I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
We are now almost two hours late, and of course it is go home day. The hot Florida sun is starting to slide downward towards the horizon, and I wipe my sweating palms on the shop rag that the mechanic has draped over the nose wheels. I look over at him as he crouches uncomfortably underneath the nose of the plane. “One more time?” I ask. He nods.
Almost three hours ago, my FO, while doing a walk around between flights, discovered some cracking along the edge of an access panel on the nose of the plane. We’ve had this plane since we started earlier in the day. We picked it up in Ashville, North Carolina, where I watched both the FO who flew it in and the FO I was flying with walk around the plane. From there we headed to Charlotte, where I did the walk around as a light, late summer rain fell from gray skies and the FO went inside to grab our paperwork. Thirty minutes later we were heading south, climbing out across South Carolina before reaching the peak of our arc over northern Georgia, and then starting a long glide over eastern Alabama and the northern portion of the Florida Panhandle. We touched down on the pavement of Eglin Air Force Base’s massive north-south runway, just as a passing rain shower drifted off into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind humid air that flooded into the cabin when the door opened at the Civilian Terminal at the west end of the base.
With only 10 passengers scheduled for the return flight with an early arrival here now in the books, we had a bit of time here to spare. So while the FO went out to walk around the plane, the Flight Attendant and I hung out in the galley, watching the air conditioning fight a losing battle with the outside air despite the thick curtain pulled across the main cabin door. A minute later the FO was back, asking me to look at something. I followed him outside and around to the right side, just behind the nose gear, where I saw several inch-long cracks in the skin of the plane, around the edges of the panel cover for the Ram Air Turbine (RAT). The RAT is a small propeller that powers a generator that, during complete power failures, can pop out of the side of the plane, lock into place, and provide enough power to get us safely back on the ground.
I looked closely at the cracks. They spider-webbed away from the edge of the panel. I ran my finger over them and paint flaked off into the air. They felt brittle to the touch. The FO shook his head. “Did you see them in Charlotte?” he asked. I thought about it but couldn’t remember staring closely at this panel. At that physical point in most any walk around my focus would be downward, on the nose tires, looking for cuts and bald spots, and possibly hydraulic fluid leaking from the nosewheel steering actuators. “No,” I said. “How about in Asheville?” He shook his head. Of course he hadn’t see anything. Otherwise he would have said something, just like I would have in Charlotte.
“You going to call maintenance?” he asked. I nodded and pulled out my phone.
Which is how, two hours later, I find myself panting and sweating by the nose gear with a contract mechanic—called away from watching the late afternoon NASCAR race at home—who, 30 minutes ago, after opening the panel, dropping the RAT, and applying speed tape over the cracks as a temporary fix, came up to the air-conditioned cockpit and told me that we have a problem while pointing at the instructions that our Maintenance Supervisor in Operations Control had sent him. I read where he was pointing. Have the second mechanic…
I saw the problem immediately. There was only one of him, and as it was Sunday, and NASCAR was on, it was unlikely we’d be able to get anybody else to help him. Which left me to envision myself (since the FO was currently up in the terminal on the phone with his wife) going outside into the heat and pushing against one hundred and fifty pounds of spring that holds the RAT in its extended position, while the mechanic would frantically crank the handle on what must be the world’s smallest hydraulic pump that would eventually retract the arm of the RAT so we could pin it in place, shut the door—engaging the lock-on spring—and then pull out the safety pin, leaving the RAT ready to deploy in case of an emergency… assuming everything went as planned.
However, things did not go as planned. I did go outside into the heat, but my hands were sweating so much that I had trouble keeping a grip on the smooth metal of the shaft of the RAT. The mechanic kept banging his knuckles against the edge of the compartment that the hydraulic pump handle is in and was soon dripping blood onto the ramp. Finally, after 30 minutes of struggling, we got the RAT pushed all the way back and up and inserted the pin to hold it. The mechanic shut the compartment door, and then after taking a deep breath, slowly pulled out the safety pin. There was a slight pause, and then with a saddening whoosh, the door popped back open and the RAT, driven by one hundred and fifty pounds of spring force and pure vengeance, dropped back out and extended. I let out a long sigh. The mechanic cursed.
“One more time?” I ask, after wiping my hands again on the towel. He nods, and I start pushing backwards against the RAT. It’s easy at first, but as the tension against the spring grows, it becomes more and more difficult. I close my eyes and really lean into it, my head resting against the nose of the airplane. The mechanic pumps frantically and I feel the pressure coming off my hands slightly as the hydraulics take up some of the load against the spring. Figuring this is our last shot at getting it stowed, the mechanic pumps even faster, and suddenly I realize that the propeller is fully recessed again. I quickly grab the pin from where it is sitting on the tire and slide it through the hole, locking the shaft in. The mechanic gingerly closes the door, this time pushing it firmly into place and ensuring that all the latches catch. He then, very slowly, pulls out the pin. There is a slight clicking noise, and I wince, expecting the whole thing to flop open again. But nothing happens.
We stare at the panel for a solid 30 seconds, waiting for the worst. Our vigil is interrupted by the reappearance of the FO, his uniform shirt still clean and unwrinkled, no sweat on his forehead. “Oh, you got it already,” he says. “I was just coming out to see if you needed any help.” I give him a look that says it is going to be a very quiet ride back to Charlotte.