T-6 Gear Check via a Control Tower Fly-By

by Lt. Col. John Larrison (USAF, Ret.) 

It is not uncommon for a pilot to request a control tower “Fly-By” for the tower personnel to provide a “visual” check of his landing gear when the pilot questions his cockpit indicators.  The following story took place in the 1950s with a T-6 at Malden Air Base, Malden, MO, a civilian primary pilot training base at that time.

This was the original 1940s T-6, not the current turboprop T-6. The early T-6 had a visual indicator backup for landing gear position indicators. This back-up was provided by a simple “Down Locking Pin” located on each wing.  This pin could be seen from the cockpit and provided a positive visual indication to the pilot when the gear was down and locked. 

Our flight commander and another instructor pilot were assigned control tower duty that day and were monitoring overall airfield operations.  It was a normal day until they received a call from a solo aircraft.  They knew he was solo because of his call sign.  As you can expect, tower personnel gave solo aircraft more attention than dual aircraft.  

In this situation, a solo student on the radio, could not visually see “Down” and “Locked” indicators on his aircraft’s wing.  A solo with unsafe landing gear called for a visual check to confirm that the aircraft’s landing gear were down for a safe landing.  A tower fly-by could provide that visual check by the tower operators.  The student was instructed to bring the aircraft by the tower so they could look at the landing gear position.

Airfield operations continued for several minutes but they had not seen the aircraft flying by. They radioed him and asked when he would come by.  He informed them that he had been by.  How could they have missed him? 

They told him to come by again.  This time they monitored the horizon with a field glass looking for him.  After a suitable period of time, he was called again and asked when he was coming by.  Once again, they were told that he had been by.

Things were now becoming very weird.  Two passes and they had not been able to see him.  He was therefore requested to make another pass by the tower and this time “Race” the aircraft’s engine so maybe they could hear him.  

Now they both picked up their field glasses and went out on the tower walkway, which ran all the way around the control tower.  They used their field glasses to scan the complete 360° view around the tower. 

It was only a few minutes and they heard a T-6 engine being raced.  Still, they saw no aircraft.  They then realized the sound was coming from below.  Looking down, they saw a T-6, which had been taxiing up and down the ramp below the Control Tower. 

The student had been doing his “Pre-Start Checks” when he noted he could not see the aircraft’s wing gear down & locked pins.  The flight commander had assumed he was in-flight while, all the time, he was on the parking ramp and taxiway.

Moral of the story: Don’t make assumptions and don’t get stuck in a “the way it always is” paradigm.