Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 26, 1997
Just a little problem - with the landing gear
For nine passengers, the oxygen suddenly got thin. Journalists on the way to Zaire found a story aloft.
E-mail from Nairobi

The words seemed to suck the oxygen out of the cramped airplane cabin:

``Gentlemen, we're having a little problem with the landing gear."

I should have known something would go wrong. We left Nairobi five hours late - the charter company wanted to make sure its payment cleared the bank before the plane left the ground. And then the Colombian pilot took off his shirt - he preferred to fly in his skivvies.

Now they were telling us the nose gear would not deploy. We might have to land on two wheels.

An image flashed through my brain of the rusting wreckages of airplanes that I've seen on the approaches to several airports in Africa - left there, I assume, as warnings to errant pilots. Suddenly I was convinced that all of them had stuck landing gear.

We were nine journalists: three Americans, an Australian, a Swiss, and a four-person German television crew. The Germans had organized the charter to fly into Kisangani, Zaire, two days after the city fell to rebels. I signed up: There were no commercial flights into the rebel-held city, so the only way in was by private aircraft.

Our plan was to fly first to Kigali, Rwanda, where we would make final arrangements with a rebel representative - we understood we would have to pay a ``landing fee" on top of the $22,000 we paid to lease the aircraft. Then we would fly on to Kisangani.

We never made it to Kigali.

We boarded the old Gulfstream 12-seat twin-engine prop plane at Wilson Airport, the municipal airstrip in Nairobi that is mostly used by tourists going on safari.

By the worn galley with the faded U.S. map on the wall, our plane looked as though it must have been a retired corporate aircraft. I didn't pay much attention to the noises it made as we flew over the Serengeti and Lake Victoria - it creaked and groaned like an old pickup truck, and there was some odd vibration in the ceiling.

Later we learned that some of the noise was caused by the pilot's attempts to unhitch the landing gear.

George, our host and contact with the rebels, came out of the cockpit to tell us that we had the ``little problem" with the nose gear. He said we must return to Nairobi, where we would do a ``nose-up" landing if we were unable to get all three wheels to deploy.

George explained a nose-up landing: The pilot descends with the nose pointed way up. When the plane touches down, the pilot attempts to slow the hurtling craft before the nose - and the spinning propellers - smash into the pavement in a metal-gnashing skid.

I was sitting next to a young reporter for Time magazine who was already uncomfortable with the turbulence. He went pale when our host described how we would have to crowd into the aft seats in order to shift the COG - that's center of gravity in pilotspeak - to the rear. We would also pile our equipment into the aft bathroom.

The smokers, who had graciously abstained for the first two hours of the flight, all lit up simultaneously. Somebody passed around a bottle of whisky.

The television cameraman walked down the aisle, taking pictures of the passengers. I'm the guy in the Phillies cap: What, me worry?

The German TV producer, worrying about practical matters, wondered if we would get a refund (we did).

Up in the cockpit, the pilot and the copilot were paging through manuals, scratching the backs of their necks.

I went up to talk to the pilot, Captain Sanchez, the Colombian who had shed his white shirt with epaulets as soon as we were airborne to get comfortable in his undershirt. We talked in Spanish because his English was not so good. He said he had once landed a plane in Colombia on only two wheels, and he assured me that the landing had messed up only the aircraft, not the passengers.

``It's only a little bit dangerous," said Sanchez, who sported a dark mustache and Vitalis-laden hair.

I wondered what type of cargo a pilot from Bogota customarily flew and why he was now working in Africa. I wondered how such a person defined ``a little bit dangerous." But I didn't want to divert his attention from the flashing yellow lights on the console, and so I let the questions pass. I told him we had complete confidence in his ability.

Our confidence was well-placed. As we approached Nairobi, El Capitan was able to lower the nose gear manually - he said he shot a blast of air into the hydraulic system to dislodge the mechanism, but I may have lost something in the translation.

Thumbs up in the cockpit. The airport called off the emergency crews and the fire trucks. We landed without difficulty, a four-hour trip to nowhere.

Most pilots offer their passengers some perfunctory good-bye as they leave the plane: ``Thank you for flying with Skyway Charters." Captain Sanchez, who donned his epaulets upon landing, shook all our hands on the tarmac.

``Thank you very much for not panicking," he said. home page   
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