Landing Emergency: We All Gotta Go Sometime.


At about a hundred-twenty miles from touchdown that combination of headwinds and distance remaining brought us to the best moment in any trip: the top of descent. Approach, landing and finally, home–straight ahead and a few miles down. Easy.

Everybody’s tired at the end of a flight day, so it was actually my good fortune to have it be the First Officer’s turn to land–we alternate, usually, on each flight leg–so I could watch and back him up but basically, I’d just relax.

We adjusted lights downward as the sun sank but more importantly, as we descended, the sunlight vanished like a candle blown out. My F/O looked a little greenish. “You good?” I asked, just to be sure. I used to hate it when captains asked me that when I was an F/O. But still, I needed to know.

“I was thinking I’d go to the lav,” he said, “but I’ll just wait.” Thanks for the heads-up: let me alert the media. Whatever.

He did look jaundiced, though, and it wasn’t just the failing light of the vanishing sun.

We hit the descent arc and the engines rumbled back, the nose dipped and the sigh of thicker air began to slip around the nose of the jet reassuringly. In my mind I was halfway to my car, on the way home after a couple thousand air miles. Not so fast.

As we leveled at the requisite eleven thousand feet to turn onto the downwind track, he looked over at me with eyes wide and said, “You’d better take it.”

I know my eyes narrowed; what the hell? I mean, I don’t mind landing–I’d rather do it myself anyway; easier to fly and know what you’re doing than monitor and wonder what someone else is doing. Which is why I’m the world’s worst airline passenger.

“I gotta go so bad, it’s going to be all I can do to NOT do it right here,” he said, knowing that there was neither time nor fuel for a trip to the lav now. We were in the traffic pattern, flight attendants strapped in, so none available to be bathroom monitor in the cockpit per regulations while he stepped out to the can. You should have gone before we left the house. Or altitude, In this case.

Seriously? One look into his deer-in-the-headlights eyeballs and I knew he wasn’t kidding.

“Okay,” I said, “no worries. I’ve got it. You just try to relax,” and not explode in that seat next to me, please god, “we’ll be on the deck really quick.” He was concentrating, tense, willing himself not to blow up; halfway bent forward.

“Tell you what,” I offered. “Once we land, we’ll just clear the runway, I’ll tell the tower we need to hold our position for a minute for a systems check–”

He looked over hopefully, gritting his teeth.

“Then you stroll back real casually while I make a PA about a slight gate delay, please remain seated, blah-blah-blah. Nobody’ll ever know.”

Like the first gust of a thunderstorm, an ill wind washed over me and I’d have grabbed an oxygen mask, but I knew that would be pretty inconvenient on a landing that would be mostly solo. He nodded, seeping.

Mercifully, Approach Control turned us inbound quickly and cleared us visually to land. Good deal, dirty up: more flaps (I’ll get ’em), throw out the gear.

That reassuring of the main gear falling into the slipstream, the nosegear door below us opening; three good thunks–but only two green lights on the landing gear.

“Well,” I sighed resignedly, “tell ’em we’re going around.” Meaning we’d have to break off the approach and enter the downwind again. He looked at me in horror, cheeks clenched. “No way!

“We have to,” I said matter-of-factly, raising the gear and resetting the flaps to fifteen. Lava dome or no, I had to have verification of three safely down and locked landing gear before I committed a hundred sixty-five souls on board figuring to landing.

He slammed his head back against the headrest, sweating and riding way high in the saddle. Hold it tight, amigo; just damn well hold it.

On downwind, I read the checklist aloud and accomplished the pre-landing portion even as I swapped out gear bulbs on the offending indicator. On final: three green. We touched down smartly on the outboard runway, and barely cleared when straps flew and his seat ratcheted back against the stops, armrests flying back. I set the brakes and told the tower we needed to hold there for a moment; they approved it, bored, no conception of the lava dome about to burst in the cockpit.

I was trying to make a casual PA: “Well, folks . . . a little ramp delay ahead of us, so . . .”

The cockpit door banged open and he flew out, wild-eyed, undoing his the belt on his pants as he went.

“. . . we’re going to be here for a moment or two . . .”

The lav door shut so hard it rebounded open, then slammed shut again. He was doing the kind of “jump off a cliff” yell you’d expect from a suicide or anyone watching Game 6 of the last World Series when the Rangers exploded, only slightly muted by the flimsy lav door. It sounded like a Three Stooges-style rumpus with what I assumed were the thuds of elbows and knees clobbering the walls as a safe delivery posture was assumed. There was the muffled sound of a balky chainsaw refusing to start despite multiple pulls, then tendrils from another seething toxic gas cloud spread like an oil spill, alerting First Class as to what the “ramp delay” was really about. Several horribly choked cycles of the vacuum-flush from the lav eliminated any further doubt.

He returned to the cockpit, rumpled, relieved, both literally and figuratively; a new man. “That worked out well,” he said, staring straight ahead, “and just in the nick of time.”

“Not sure you fooled anybody,” I offered casually, releasing the parking brakes.

He shrugged. “Yeah, well. We all gotta go sometime.”

Yeah, I guess we all do.

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19 Responses to “Landing Emergency: We All Gotta Go Sometime.”

  1. Haha I laughed until I cried. Great story and even greater descriptions! Awesome post. Thanks for the laugh 😀 I needed it.

  2. Know the feeling–LOL!!!

  3. Awesome story! I’m always careful about what I eat and drink prior to a cross country flight. I have had many experiences of just sitting in my seat when the plane seems to just “drop” a couple hundred feet. Like you just started a roller coaster ride, then it stops. I can’t imagine what would happen if instead of being belted in my seat I was in the process of getting ready to use the toilet…. seriously, you could get hurt!

  4. Hilarious! Poor guy!

  5. OMG..I just had the best laugh this morning..feeling so sorry for your co-pilot though…

  6. Ah, yet another great post, Captain! My heart goes out to the FO in this ‘delicate’ situation. Who among us has not been there a time or two and one more reason to have TWO fully qualified drivers at the pointy end! The Cpatain’s management of the situation was perfect and maybe that’s why experienced folks wear four stipes. In short, stuff [other terms available] WILL happen and it is always up to the Captain to wade through it and make a Happy Landing. I’m sure that the FO felt terrible [other words available, but passed in this case] in more than one way. Stuff happens, we deal with it and we move on. When you next fly with that FO, please be kind and let him be the first to raise the subject. As noted, who among us has not been there a time or two? If I have to say it, this is yet another example of why experienced front-end staff are so important. Flying a go-around, setting up a new approach and swapping a light bulb *might* be a challenge for some low-time flyers. Seriously old farts on the front left seat is always comforting for me. Another spot-on post, Captain and thank you. I feel for that unfortunate FO, but real-world stuff happens and WTF were his other choices? One more example of an experienced Captain saving the mission – and the dignity of his FO. I’m also thinking that a partner pilot with very low hours on a machine might face a challenge when addressing a GA, new approach and new landing essentially alone. That old buzzard in the left seat might be a bit busy, doing it almost alone, but s/he CAN do it. When I board, I enjoy seeing one or more Old Buzzards. More than enough and thank you.

    • I hate to admit that I *am* the old buzzard type now, even though I’m constantly reminded by the jet that 19,000 flight hours doesn’t mean much–you have to earn those wings every single day.

  7. Great story as always! I have taken the “walk of shame” many times myself on the ERJ…which is made worse since our lav is all the way in the back of the airplane.

  8. Nice article Chris, I remember when I was at Ellsworth and had to manually crank the wheels down on a night mission. My arms were aching and it seemed like forever before they were all down and locked. I recommend you stash an empty Coke Bottle in the cockpit for emergency off loads. Better make it a liter bottle.

  9. One thing that bugs me as a passenger is when the approach is waved off and the plane goes around again, but the pilot never gets on the intercom to say something. Let me be clear, it’s not the go-around that annoys me. It’s just when it’s a mystery as to what’s going on. I remember flying into HNL and the plane breaking off an approach to the Reef Runway. The pilot got on the intercom and said something like “We weren’t totally happy with our approach, so we thought that we would go around again.” That’s good! I don’t need more than that. On the other hand, one time I was flying into SAN and the pilot broke off and had to go around again. But no intercom! I get it can be hard to land there, but tell us something!

    • Sorry, but with all the procedural steps required for a go-around and subsequent approach, the P. A. is low on the priority list. If you’re on a flight that’s doing a go-around, you can pretty much assume two things: first, everything’s fine and second, even if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t tell you anyway. So do we really have to waste time and divert focus for this?

    • Must agree with Chris (below). During and after the GA procedure, the crew is far too busy to make an info comment on the PA. First rule is to always fly the airplane. The GA procedure itself is ‘unstable’ and may or may not have resulted from an unstable approach. Figuring it out and setting up for a new approach requires the FULL attention of both pilots. Please be patient and keep your seat belt on (and your shorts hitched up). You will be on the ground shortly

  10. So. Pilots are human? Good story

  11. keithpeers Says:

    HI all. i think this is a good read. pilots do a great job.

  12. James Aydelott//meteorologist, Tulsa Says:

    mama always said, “Urine deep trouble when your eyes start turning yellow.”

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