A frequent flier's views on flying and travel


Ever been on a flight with a bad landing gear?

It’s the end of a business trip with a week in Taiwan and another week in Singapore. Now it’s Saturday morning and I am heading home. The schedule has me going from Singapore to Hong Kong, then a flight to Chicago, connecting to a short hop to Boston. It’s the usual 24 hour trip on SQ and UA.

Boarding in HK was fast and efficient, and I got a great seat upstairs in a B747 in the exit row. That gives maximum legroom, and is a really nice and quiet part of the plane. One of the Business Class FA’s would be sitting in the seat facing me, and there was nobody in the window seat next to me. Everything looked fine.

We leave the gate and there is the usual safety briefing, which (as usual) nobody is paying much attention to. Final checks are made, the FA’s take their seats and the plane is in position to start the 14 hour flight back to Chicago. Throttles up, hear and feel the vibration building, then the brakes are released. The slow roll quickly accelerates, and you get pressed back in your seat as the 4 engines push the big bird down the runway. I am counting the seconds as I always do, and at about the 40 second mark, I feel the plane rotate and we start to climb our way into the sky.

But something is wrong. I can feel it, I can hear it too. The landing gear should be coming up now and the flaps retracting. I expect to hear the usual sounds. But something is wrong. There is a noticeable tilt to the plane, the left wing seems low, and there is a very loud hydraulic pump that is cycling on/off. This is not normal. I look at the FA seated facing me. She looks back at me, looks down, and tightens her seat belt. I don’t need to see anything more, I reach down and pull mine a bit tighter too. Her hands are on her knees, and I can see that her fingers are making dents as they squeeze.

The tilt straightens out, but it seems evident to me that we are not climbing as fast as we should, and the sound of that hydraulic pump has continued to cycle on & off at intervals. There is a chime for an all-call and the FA picks up the phone from her seat. She doesn’t say anything, she is just listening. When she hangs up, she looks back at me and points to my seatbelt. I tug it, and give her a thumbs-up. She smiles, a tight little nervous smile, and repeats the thumbs-up back to me. I see the FA in the other seat on the right side of the deck, interacting with the 2 passengers facing her. Obviously, something really is wrong, and this is not something trivial.

In another minute someone from the flight deck gets on the loudspeakers. They announce that the left main gear has not fully retracted and we are going to be flying over the ocean near HK airport while they try to get it retracted so we can go on to Chicago. We should expect to hear some hydraulic noises, but there is no immediate concern and we are now at a safe altitude. All of this was repeated in Chinese by one of the FA’s for the benefit of the many people on the plane who did not speak English. The information was good to know, but not especially comforting.

Perhaps I was jumping the gun, but my mind immediately started thinking about landing in Chicago, and if the gear had a problem going up, there might be a problem with it going down too. Unfortunately, I was right.

I am not sure exactly how long it took, perhaps another 10 or 15 minutes, but the same voice came back on the speakers. I can make this a long story, or I can keep it short, so here’s the short version:

The left main gear did not retract properly, but it is now down. We will have to dump fuel and return to HK. When the fuel dumps from the wings, it will look like a white vapor, but this is a normal process and is not something to be concerned with. The FA’s are to prepare the cabin for landing, and please pay attention as the crew review the safety instructions for landing. All of this was then repeated in Chinese.

A longer version was given to those of us in the upstairs exit row, by one of the pilots who came back to talk to us. He stood in the aisle between the 4 seats, with 2 FA’s standing next to him. He wanted all of us upstairs, and especially those in the exit rows to know that there is a second problem, they also are not getting a gear down-and-locked confirmation. He fully expects that the left main gear is down and locked, and that the problem is just the indicator. But…

This was the first and only time I have ever had a one-on-one with an FA on the process for opening an exit door. The FA from the jump seat facing me stood with me next to the exit and had me go through all the motions needed to open the emergency exit. We did this twice, and then I sat back down. On the other side of the upper deck, another passenger was getting the same drill. These 2 FA’s made it very clear that we were their backup, and they were the primary ones who would decide if the exit door(s) should be opened. Why would the FA’s need or want a backup? Why?? Oh shit… When I realized what they really meant by that, it made me as nervous as I have ever been on a flight.

When the standard landing safety announcement started a few minutes later, it was the quietest cabin I have ever experienced. Someone I met later, who was downstairs on the main deck, told me you could have heard a pin drop. Everybody was paying 100% attention to the demonstrations and nobody was talking or reading anything except the emergency cards.

So we dumped fuel, and headed to HKG. We did a low pass near the airport, I suspect they were doing a visual confirmation of the gear, and went in to land. No problem. The gear was down and locked safely.

We were delayed in Hong Kong for 24 hours, I spent the night, and I got home a day later than planned. And in the end, that’s all that happened.

(Photo from @CockpitChatter Twitter)

Red Light

One comment on “RedLightGreenLight

  1. Carlene @TheSocietea
    December 29, 2013

    Sheesh! You handled that pretty well.


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This entry was posted on September 21, 2013 by in Passenger thoughts and tagged , , , .
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