Archive of Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

Reader Comments on Jimmy Collins

From Norbert, 26 January 2008

I read your archive blog about the Navy pilot who, forgetting he was in a seaplane, landed and then stepped into the ocean. And it reminded me of Harry.

Sometime back I had an assignment from Popular Science magazine to do a piece about the development of the first reinforced plastic airplane certified by the FAA — the Windecker Eagle, a four-place, single-engine machine, the fuselage and wings of which presented in the ultimate of smoothness. A fried egg wouldn’t stick to it.

After I interviewed Dr. Windecker and others at the company, Harry, the Chief Test Pilot, took me for a demo flight. The machine was much like a Beechcraft Bonanza or a Piper Comanche. It had a 200 or so horsepower engine that gave it energy enough for the current marketplace but was downright soggy compared to the wild acceleration of the many Navy fighters I’d flown. (These, by the way, had 2200 horsepower engines — enough to give you whiplash from a standing start.)

Anyhow — Test Pilot Harry, doing the demo, flew the plane around. He included a few steep turns and a stall or two and finally landed on the shorter of the two runways at Midland. There, while sitting with engine idling, Harry said that he’d like to show me a power-off landing. He said he’d do the takeoff and the power-off landing on the main runway and then it would be my turn to fly the Eagle. So we took off, flew around, maneuvered into base leg and Harry cut the engine. Gliding with steep descent we turned on final and aimed for the runway. So far so good. Harry seemed happy to be demonstrating that the plane, especially under his control, could be landed safely with the power off — sort of a simulation of a forced landing.

Finally, as we were getting close to the ground, Harry’s face carried a smug grin. I think it was generated by anticipation of a great day — a display of his super airmanship via a perfect, power-off landing with possible personal kudos in the Popular Science article. With the deft touch of an artist, he gently pulled back on the controls to flair the slick and glorious Windecker Eagle. The nose came up slightly as the plane was about to settle. Suddenly there was a violent thump, thump, thump. . . At first I thought the nose wheel was presenting a nasty shimmy — not a good thing at about 80 mph. Then the plane stalled out completely, dropped unceremoniously about four feet to the runway, and skidded sideways for about 800 feet to an abrupt, screeching stop. What appeared to be smoke (it was finely milled plastic from the scraped underbelly) floated up inside the plane.

By now we got the picture: Harry had forgotten to lower the landing gear.

Harry jumped out of one side and ran. I catapulted myself from the other side and ran. When we decided that the Eagle was not going to catch fire, we tiptoed back. Surprisingly, the radio in the plane was still operating. The voice from the tower, which was about a mile away, kept repeating the message. “Why did you stop on the runway? Don’t you realize you’re blocking traffic?”

Harry wry, apologetic, told the tower that taxiing the plane was difficult with the landing gear up. While the man in the tower seemed to recognize Harry’s sick humor, Dr Windecker saw nothing funny at all, and, climactically, upon learning that Harry had never installed a checkoff list in the airplane, he fired his vaunted Chief Test Pilot on the spot.

For the uninitiated, a checkoff list in an airplane reminds the pilot what to do before takeoff and landing. Among a number of essential things, it emphasizes the importance of lowing the landing gear before landing.

I don’t know where Harry is now. I do hope he got some career guidance along the way — say flipping hamburgers.