No light means it’s time to shine

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Cessna conquest instrument panel
image: © CC-BY-SA-3.0 | YSSYguy

Name withheld on request

It was a lovely day to fly doctors down to Port Keats. The dry season was here which meant the thunderstorms were not. I loaded my passengers into the Cessna Conquest and took off from Darwin.

The doctors travelled regularly and happily chatted away for most of the flight, while I wondered whether I would be left under a tree or given a couch to sit on.

I slowed up coming into the circuit, and put down my first stage of flap. Under 180 kt I put the undercarriage down and waited for the three green lights. I was severely disappointed when only two came on. I selected gear up, and then gear down again. Same thing, only two lights. I groaned, and then let Centre know I was going to be circling around for a while. Well aware that changing a light bulb had brought down an airliner in the past, I made sure to keep flying the plane while figuring out my problem.

Now, changing a light bulb should be quite easy, but unfortunately I was never shown how in my endorsement, so while I got the spare annunciator light out no problem, the bulbs were giving me a bit of grief. Groaning again in embarrassment, I phoned up my favourite engineer.

‘First things first—are you sure it’s actually the bulb that’s the problem?’

More embarrassment. I’d simply made an assumption that the light bulb was the problem, but when I pressed the test button, the problem light shone green.

‘When you put the gear down did you feel all three wheels thump down?’

‘Yep, I did,’ I answered. ‘But I’m not game to bet the entire aircraft on it and land here.’

‘Nah, that’s fair enough mate. Just come back to Darwin.’

Putting the unrequired spare annunciator back in its slot, I turned around to my passengers and told them there was a problem with the gear indications so we were going back to Darwin. The one closest to me nodded and went back to reading his newspaper. Like I said, they flew regularly, it’d take a lot to freak them out.

Bringing the gear back up for the third time in one sector, I called up Centre and got clearance to return to Darwin. When I switched over to approach I informed them of my situation and they talked to the tower. By the time I was transferred to tower, my favourite engineer was up there with them.

“Alright mate, now once you’ve put your gear down, I want you to follow the procedure for the emergency gear extension as well, just in case. Then we’ll get you to fly past the tower so we can see if all your wheels look down, then get you to circle around to 36. The firies are on standby as well.”

They’d chosen runway 36 so that I wouldn’t block the main runway if I did come to grief.

I put the gear down, felt three thuds, but once again there were just the two green lights. I pulled the landing gear circuit breaker and then the T-handle for the emergency extension. Nothing felt any different (I’ve since felt it when the gear is forced down by an emergency extension—now that is a thud!), and there remained only two greens. I flew close by the tower, and they said that all my wheels looked as though they were down.

‘Cleared to land 36, check wheels.’

‘No kidding, what do you think I’m doing back here?’ I thought, exasperated despite knowing that they were obligated to say it.

Fire trucks lined the runway with their lights flashing. Oddly enough, rather than my gear collapsing, I was more concerned with doing a nice landing in front of them all. The landing went well and the fire fighters happily followed me back to the general aviation terminal and stood around while I took my passengers back through the gate.

Once I was given a new aircraft, I successfully took my passengers to Port Keats and was rewarded with a nice couch to sit on.

Looking back on the day, I was happy about ringing someone much more knowledgeable than myself, and happy that I returned to a main airport rather than risking it on a country strip for no reason. My biggest mistake was making an assumption and not checking out other possibilities. Just because often it is a broken bulb, doesn’t mean that a microswitch isn’t the problem.

A year later, the passenger with the newspaper came up to me and said that he tells the story of that flight in a course he teaches on human factors in medicine, as an example of how to use resources to help solve problems.

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