The next day dawned clear and sunny. Thankfully Juvy had managed to keep the snoring to a minimum and I’d had a decent nights rest. We returned the crew car to the airport with thanks, and pre-flighted the Arrow for the penultimate day of the trip. Our first destination would be an interesting little town called Wall which Juvy had told me about. It was only about a 30 minute flight across the plains from Hot Springs. We took off, turning out over the huge feed lot near the airport, and proceeded direct on course towards Wall.
Wall is known for being the home of the (apparently) world famous Wall Drug store. The store was purchased by Ted Hustead in 1931, and initially business was very slow until his wife suggested advertising and offering free ice water to travelers on their way to Mt Rushmore. Wall Drug gradually grew into a cowboy-themed shopping mall and department store. The complex includes a western art museum, a chapel, and an 80-foot (24 m) brontosaurus that can be seen right off Interstate 90. They continue their very successful self promotion through free bumper stickers, 5c coffee, and billboards for hundreds of miles around. Around 2 million visitors now stop in each year.
Wall Drug is a short walk from the airport. We wandered around the complex, buying a few souvenirs and pausing for a breakfast of pancakes and bacon. This done, we headed back to the airport where we met the airport manager. Juvy had been in touch to let him know that we were coming and he’d been kind enough to come out on a weekend, and even bring us a couple of souvenir Wall pens! People in this part of the country, where few Americans and even fewer foreigners ever visit, were proving to be very friendly and helpful.
As we were in the area (roughly speaking) we had decided it would be foolish not to at least drop in to North Dakota, so we could say that we’d been there. We therefore took off from Wall and headed northeast towards the state border. The terrain was mostly flat, open fields as far as the eye could see although there was the occasional section of more interesting landscape to look at. We’d chosen to land at Standing Rock airport, as it seemed like it was in a fairly picturesque location, and about the smallest detour that we could find with its position just inside the North Dakota border.
Standing Rock airport lies on the impressive Missouri river, which gave great views as we came in to land. The airport had no services, and was deserted, so we simply parked up and stretched our legs for a while as Juvy wandered around taking photographs. That done, we set out again, this time for a very short flight to the nearby Linton airport. They had fuel available at decent prices, and we needed to fill up before the next longer leg.
Linton airport was a little larger than Standing Rock, with fuel and other services, but not much more going on. We filled both tanks and carried on east into another new state for the both of us, Minnesota. We’d chosen Olivia, Minnesota, as our stop for the night because it shared a name with my sister and I wanted to walk around and take photographs of all the things with “Olivia” in their name.
We left our gear in the aircraft, and went for a walk into town. Olivia was founded in the late 1800s, and became the county seat in 1900. In 1973, the town erected a 50ft tall ear of corn monument, and began referring to itself as the corn capital of the world; the Minnesota, with the state senate now officially designating Olivia as such. Olivia celebrates Corn Capital Days during the last weekend of July, with activities including a parade, corn cob toss, corn-lympics, and free corn feed.
Olivia is a town of a little under 3,000 people, and on a Saturday evening there was very little going on. We saw only a few other people as we walked around, taking pictures of everything we could find that said “Olivia” on it. Almost everything was closed, so after our mini tour we started a walk back to the airport, stopping at a bar and grill on the way back to get dinner.
That evening I set up my tent by the airplane, and Juvy made the decision to sleep on the sofa in the FBO. It saved time setting up and tearing down the camp site, at least!
The final day of the trip dawned bright and sunny once again. We’d be heading all the way back to Pittsburgh today, with a couple more landings in new states to add them to the log book! We packed up our gear, freshened up in the FBO, and took off pretty early. We wanted to be back at base reasonably early in the day! Our first stop was the town of Decorah, in Iowa. Our flight route was taking us right along the borders of Iowa and Wisconsin, so it seemed sensible to make a stop in each!
We made a brief stop in Decorah, barely enough to stretch our legs, before taking off again and crossing the state line towards Platteville in Wisconsin. I didn’t know much about Wisconsin, apart from it being famous for cheese; and after our stop, I knew no more.
Another brief stop and we were off once again, on a longer leg this time towards our penultimate stop of Bult Field, south of Chicago. On the way we overflew the enormous race track at Chicagoland Speedway, in Joliet Illinois. A NASCAR event was going on, and even from a fair distance away (we couldn’t go too close, due to a temporary flight restriction over the event) the vast fields of car parking and spectators were plain to see.
Bult Field was a private airport, with a very fancy FBO. We enjoyed a short stop there about noon, as well as having some snacks, then took off for the final flight back to home base. It was a couple of hours from Illinois, across Indiana and Ohio, into Pennsylvania. We enjoyed the flight, seeing the sights such as an enormous rail yard full of freight cars being shunted this way and that. Indiana and Ohio fell away behind us and we began the descent to Zelienople – and this was where the trouble began.
As we approached the airport, we slowed down, and selected the landing gear to “down”. As usual, I checked the landing gear status lights to ensure that we had “three greens” indicating all gear down and locked. More unusually, only two of the lights were green; the light for the right main landing gear remained stubbornly dark. More ominously, the aircraft was yawing slightly to the left, indicating uneven drag. I swapped the bulbs over just in case, but the problem remained. It was a Sunday afternoon, with a lot of the flying club members hanging out in the maintenance hangar; Juvy phoned them, and they got on the radio to talk through the issue.
We tried everything we could think of to free up the jammed wheel; high G-forces, negative G, the emergency gear extension and so on. The guys on the ground confirmed that they could still only see two wheels down. Our mechanic and another club member jumped into the club Archer, and came up to fly next to us; they confirmed that the wheel was stubbornly stuck and didn’t seem like it would be going anywhere. “Were going to land”, they told us, “you guys stay up here”.
One of the club members on the ground used to be a volunteer firefighter. “Hey Ross”, he told me on the radio, “we’re going to call in a few vehicles just to be safe”. That made sense to me, although I wasn’t quite prepared for what was to follow; he later told me that “It’s difficult to nonchalantly call in an impending plane crash”. Over the next 30 minutes as we circled overhead, burning off fuel, it seemed as if the nearby interstate had been diverted into the airport; 8 fire trucks, 2 ambulances, most of the police from the surrounding countries, 2 local news crews, and half the nearby town all filed in to stand by, or just to come and see what was going on.
We discussed it over the radio, and decided that the safest course of action was to land with all three landing gear retracted, and to use the tarmac runway instead of the grass. After a coupe of hours burning off fuel and letting everyone on the ground prepare, we made our approach. In the end it was just a normal landing, albeit about 2 feet lower. In fact, it was one of my better ones! We came to a noisy halt just a couple of feet from the runway center line, and jumped quickly out as the fire engines closed in.
The damage done to the Arrow turned out to be fairly minimal, considering the situation. I had elected to keep the engine running until the last minute, to avoid throwing away the option to go around; one never knew what could happen, such as a fire engine unexpectedly pulling out in front of me. I pulled the mixture to cut-off as we entered the flare and were confident of making the landing, but the propeller had still been windmilling when we touched down. Therefore the propeller blades were ruined, and the engine required a tear-down and inspection due to the prop strike; no damage was found, luckily.
Apart from the propeller and engine, the only damage was some scraping on the nose gear doors and the trailing edge of the flaps. The step behind the wing that’s used to step up into the cockpit was actually bent back into the position that it should be in, having been bent down over many years of heavy pilots and passengers stepping on it!
It turned out that the jammed landing gear had been caused by a failed bolt in the undercarriage allowing the wheel to twist and then jam in place inside the wheel well. The FAA came to inspect the aftermath, and interviewed me by phone, but were happy that I’d done everything correctly and that was the last I heard. It had been an unexpected end to a great trip.
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