As I mentioned in my last post, some captain upgrades and new hires are finally appearing at Dynamic.
For the past year and a half, things had been completely static. I was one of the last people to upgrade to the left seat, and those who were stuck as first officers eventually started to get discouraged. It’s hard to blame them. They work extremely hard for $11 an hour (yeah, you read that right) day in and day out. Thankfully, for those who stuck around, their patience has begun to pay off. And for those who haven’t upgraded yet, at least they see some light at the end of the tunnel.
The down side to this is that I have lost some of my favorite first officers. I’m glad they’ve upgraded, but today I started to realize how much I’d come to rely on their experience, not to mention the fun factor of flying with them. Then again, I get to play a part in the training of some upcoming pilots, and that’s pretty neat too.
Today I was flying with one of the “new guys”. It was an atypical day because I clocked in at 6:00 a.m. I normally get an early start, but not THAT early. We were cranking at that hour because a ceremony would be taking place later in the day to honor a soldier whose body was being returned home from Afghanistan. During the ceremony, which was to occur in the middle of our work day, the base would be on “quiet hours”, meaning no aircraft operations were permitted.
My first officer and I had taxied out to the runway for our second flight. We lined up, completed our final checks, set power, and released the brakes. Everything was normal for a few seconds. Then, as we accelerated down the runway, a very large hawk came into view. He was sitting in the middle of the runway with his back to us, wings folded majestically. He didn’t seem to be doing anything special, just sitting there.
My FO (who has only a few flights under his belt in the BE90) asked if he should abort. I said no. My feeling about birds is that they generally get out of the way. Those that don’t are not going to be avoided by maneuvering, especially in something the size of a King Air. It’s akin to a scuba diver trying to out-swim a sea lion under water. We move at a comparatively glacial pace, and if they want to avoid us, they can jink and jank in ways we can only dream of.
And in this case, I don’t think we could have stopped in time anyway, even with full reverse and hard braking. I’d rather hit the bird than try and steer around it in a 10,000 lb. King Air and end up veering off the runway.
We seem to hit birds fairly frequently at Los Alamitos. The base — along with the adjacent Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station — is some of the last open space in the area, and it attracts a lot of wildlife. Now as to why the wildlife that flies seems to enjoy hanging out around the runway, you got me.
So as I mentioned, the hawk was sitting on the runway centerline with his back to us. I’m sure he knew we were coming. A King Air with the props turning at 2200 RPM is pretty loud. Plus we have two alternating flashing landing lights on each wingtip and another one on the nose gear. In fact, I know the bird saw us coming, because he actually turned his head 90 degrees and looked at us as we approached!
By now you’ve probably guessed the hawk elected to make a stand against the five-ton turboprop, and in the words of the Knight Templar, he chose… poorly. We heard a distinctive thump as the half of the hawk which wasn’t left on the runway hit the right main landing gear leg.
We rotated, the FO called for gear retraction, and I selected… nothing. The gear handle wouldn’t move. So I pushed the downlock override, selected gear up, and was rewarded with red lights, warning horn, and no gear movement. Mmm-hmmm. I lowered the gear handle and immediately got three green lights. Down and locked.
Remembering rule #1 (always fly the plane), I elected to monitor the FO as he flew and ignore the gear until we could get to a higher altitude. Once off the coast, I briefed the FO: he would focus on flying the airplane and look for traffic; I would troubleshoot the gear and handle the radios.
There were no indications of blown circuit breakers or other failures. No reason to pump the gear manually, it was already down. There is a checklist for failure to extend, but nothing for a failure to retract. I suspected that the bird strike had done something to the squat switch, because the aircraft was reacting like I had raised the landing gear lever with the plane sitting on the ground.
I called our maintenance shop and after a few queries, they said that if it was definitely down and locked, leave it that way and return. So that’s what we did. I elected to make a fly-by of the tower just to have them look at that right gear leg and see if there was any obvious sign of damage, flat tire, or other abnormality. They didn’t see anything amiss, so we returned and landed uneventfully. Well, aside from the trail of emergency vehicles which followed us to the ramp.
We moved our load to another aircraft and had an uneventful flight. At the end of the day, I got with the mechanic who put our broken bird up on jacks, and what they found was that the hawk had bent part of the squat switch — a device which detects when the airplane’s weight comes off the wheels — in such a way that it was locked in place and always thought the plane was on the ground. An easy fix. And they also found the hawk on the runway. Or should I say, half of it. Apparently our prop cut the bird cleanly in half.
What I learned today (or should I say, re-learned) is that rule #1 really works. Fly the airplane, no matter what. When something goes wrong, there’s often an irresistible urge to do something, fix something, check for that breaker, try the gear retraction juuuuust one more time. In a busy terminal area when you’re low to the ground with the extra drag of the landing gear reducing your climb rate and a brand new low-time first officer flying the airplane, the best course of action is frequently to ignore the problem and just fly.