Captain Arlie Nixon needs Wheels (and Hydraulics)
Captain Nixon’s third major incident occurred in 1969. He was leaving the airport in Shannon, Ireland, flying a Boeing 707 for TWA. There were 128 passengers.

Arlie: The purser came to the cockpit as we were taking off and reported that one of the passengers told him that he had seen a wheel rolling down the runway as we lifted off. I said, “Bring that passenger up here and don’t talk to anybody about this”.

I immediately radioed the Shannon tower. They confirmed we had lost the wheel assembly and reported that the plane behind us had to abort its landing because of the debris on the runway.

I decided to continue to New York and delay telling the passengers until we were closer to the landing. There was no point in them worrying about it all the way across the ocean. They had nice weather, a five-course meal to eat and a movie to watch. In the meantime I kept mentally rehearsing the maneuver we were facing.

About an hour out of Kennedy I broke the news to the passengers. Thankfully, there was minimal panic. The word about the landing gear had gone out as soon as we left Shannon, so they were prepared for us at Kennedy. They had managed the air traffic and applied foamite to the runway. I was instructed to buzz the tower so they could accurately assess the damage. It turned out I was missing the front left wheel section, axle and both brake assemblies.

I did the final approach and as gently as possible, touched the runway with the undamaged wheel section. The plane was then tilted to the right as it sped along, while I strained to keep the wing from scraping the runway. Next I very slowly lowered the nose until the nose wheel, too, was on the runway. Fire engines raced parallel to the plane. Finally I ever so slowly tilted the plane back to the left until the damaged gear was also in contact with the runway. Luck was with us. It held!

Seven or eight thousand people had come to Kennedy to watch the landing or crash. After the passengers unloaded there was a press conference with 40 – 50 reporters. The incident was published in newspapers all over the country. Later an AP photographer actually came out to my farm for pictures.

Until this flight, no airline pilot in the world had ever safely made a one-wheel landing. In fact, wheel assemblies had been lost only two times before. In both cases the planes and all of the people were lost. We probably would have been lost too, but we had lots of foamite – and a damn good pilot!

NJM: Did you have any other close calls?

Arlie: One incident occurred a few years before the 1969 wheel loss I just told you about. It involves the very first passenger flights of the 1649 Connie. For publicity, one flight was to go from New York City to Rome and simultaneously the other flight was to go from Rome to New York City. I was pilot for the flight that originated in Rome. It had 99 passengers and the plane was to fly 6,000 miles at 350 mph. Of course, the plane had to be taken to Rome in order to bring passengers from Rome, so I was the captain for the ferry flight (with no passengers) as well as for the return flight.

As we flew over the Atlantic to Rome, one by one, the hydraulics on three of the four engines went out. If four out of four systems had ceased to function, the plane would have ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Keep in mind, this type of hydraulic pump had been safely used throughout the airline industry and on many different planes. The odds of more than one pump failing on the same plane on the same flight were astronomical. For this reason, after the defective pumps had been replaced, the crew was not overly concerned about another hydraulic failure on the return trip.

NJM: How did you know the hydraulics were out?

Arlie: The gauges stopped showing pressure.

NJM: Did you have any radio communications about this?

Arlie: No. Nancy, a lot of incidents of this magnitude occur, but as long as the crew handles them, no one else knows. In 1946 there were approximately 37 fatal airline accidents in the U.S. They were caused by a lot of recently trained and relatively inexperienced crews. Also, planes weren’t as good as they were a few years later. According to the July 2009 issue 94 of TARPA, scheduled airlines in this country recently went two years (2007 – 2008) without any accidental fatalities. The crash in Buffalo occurred in February, 2009.

Anyway, we got the plane to Rome and the necessary repairs were made. Then it was time to head out.

I wasn’t comfortable with the taxiway. The wheels on the Connie spanned 46 feet and the taxiway was only 50 feet wide. Harder than threading a needle! Keep in mind that prior to the 1649 Connie, passenger airplane wheels only spanned perhaps 20 feet. So the 50 foot wide taxiway had ample room for those earlier planes.

While we were waiting for the passengers to load I saw what looked like a stick, perpendicular to the ground, 8 or 10 feet in front the wing. It would be in my path when we began to taxi. I could think of no reason in the world for it to be there. I also thought, “No one could be dumb enough to put a pipe where a propeller could hit it”. Next I thought, “The prop will almost clear it and if it doesn’t, the object is probably wood”. I was right about the “almost” part. As I began to taxi, I heard faint “KAHUNK”. We had hit the object and it was a metal pipe.

No one else seemed to notice. I taxied to the end of the taxiway and we went through the check list. The hostess was making coffee. The co-pilot asked for clearance for takeoff. Everyone was doing what he was supposed to do. We got our clearance. Each cockpit crew member (two co-pilots and two flight engineers) said “I’m ready to go”. Then I asked, “Did anyone hear anything unusual?” No one had. I was tempted to go ahead and take off. It was important to me to be on time. But, I had heard something and that continued to nag at me. I didn’t want to fall out of the sky somewhere over the Alps and kill everyone on board, just because I was impatient to go.

I got permission to taxi back to the terminal and we shut down the engines. The number one prop had a small nick on one of the blades. According to the manual, if a nick was 5/8 inch or smaller we were allowed to manually rasp it until it was smooth. Unfortunately, this nick was 6/8 inch. The nearest propeller blade was in Los Angeles, ten thousand miles away! We made several phone calls to the office in New York regarding this matter. Finally the TWA maintenance foreman in Rome and I decided that we could stretch regulations an extra 1/8 inch. Nancy, in situations that potentially affected the safety of the plane I always gave the cockpit crew members the ability to veto my decision. All of us decided to go.

We arrived in New York City the next day and after the passengers unloaded, we took the plane to the hanger. The head of the propeller shop examined the nicked blade and said, “There are blades in worse shape than this flying out there”. In other words we had been correct when we had decided to fly.

An airline pilot’s life is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.

Next time I want to talk about the importance of having a flashlight.


Copyright © 2009 Nancy J. Mayfield
All Rights Reserved.