Those in aviation call any landing a controlled crash, said Minh Venator, owner of MinhJet, located at the Hollister Municipal Airport. Others refer to them as emergency landings. Whatever they’re called, they can be disastrous, especially when a fuel-laden aircraft is forced to land on a concrete runway that can spark a massive explosion.
But such was not the case on May 4 at 4:30 p.m. when the Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic after 1993) jet, built in 1965 to train future Soviet and Eastern Block MIG-15/17 fighter pilots, belly-landed at the Hollister airport.
The potential disaster was actually a “picture-perfect landing,” according to interim Hollister Police Chief Carlos Reynoso. As two Hollister fire trucks and a water tanker stood at the ready along the runway as the plane approached, it was a unique opportunity to put to use long hours of practice for just such an incident, said Carlos Bedolla, Hollister Fire Department battalion chief and deputy fire marshal.
“We were notified through dispatch that the jet was coming in for a landing, but he was flying around trying to use up about 100 gallons of gas before attempting to land,” Reynoso said. “That gave public safety personnel time to assemble. The fire and police departments responded and were right by the runway when he made a textbook belly landing. The pilot got out unhurt.”
As the fire crews poured foam on the runway and waited to see if the pilot needed to be rescued, the airport was shut down to air traffic. But an incoming glider did not have a radio and the crossing winds made it impossible to go around to another runway. So, despite the crashed plane still sitting on the same runway, the glider landed without incident, Bedolla said.
“It went very well. We’ve trained for this and everyone’s training kicked in,” he said. “We had the airport manager and the city manager, law enforcement, OES [Office of Emergency Services], and CAL FIRE there.”
Venator told BenitoLink the jet was coming to Hollister from Utah for its annual maintenance checkup and agreed that it obviously failed even before touchdown because the landing gear did not come down. He said a hydraulic problem was most likely to blame.
“Based on what we saw, I think one of the hydraulic lines to the landing gear system ruptured,” Venator told BenitoLink. “He lost all hydraulics.”
The Texas pilot, Michael Steiger, is a commercial airline pilot who also races jets and ferries them around the country for their owners. He was bringing the plane to Hollister for Nathan Harnagel, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, pilot and racer, who lives in Texas.
Steiger emptied the fuel tanks as he approached, but when the aircraft touched the airstrip there was still jet fuel in the tank. As the plane skidded 1098 feet it left a trail of extremely flammable fuel along the runway and under the plane. The fire trucks immediately began spraying foam along the trail and around the plane as Steiger remained in the cockpit until it was safe to climb out.
Few pilots actually train to make crash landings, but after his forced landing Steiger, chairman of Reno-based Racing Jets Inc., appeared unfazed as he leaned against the aircraft posing for photographs.
Later, the plane was raised by crane and transported to the MinhJet hanger, where Venator will determine the cause of the crash and repair the damage to the fuselage.
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