGFK to KFAR a few years ago, fortunately I became senior enough where I only had to as far north as Sioux Falls, SD before I retired!

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      Flew to Kearney, Nebraska the other day because, why not? It was 95 Fahrenheit at Kearney, and we picked up five pax, flew back to Fargo, where it was 69 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, 95 at Kearney on the ramp felt like what, 110 degrees? With a breeze blowing that felt like a Del Rio, Texas breeze. In other words, a blow torch.

  6. Lloyd Clohessy
    Lloyd Clohessy says:

    Hey Matt,great story and nice outcome. I found myself laughing at your comments right through, you’re a natural ,keep it up and safe flying.
    Lloyd Clohessy.

  7. Scott Powell
    Scott Powell says:

    Great story Matt! Very fun read!

    I live directly north of Grand Forks in Winnipeg, or Winterpeg as many Canucks call it (remember though…it is a “dry cold” so no problem eh?). We like to think of Fargo/Grand Forks as “a quick trip south”, as if it’s any warmer!!

    Keep up the writing. It might be problematic but it is pretty entertaining. As long as you don’t write and fly you should be fine…

    And get the snowblower tuned up. After all, it’s August 1 tomorrow. You can never be too prepared!



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