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Marines recount harrowing landing missing essential gear

Capt. Eli Keller, right and Capt. Grant Moody of Marine All-Weather Fighter
Attack Squadron 224 stand in front of the F/A-18 Hornet that they landed at the Jacksonville International Airport after an equipment malfunction Saturday. The plane has been repaired as it back in rotation.
Capt. Eli Keller, right and Capt. Grant Moody of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 stand in front of the F/A-18 Hornet that they landed at the Jacksonville International Airport after an equipment malfunction Saturday. The plane has been repaired as it back in rotation. JONATHAN DYER | The Beaufort Gazette

Low on fuel and short on choices, Capt. Eli Keller and Capt. Grant Moody had little time for troubleshooting Saturday afternoon in the sky above Jacksonville, Fla.

The left landing gear of their two-seat F/A-18 Hornet had malfunctioned, and the two pilots from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 weren't sure how rough a landing they were in for as they descended toward runway No. 7 at Jacksonville International Airport.

"Nothing in our training really prepares us for a door not letting the landing gear come down at all, and you have no idea how the jet is going to react once it touches down," said Keller, the plane's weapons and system officer. "I was pretty nervous, but we had to think quickly, rely on our training and our instincts."

Moody, the jet's pilot, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

The pair was en route to Jacksonville to perform a fly-over with two other jets from the squadron at Sunday's Jacksonville Jaguars football game.

Moody and Keller were preparing to land at Jacksonville International Airport at about 12:30 p.m. when the instrument panel indicated the left landing gear wasn't extending properly.

Another of the squadron's jets flew up beside it to inspect the landing gear.

"We obviously can't see it ourselves, so they joined us to get a better look and they confirmed that there was something obstructing the landing gear," Keller said. "We did two passes of the field and circled back around to land. All of this happened in about 10 minutes."

They decided to use the F/A-18's tail hook as they would on the deck of an aircraft carrier, bringing the jet to a halt in a short distance.

Designed to touch down using three sets of wheels-- one under the nose gear and one under each wing -- the pilots had to improvise, using the jet's nearly empty left external fuel tank as a third wheel.

"We landed just right of the center line because we knew the jet was going to pull left on the fuel tank," Keller said. "The landing was a lot less erratic than I would have thought. We caught the arresting wire and skidded about 1,500 feet. It worked perfectly."

Jacksonville International Airport is one of several civilian airports with arresting gear on one of its runways, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Neither man was injured, and the jet suffered only minimal damage to its left fuel tank. The F/A-18 was towed to the 125th Fighter Wing hangar of the Florida Air National Guard.

The jet was inspected, repairs were made to the faulty gear door and it was flown back to Beaufort on Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Joseph Maybach, the squadron's commanding officer. The malfunction was caused by a faulty gear door that prevented the hydraulic landing gear from descending from the body of the jet and locking into place.

Maybach said he was proud of the way the men kept cool under pressure.

"We practice emergency procedures about once a month in the simulator, but this is a situation that cannot be simulated," Maybach said. "They dealt with an incredibly unusual circumstance in a professional manner. It could have turned out much worse."

Maybach added that the jet was back on the flight schedule Wednesday.

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