The phone rang and my friend Simon Rodger was on the other end calling from South Africa. He had been having some trouble with his Cessna 185 and, since I have specialized in working on them and taught him how to fly C185’s, he thought I might be able to help. He had bought this plane from MAF during our fleet renewal program. It had just come out of a commercial shop after a change of registration and replacement of cracked gear boxes and this was one of his first trips in the plane since the work. There was a vibration in the tail wheel but the plane was harder to handle than he remembered and he thought maybe we should fly together again as a review. The Cessna 185 is a taildragger and is squirrely. It needs to be flown all the way till it is parked in the hangar, so if you are not really “switched on” things can go wrong quickly on the ground. He said he just couldn’t seem to figure out where the ground was and he would bounce it and it acted crazy. In fact, one time he was taxing up to the fuel pumps and when he braked to slow down, the plane had gone up on its’ nose and he was only able to stop it from flipping over by pulling the stick back all the way and adding full power. This is a very scary thing to do only meters away from fuel pumps and I’m not sure I would have thought to do that so quickly! He said he would fly right up and I agreed to look at it.
When he arrived we pulled the plane in the hangar and I put the tail up into the air on a sawhorse. It was not too complicated to see the tail wheel problem. The wrong size bolts had been put into the holes that held the whole tail wheel spring allowing it to wobble around. I went to get some of the right bolts but as I walked past the front of the plane I noticed something funny on the main gear. There were some painted-over rust pits on the front side of the spring steel gear which were just the size of the brackets that hold the brake lines in place. They are supposed to be on the backside of the gear. And the brackets were now super-glued on the back side. That was strange. Things just looked wrong!
The National Parks Cessna 185 was out on the ramp so I walked out to look at its’ gear to see if I could tell what the problem was. It was obvious as soon as I looked at the gear on the other plane. Simon’s gear was on backwards! That made the wheel sit 8 or 10 inches further back and so the center of gravity was all wrong for ground handling Now it was easy to see how the plane had almost gone over on its’ nose.
The front landing gear leg edge is straight when properly installed and the back side has a bit of an angle in it. When the work was done on the plane they had put the gearboxes in backward and then had to switch the spring steel gear legs to make them fit. So now the left one was on the right and the right one was on the left. They should have noticed when they had to go to all the trouble to take the brake brackets off and put them on the other side to make things work!
I told Simon that I was very proud of him for keeping the plane right side up under these circumstances. I knew about this happening once before and when they took the plane out to test fly it the pilot hit the brakes to stop and do his pre-takeoff run up checks and the plane went right over on its’ nose, striking the prop and causing a lot of damage.
After Simon took his plane back and had it fixed properly he had no problem landing and ground handling.
It strikes me that it is not uncommon for us to think we have done something accurately when only the slightest change to the placement of even the correct parts or pieces of information can lead to the most disastrous of conclusions.