(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
"I made a lot of promises yesterday," said Red Willow Aviation owner Griff Malleck this morning, after the safe landing of a plane on which the landing gear failed as his mechanics tested it in the air. "I hope I can keep them all."
Nine times around the airport and nine times down the runway, the red-and-white Cessna Centurion 210 flew with its right landing gear drooping and refusing to lock into place -- despite desperate attempts to grab it with a long hook and a firefighter's pike pole from the back of a racing pickup below.
On the 10th pass down the runway, two men crouching in the back of the pickup -- driving 90 miles an hour beside the cockpit and under the wing of the plane -- snagged the sagging landing gear with the pike pole and yanked it up into place. It locked.
The pilot landed after one more circle over the McCook airport, at 4:36 p.m., and he and his mechanic-passenger step-ped out in front of Red Willow Aviation, where their harrowing experience began several hours earlier.
Mick Brosius of North Platte, the owner of the plane, said this morning, "I bet those two felt like astronauts -- really, really glad to be on the ground."
He said he wouldn't have cared about the condition of the plane, the men in the plane were most important.
Brosius said Malleck told him it was "the most hair-raising experience" of his life. Malleck said the situation went from bad to worse. "First I had two people in trouble -- the pilot and mechanic in the plane," he said. "Then we added the driver and the two men in the pickup, and I had five people in potential trouble."
Brosius said he had brought the plane to Malleck and his aviation mechanics to repair an oil leak from the flaps and the gear. Brosius said, "Griff said it was lucky I brought it (the plane) to him with a full tank of fuel, because that gave them the time to keep trying," to grab the gear as the plane passed over the pickup racing down the runway.
The special skills of one of Malleck's employees helped the rescue effort -- Jeff Williams of Oberlin, one of Malleck's mechanics, is a race car driver. He drove the pickup, as Jeff Polly, an owner of K&J Tire, and Toby Cox, a spray plane pilot, kneeled in the back of the pickup with, first, a long hook shaped like a shepherd's crook, and when that failed, a fiber glass pike pole taken from a McCook fire truck.
On the second pass down the runway, the men successfully grabbed the left landing gear and it locked into place. Malleck said this morning they thought both would come down then, but the right one didn't.
Seven or eight more trips around the north end of the airport and that many more trips down the runway, the pilot flew, the pickup raced, the men in the pickup bed reached and grabbed, and everyone prayed.
A McCook pilot watching from the ground said pilot Jim Hagert's flying skills were phenomenal. "It was well-done ... very well-done," said Dick Trail, a former Air Force pilot. "It had to have been like flying in formation. I was impressed."
On board with Hagert was mechanic Krent Townsend of Danbury.
Obviously delighted to be on the ground and "high-fiving" and hugging well-wishers waiting at Red Willow Aviation, Hagert declined to comment on the experience.
Brosius said he has owned the plane, built in 1963, for eight to 10 years. "It's had good care," Brosius said.
"It's a fairly fast plane -- probably 200 miles an hour," he said. "It probably has to slow to 90 to land."
Brosius is president of the State Bank of Stapleton and also farms and ranches.
Malleck said many things went right Wednesday afternoon -- the wind was just right down the runway and he had experienced crews in the plane and on the ground. Having the plane full of fuel gave Malleck and his crew about two hours to figure out what to do before attempting the race-and-grab efforts on the runway.
Malleck said he had seen an effort like this on television, and decided to try it here as a last option, having tried and failed to make repairs to the stubborn landing gear in the air.
Getting one landing gear down and not the other actually made the situation worse, Malleck said. "Landing that way would have definitely gotten someone hurt," he said. "It was like changing chairs on the Titanic."
But, while some things went wrong, more went right. The wind, the fuel, lots of experience and lots of patience. "Everyone kept their cool, everyone worked well together," Malleck said " ... all's well that ends well."
Malleck said he was very grateful for the assistance of the McCook Fire Department, which loaned the use of their pike pole. "The first hook we were using just wasn't long enough," he said.
He chuckled, "The most exciting thing we'll do today is rotate the tires on the pickup."