Drop and Plop


The Helo I used to work on in the Navy had several… shall we say… Quirks. One of them is that occasionally when the landing gear was deployed the nose gear would fall off.

Naval Air Station Norfolk, specifically the hangar I was based out of sits on the side of Willoughby Bay. It had a view of Willoughby Spit and the Hampton Roads Bay Bridge Tunnel. At that time we were the last hangar in a line of hangars with a huge open concrete flight line between the front of the hangar and the seawall. There was a line of hangars stretching down the taxiway for about a mile on our hangars port side and a vast open and empty concrete field to the starboard side. I know for a fact that the distance to the far end of the starboard airfield was a bit over a mile because when we did our PT runs we would leave from the locker room right next to the hangar and run to the far end of that field then run back. The round trip was considered 3 miles.

Those hangars were all torn down and new ones put up now but back then the area was kind of considered the ass end of the Air Station. Hence when the helos lost their landing gear it was to our nice open space that they flew and hovered over a pile of mattresses (Yes I said a Pile Of Mattresses. There were about 8 stacked and strapped to a few padeys to keep them from blowing away in the rotorwash). Someone with my job would then be volunteered to help direct said hovering helo to land squarely on the pile of mattresses.

Considering that this was a training squadron that flew thousands of flights during the years I was there it’s still impressive that this happened more than once. I remember 3 times distinctly and suspect there were others that happened on the other shifts that I didn’t work. I am also surprised that no better procedure than a pile of mattresses was ever developed.

Think about it for a second.

Here’s this pilot and his trainer coming in for a landing. They deploy the landing gear. There is a klang. The pilot double checks but the light that the landing gear is down and locked is on. The trainer on the other hand knows that sound. He takes over and radios the tower that they need someone to visually confirm that the landing gear is deployed properly.

They hover and someone in the tower with binoculars confirms that while yes, all the landing gear are down, the nose gear is now missing its wheels. There is just a Post sticking down out of the gear housing. The squadron is notified. This sets off all sorts of fun things.

First the pilot is told to go fly around for a while and waste his fuel (less weight being a good idea)

An airmen with a truck heads to the barracks to commandeer (steal) 8 single wide mattresses.

Crews move any equipment or other birds out of the way and safely into the hangar (in case this maneuver goes disastrously wrong and there is shrapnel)

An airman with landing qualifications is volunteered to guide the bird down. He then reviews the landing procedures with two other spotters. (I was specifically told that as a female even tho I had the quals they would be sending a guy out there to do this. Ah sexism in the early 90’s)

The airman with the mattresses returns and the khaki clad chiefs debate how far away to have the helo attempt the landing. Too close to the seawall won’t let the crane that has to come after and lift the front of the helo get properly positioned. Too close to the hangar risks shrapnel if things go very sideways. The debate always lasts until there isn’t much fuel or a senior khaki clad person makes his choice an order and therefore the steps forward as the one willing to be blamed if things go pear shaped

The mattresses are positioned and chained down while all crews including Fire crews are positioned.

The airmen and pilot then coordinate bringing what amounts to a flying school bus that can lift a M1 tank down over a 4’ x 6’ pile of mattresses.

The Pilot lines up on the pile

Then he touches down his back landing gear and slowly rolls forward over the pile with his nose high. Imagine if you will a giant bumble bee alighting on just its back legs then still beating its wings frantically walking forward.

The pilot can’t rear too far back with the nose or the tail rotor will hit the ground and that would be all sortsa bad

Now comes the fun part. They begin lowering the nose down slowly letting the pile of mattresses take more and more weight of the multi-ton aircraft. The pile compressing more and more. Not all mattresses are made the same and if the nose dips too far down the front of the giant rotor blades that hold this thing aloft will strike the unforgiving cement. That would be catastrophic since they are basically 25” flexible shafts of fiberglass. Shattering is too kind a word for what would happen.

Slowly the pilot reduces power to the rotor head until finally the bird is at rest. That pile of mattresses that once was head height is now a third of its size and barely holding that bird off the ground.

Crews swam that bird afterwards stabilizing it and getting the crane into position once the rotor head stops spinning.

It will be days before that bird leaves that spot.

Fun times!