The flight had been fun and exciting, basically your typical private pilot flight lesson. We were cleared to land and I made a smooth touchdown. We started to turn off onto the specified taxiway when our airplane came to a complete stop with the tail sticking out over the runway. The Tower cleared a 737 to line up and wait and told us to clear the runway. Try as we might, we couldn’t budge.
“CLEAR THE RUNWAY, NOW!”
The tower was becoming annoyed with our presence on the runway despite orders to clear. My instructor moved the throttle forward to see if a few more horsepower could coax the plane into motion. I calmly reached over and brought the throttle back. “We don’t know what is going on up there so let’s not chance things. Completely mystified about our immobility, my instructor spoke up: “Tower, we are….uh…we’re stuck. We can’t move.” He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. After a few more seconds we received a reply from the tower:
“YOU NEED TO EXIT THE RUNWAY, NOW!!!!”
“Tower, we are trying but we are stuck. We can’t move” was the only thing we could tell the tower, not knowing what was causing our predicament. Finally, the gracious captain of the 737 chimed in with the most heavily accented Texas drawl you could imagine :
“Tower, them boys up there they lost their nosewheel. They ain’t going nowhere.”
Hearing that, both my instructor and I burst out laughing. I’m not sure if it was his accent, phrasing, or the realization that we didn’t do anything wrong, but the pressure was off and we could finally deal with the situation. We offered to shut the airplane down and see if we could pull the airplane off the runway. The tower advised us to do that so we hopped out onto the runway and finally saw what had happened.
This airplane’s nosewheel was designed as a fork, with the wheel itself riding an axel sandwiched between two arms. The axel had separated itself from one of the arms and the wheel had come to rest lying on it’s side. No wonder we couldn’t move.
My instructor pushed down on the tail of the airplane, lifting the nose off the ground and I pulled the airplane forward off the runway. It was later found that a faulty nut had been used on the nosewheel and it had failed.
It was the first time I had encountered an unusual situation with an airplane. Since then I have dealt with a variety of odd situations from radio and headset failures, to low oil pressure, to deteriorating weather. Regardless of the what you are dealing with, you have to be prepared.
Fly the airplane first: Regardless of what you dealing with, you have to continue flying the airplane first. We are taught what to do with an engine failure (Airspeed, Best place to land, Checklist) and we are given two things to do before we start trouble shooting, both of which add up to “fly the airplane, first.” Whether you have failed radio equipment, flown into poor weather, or have a broken nosewheel, flying and controlling the airplane remains your #1 priority. In our case, even though we weren’t moving, managing the airplane was still our top priority.
Remain calm: This is easier said than done but panicking isn’t going to solve anything. A successful outcome is determined by your ability to think clearly. Even with a controller yelling at us on the radio, we had to remain calm in order to thoughtfully approach the situation. You can’t let external pressures, whether it be a controller, or a 737 lined up and ready to go dictate your behavior. If you have a situation, you announce it, and you deal with it. The rest of the airport or airspace environment needs to react to you, you don’t react to the environment.
Work the problem: The reason we study aircraft systems, weather, airspace, aerodynamics…everything in the training syllabus is so that we can troubleshoot when things don’t go according to plan. What are your options?
Ask for help: You are almost never out of range of someone on the radio. If you aren’t talking to ATC, and eventhough it is not officially monitored, 121.5 is still listened to by many pilots. Ask for help and you’ll almost always get it. Ours shows up in the form of a merciful 737 captain.
Evaluate and learn: Almost every situation could have been prevented at some point. After a situation has passed, how did your own decision making contribute to the problem showing up? What was overlooked? What hazardous attitude did you have that enabled that to happen? Looking back, maybe I didn’t preflight as well as I should have?
Author Richard Bach once wrote “there is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.” As pilots we are constantly encountering problems and situation, mostly small ones and occasionally larger ones. Each represents an opportunity to grow and become more experienced and it is that wealth of experience that allows us to explore the skies with confidence and freedom.