Some Tough Landings

Some Tough Landings

by Phil Rowe
Pilots have a wryness about their special world, and humor that non-flyers sometimes can't always appreciate. For example, they say that any landing they can walk away from is a good one. And, in the ultimate sense that's true. For even if their plane is broken and burning after a landing, it's all right so long as the pilots and their passengers can walk away from it. After all, airplanes are just machines. Sometimes other things about landings make them memorable. Taking off is the easy part, a good landing something else.

There was a B-58 pilot, some years ago, who had a special problem with landings, nothing to do with his ability and skills as a pilot. It was a problem of stature, or the lack of it. For that fellow was quite short, perhaps only five feet six inches tall.

The B-58, with its delta wing and unique flying characteristics, required a nose-high attitude on landing. The nose had to be about 12 degrees up on final landing approach. That made it difficult to see over the nose to keep the runway in view, something quite important when trying to land at over two hundred miles per hour.

Well, that short fellow had to practically stand up, while making landings, to see the runway coming up at him. And that's hard to do, while keeping your feet on the rudder pedals to make last minute heading and yaw changes. Somehow, he managed to do it and make consistently good landings.

I recall the first landings in the B-58 by my own pilot, during transition training into that sleek high-performance airplane. Like many others, my pilot had been a B-47 driver for several years. The B-58 was quite a different airplane in many ways, especially in its takeoff and landing characteristics.

On our first flight in the TB-58, two-pilot trainer version, we were guided by an instructor pilot occupying the second seat. My pilot was in the front seat and I flew in the aft seat, as a combination flight engineer and ECM operator.

We took off and flew around northwest of Fort Worth for a while, our instructor demonstrating several of the unique flight characteristics of the B-58. Then my pilot took the controls. He did quite well, and clearly relished the experience.

When it was time to return to the runway, we completed all checklist procedures, configuring the plane for pattern and landing maneuvers. The instructor pilot made a few low passes and then a touch-and-go landing, to familiarize us with how the airplane reacted at various speeds, rates of descent and other landing conditions. Soon, my pilot was ready to try his hand.

One B-58 feature, new to us, was the intercom system, one that didn't require keying microphones to talk to one another. That feature was called the 'hot mike'. We heard each other's speech readily, as well as breathing, coughing or other sounds made into the microphones in our oxygen masks.

We came around the traffic pattern and turned onto the final approach for landing. Our fuel panel was set, gear was down and the flight control system was set in the manual mode with full elevator authority.

We were on short final, a mile from the end of the runway, when my pilot began to breath heavily as he struggled to keep us on the proper glide path. The tower cleared us for landing. We began to get a little low and a few knots faster than desired. The instructor calmly suggested that my pilot correct the approach.

"Bring her up a little. That's it," he said. "Watch your airspeed."

Closer we came to the runway. My pilot's breathing got faster and faster. He huffed and puffed, and even moaned a little, as he intently approached touchdown. He sounded a like he was making love with a beautiful woman. His breathing dominated the intercom. His answers to the instructors guiding words or my checklist calls were mere grunts, interspersed with pants and puffs of rapid breathing. After touchdown our instructor commented that the sounds my pilot made seemed to approach orgasm.

The B-58 was such a 'hot' airplane to fly that a number of pilots had landing difficulties. Some were serious and others more embarrassing than tragic.

It was not uncommon for pilots to scrape the aft portion of the engines during landings. Because of the high nose-up attitude required for approach, the nose was kept up on the roll-out. Following touchdown, to take advantage of aerodynamic drag that slow the airplane down, problems were experienced by several pilots.

The technique preferred post-touchdown on landing was to lower the nose, deploy the brake chute(a parachute used to increase drag) and then lift the nose again for aerodynamic braking. As speed reduced, the pilot would gently lower the nose for the final rollout.

Unfortunately, some pilots neglected to lower the nose before deploying the drag chute. That resulted in a forward pivoting of the aircraft, as the chute inflated, often slamming the nose down hard on the runway. On occasion, such a rapid fall of the nose damaged the forward gear strut. But more often, pilots would over-rotate to lift the nose after the drag chute deployed. That's when the tailcones on the engines would scrape the runway. Damage was not usually serious, but a spectacular trail of sparks followed the plane until the nose was finally lowered.

One thing a pilot has to be careful about in landing a delta-wing airplane, like the B-58 or F-102, is not letting the rate of descent (sink rate) get too high. The way the airplane flares, or transitions from descent to landing, with the proper sink rate at touchdown can be critical.

One B-58 landing at Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana, some years ago, came to a disastrous end, when the pilot allowed the sink rate to exceed limits. That airplane actually broke in half after hitting the runway. There were serious injuries and one fatality, not to mention the loss of an eight million dollar airplane (1960 dollars).

Then there was the curious and spectacular landing made by a B-52 pilot at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. That was a landing he will never forget.

B-52's have four separate main landing gear units, two forward and two aft along the fuselage. Each unit (truck) has two large wheels. Additionally, there are small single-wheeled gear struts at the wingtips. When the airplane is light, and the wing and tip tanks empty, these outrigger wheels don't even touch the ground.

On that particular landing, the problem faced by the pilot was missing one of his aft main gear assemblies. Shortly after takeoff, one of the aft gear trucks fell away, leaving only three gear units to support landing. No one had ever landed a B-52 with just three main gear units.

Things were pretty hectic, when the problem was discovered and the plight of the crew confirmed. The Air Force got Boeing engineers on the phone. A radio-telephone patch to the pilot was established, so that Boeing could advise the pilot of his options and what to expect when landing was attempted.

Crewmembers not directly needed to fly and land the airplane were given the option of bailing out, before the pilot tried to bring the airplane down, but all elected to stay and do what they could to help.

The pilots were busy trying to follow suggestions and guidance from the Boeing people. Fuel was burned off, to make the airplane as light as possible. Remaining fuel was transferred forward, to put most of the weight onto the remaining pair of forward trucks. And, of course, the crew reviewed emergency evacuation procedures to be followed once the airplane came stopped after landing.

The pilot brought the airplane down gently and gingerly to a picture-perfect touchdown. They landed without further incident. The pilot and crew, collectively, were credited with saving a multi-million dollar airplane. It was an extraordinary bit of airmanship and another landing all could walk away from.

Some pilots had trouble, at first, landing the B-52 on its bicycle-type gear. If they touched down, first, on the forward gear, instead of the aft, the plane would often porpoise and bounce down the runway. It took a while before some new pilots got the hang of it.

The B-52's cross-wind gear also took some getting used to. It allowed the pilot to steer both the forward and aft wheels left or right 15 degrees, to compensate for the crab angle on final approach. In crosswinds, the pilot flew pointed (crabbed) slightly into the wind, so that the B-52 tracked down the runway. Only the wheels would be aligned with the runway.

There are hundreds of stories to tell about pilots and airplanes, many also dealing with landings. Perhaps you have some of your own.