The long, droning flight from the Florida panhandle was uneventful. We never flew above ten thousand feet and most of the cadets took turns looking out the few windows that were not scratched or discolored, watching the Florida landscape slip slowly beneath us. The magnificent Florida thunderheads never interfered as we started the long approach from the Marco station on Florida’s west coast, approaching Miami over the Everglades. On the long, gradual descent into MIAD, the flight engineer climbed down out of the cockpit and casually looked out the window on one side, and then crossed over to the other side of the cavernous, square box of the troop compartment and leaned against a window to get a good look at the engine on the other side. The fabric troop seats mounted sideways along the fuselage walls were in the way, so he would lean between whoever was sitting there to see out the window. The flight engineers always checked for oil leaks from the powerful Pratt and Whitney radial engines on every flight, and sometimes before we started an approach to land. They always came down from the flight deck when the landing gear was lowered.
He was satisfied and climbed back up the short ladder on the left side of the front bulkhead and disappeared back into the flight deck. Not soon afterward, the huge wing flaps began to extend and the buffeting that accompanies their extension began in earnest. The huge main landing gear doors opened and the main landing gear began to noisily lower. The C-119 was unique as some of the passengers could watch as the huge landing gear assemblies extended downward right beside the passenger windows. Another unique feature of the C119 was it required almost full power to fly with all the drag of the wing flaps and exposed landing gear. Those who were in the Flying Boxcar for the first time always got quiet and you could usually see the whites of their eyes from anywhere inside the fuselage as the noise levels rose and power was applied to the big Pratt and Whitney engines. The whole plane would shake and vibrate. Us “old” cadets would usually talk heroically to the rookies but some you just couldn't console. Besides, you had to yell which didn't help matters.
The flight engineer, a dark haired young looking fellow, probably in his mid to late twenties, climbed back down into the troop compartment for a second time. The flight engineers usually came down to spot check the main landing gear, a routine task done for every landing. This time however, he couldn't mask his concern. He turned and squatted down looking at the center of the bulkhead in the very front of the compartment. The bulkhead had an access panel held in place with Dzus fasteners, the standard Air Force twist-lock type quick access fastener. In the center of the panel was a small inspection panel that allowed a quick check of the nose landing gear. When the landing gear was up, the huge double tires of the nose wheels were clearly visible from inside the cargo area. You could squat and look through the panel window and see the tread on the tires on the nose landing gear, folded compactly inside the fuselage just under the flight deck. That was the problem for our flight engineer: they weren't supposed to be there, at least, not when the pilot was trying to land. They should have been down and locked for landing. The adult members of our squadron began to look like the first timers. You could see the whites of their eyes in the dimly lighted compartment. We all had on the mandatory parachutes but only the cadets were excited about possibly having to bail out!
We hadn't changed course, still droning on directly toward Miami. We knew we were still over the Everglades west of Krome Avenue, but we knew we weren't too far out or the pilot wouldn't have lowered the landing gear. The flight engineer removed the panel and looked around inside the nose-wheel compartment. He backed out and stood up, grabbing a red painted D-Ring hanging just above the panel. The D-ring was on the end of a metal stranded cable which barely protruded into the troop area. It was the emergency gear release should the hydraulic system fail. He braced himself by putting one foot against the bulkhead and yanked the D-ring with all his might. He practically fell on the floor as the D-ring pulled off the cable, leaving our surprised flight engineer with a useless, red painted D-ring in his hand and the nose landing gear still firmly stowed inside the aircraft. He scrambled back up the ladder and almost immediately reappeared as if speed were of the utmost importance. We all watched, absolutely fascinated by the drama unfolding right before our eyes.
He had grabbed a pair of vise grip pliers from the flight deck, a type of locking pliers that can be adjusted for size and locking grip, and returned to the stubborn cable. Working to get a grip on the cable proved to be futile as attempt after attempt to pull the cable met with failure. Finally, with absolutely no recourse, he twisted the remaining Dzus fasteners and took off the main panel. He laid it off to the right side of the bulkhead. With the panel removed, we could all see into the wheel well from the troop compartment. The flight engineer took a deep breath and climbed into the wheel well, squeezing past the struts and braces that cluttered the opening. He disappeared from sight completely and all the cadets as well as the few adult members held their collective breaths.
It was a moment I will never forget. The flight engineer couldn't be seen, yet we knew he was struggling with no tools inside a dark, cramped compartment with absolutely no room. The droning was incredibly intense, yet none of us heard it. Suddenly, with an indescribable noise, the nose gear doors slammed open and the huge landing gear swung free. The inside of the fuselage was blasted by 150 mile an hour wind! Dress uniforms, carefully wrapped in plastic, hanging from the static jump lines that ran the length of the aircraft, blew all over the back of the airplane. I could see the landscape below with the nose gear fully extended, and our incredibly dedicated, unsung hero, bracing himself with one foot against the fuselage and the other foot against the other side of the bulkhead, inches from the gaping hole! Nothing below him but the Everglades some 2000 feet down. And he didn't have on a parachute! He couldn't fit in the wheel well with one on.
The young flight engineer slowly backed out of the wheel well, stood up and brushed off his pant legs. He climbed back up the short ladder while we sat in wind-blown awe. The landing was without further incident, even though we were followed back to Base Operations by an Air Force O1A fire truck.
He got a round of applause but I don’t think he heard it. We never even found out his name. We all disembarked from the aircraft, and waited on the apron, but we never got to meet him. He was probably busy filling out paperwork.