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T-33 Cocked Nose Wheel

by Lt. Col. (then Captain) John Larrison (USAF Ret)

One of the unique things about the T-33 Trainer used for Basic Pilot Training in the 1950s and early 1960s was the lack of nose wheel steering.  The nose wheel was designed to freely swivel based on the use of the independent left and right main gear wheel brakes. 

As with most aircraft the brakes were independently controlled by toe pressure on the left or right rudder pedals.  During normal taxi, take-off, and landing speeds, this was not a problem.  However, at very low speeds, when first starting to move or when almost stopped, brake steering could lead to a situation known as a “Cocked Nose Wheel.”  The most common cause was a student trying to make small changes in direction when pulling into a parking spot.  These actions could lead to a cocked nose wheel where it flops over to a full left or right position of about 45°.  In a congested area like the parking ramp, this would require a crewchief to straighten the nose wheel.

However, this cocked nose wheel story did not occur on the parking ramp.  It involved two key individuals: a solo student and an instructor pilot performing Senior Mobile Controller duties.  During student training operations, control of the runway and traffic was performed by an instructor in a mobile control unit located at the landing end of the runway.  This story is about a solo student who had been cleared onto the runway by mobile for take-off. 

This requires the pilot to taxi onto the runway and lineup in a take-off position headed straight down the runway.  He then performs the “Pre-Takeoff” checklist items prior to brake release, full power, and take-off. 

A key portion of these pre-takeoff checks was a check of engine operation at 80% power.  This required heavy brake pressure to hold the aircraft with the power at 80% while engine instruments were checked to insure they were all proper, “In-the-Green.”

The student had taxied into position, abeam of the mobile unit and lined up straight down the runway.  The brakes were pumped to hold the aircraft during checks; however, the brake pressure was not held strong enough to prevent one wheel from moving slightly during the student’s prolonged engine instrument checks.  While looking in the cockpit, he did not notice that this wheel creep led to an inevitable “Cocked Nose Wheel.”  Visualize a T-33 on the runway; student’s head in the cockpit checking instruments, right wheel brake letting the right wheel slowly roll, resulting in a cocked nose wheel.  The T-33 was now doing a slow 360° pivot around the left main gear.  With the student being the only aircraft on the runway, the senior mobile controller made a simple radio call to the student.  “Warlock 58, the next time the runway comes by,  you’re cleared for take-off.”

That call shall long be remembered by those at Vance and it was good for a laugh.  Today I’m afraid the result would be different.