Well Done and Well Done?

"The best laid plans of mice and men....": A gear up landing and a geared down mind.

Story by Stan Murphy

In the mid fifties, the 38th Bomb Wing. at Laon Air Base, France, had their old reliable B-26 Invaders replaced with beautiful new B-57 Canberras.

As with most new equipment, our new birds would occasionally present us with an unexpected malfunction. John Harris, a top notch pilot, was faced with this dilemma one day when for no apparent reason his nose gear failed to extend. John and our Martin Company Tech Rep tried to correct the problem but their combined expertise failed to come up with anything to make the gear come down. It was finally decided to put a strip of foam down the center of the runway so the B-57's nose could scoot through the foam on landing rollout.

A major in wing opertions, upon hearing of Johns emergency, called the tower and requested they ask John to please hold off his landing for a little while. The major wanted time to go get his movie camera so he could film this unusual event.

John, being a hell of a nice guy as well as a hell of a good pilot, agreed to do so. The Major returned with his camera and John turned final.

John did exactly what everyone knew he would do. He made a picture perfect landing. When the aircraft came to a stop, the only visible damage, aside from a little scraped paint, was the UHF antenna which had snapped off. Well done.

The major also felt he had done well. He believed he had captured on film something that had never been photographed before and very possibly may never be again. As the major was putting away his camera, his euphoria abruptly dissipated. To his horror, he noticed he had not removed the cameras lens cap. Sometimes grown men do cry.

Stan Murphy

b-57_tripoli.jpg (71851 bytes) Photo by John Harris
During my tour at Laon AB, France 1955-1958, I flew B-57s in the 38th Bomb Wing. After about two years in the 71st Bomb Squadron as a line pilot, I was assigned to wing training as an instructor pilot. There, we gave initial training to new arrivals, some already B-57 qualified and some not. We trained some pilots for other units in Europe. One of our routine duties was to administer “standardization flight checks” to the pilots of the 38th Bomb Wing. There was a need for this, because the last training for most of them was at Randolph AFB. I was scheduled to fly with “Mac” McClellan to administer a standardization flight check. This was in the very early stages of attempting any standardization, and was our first opportunity to take a look at the pilots. We climbed to 15,000 feet in VFR conditions and did some basic air work such as stalls and steep turns. We needed to burn off some fuel to get the weight down for instrument approaches and landing practice. To kill some of the time, I asked that he extend the gear with the emergency “T”-handle. I had found that almost none had ever tried it. I had briefed it before flight to be sure the wrong “T” handle (canopy jettison) wasn’t pulled. When Mac pulled the “T” handle, the right main and the nose gear extended properly and the left main remained up and locked as indicated by the instrument. My first thought was that the indicator was stuck and the gear was really OK. There was a slight but noticeable yaw to the airplane that indicated otherwise. We made a pass by the tower and got the bad news. There was no emergency procedure in the Dash 1 for this condition.

With most of our fuel still on board, we had a lot of time before landing. I noticed as things progressed, more and more heads appeared in the tower, until the row was solid from one side to the other. There was plenty of help and suggestions for things to try, none of which worked. I think the Dash 1 at the time suggested jettisoning the canopy before touch down. I didn’t like the idea because the windblast would probably blind me in the back and make things too different for the pilot in front. There was also, the remote possibility of crew incapacitation and aircraft damage from the canopy. Besides, we knew of B-57 previous experiences that indicated a low possibility of anything but a safe, smooth touch down with the wheels retracted. After trying about everything we - and the crowd - could think of, we realized it was time to get set for the landing. Every move we could think of was discussed and agreed upon. We were told to burn the fuel to minimum. But no one wanted to say how minimum. I think we settled at about 2000 pounds. We got several delays from people on the ground for reasons I can’t remember. Probably getting the foam ready. It came out of our 2000 thousand pounds. Meanwhile, the weather started deteriorating. The wind, which was straight down the runway at 5-10 knots, started swinging around to a right crosswind of near 90 degrees. Switching runways would ordinarily be no great problem, but they were well along laying down a foam strip for our touchdown. It also started to rain.

Mac set up a good approach and touched down approximately where he should. Grinding B-57 is not a pleasant sound, but it was very smooth. I could feel the small imperfections in the pavement, but there were no big bumps. The airplane slid much farther than we expected. It couldn’t be that we were anxious (?) The airplane stopped to the left of the foam track and angled to the right about ten degrees. That was probably because of the wind from the right. Both tip tanks were still clear of the ground and engines still running. Mac was supposed to open the canopy when the airplane slowed. He got it about half open, and stopped. It was enough for him, but not for me. As the airplane stopped, he started scrambling out. I caught his leg and held on until he realized the canopy wasn’t fully opened. He opened it and cut the engines, gave me a grin, and departed at high speed. I wasn’t too far behind.

The airplane was flying again in about two weeks. Most of the damage was to the bomb bay door. Removed and replaced! Some sheet metal work was needed at the fuselage bulkheads at each end. They had flat spots from the belly slide.

Maj. Howie Moore had a 16 mm movie camera and photographed the landing. Months later, he finally admitted there was no film in the camera!

The cause of the problem was a ninety-degree bell crank in the gear door lock linkage. Remember those rods on the door? The crank had cracked in the middle, with the crack running to the pivot. When the rod was pushed, the crack would open and the bell crank would not push so that the lock pin would be withdrawn. Later in my tour, I found another one on an airplane that I was supposed to fly. Many years later, I was reading some old accident reports and found the problem was not unusual. Made me wonder why they didn’t fix it!