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Flaps, Schmaps

"Cessna 377, cleared to land runway 31 left number 2 behind a Citabria turning base," said the tower controller as I joined the downwind leg from the 45. It was a pleasant Saturday morning and I'd decided to do some pattern work in my club's Cessna 172 at nearby Reid Hillview airport. It had a been a very short hop from San Jose International.

"377, cleared to land 31 left number 2; looking for the Citabria," I replied. I scanned ahead looking for the telltale motion of the other airplane. It wasn't jumping out at me. I was passing abeam the runway threshold, the point where I usually throttle back and lower the flaps a notch, but I still hadn't seen the Citabria. Finally, I saw its wings as it turned base-to-final and called out the traffic to the tower. As I passed abeam him, I started down, lowering the flap handle for 10 degrees of flaps. Turning base, I came to 70 knots and went to 20 degrees of flaps.

"This doesn't look right," I thought to myself as I turned final and lowered the flap handle for 30 degrees.

My airspeed didn't match the sight picture I was seeing through the windscreen. What's more, my glide angle was much shallower than usual.

"Do I have a pitot-static problem?" I thought. Whatever the ASI said, I decided to fly the sight picture. Still high, I put the airplane into a forward slip, which I held all the way down to short final. As I flared over the numbers and floated down the runway, I thought to myself, "Wow, this feels just like a no-flap landing!" I landed long and taxied off the runway, holding short of 31 right as directed by the tower.

Once cleared to cross the right runway, I ran my after-landing checklist and got clearance from the ground controller for a taxi-back for another pattern.

"That was weird," I thought to myself.

The tower cleared me for takeoff and I started another circuit around the patch. Abeam the runway threshold, I lowered the flap handle for 10 degrees of flaps. That was odd, I didn't feel any change in pitching moment. I looked out the window. The flaps hadn't moved!

The light finally dawned. My flaps weren't working! This was surprising because they'd worked just fine during the pre-flight inspection just half an hour earlier. Suddenly the sensations of my last approach made sense. It was a no-flap landing!

In retrospect, my thought process at this point surprises me. The first thing that occurred to me was, "This will be good practice!" Immediately afterwards came another thought: "Wait a minute—I've just determined that this airplane is not airworthy!" Could I have safely made a series of no-flap landings at Reid Hillview? Yes. Would it have been legal? Probably not. Would it have been smart? No. Canceling my session in the pattern and returning to land on San Jose's 11,000-foot runway was the right answer.

So what turned out to be the problem? A ground wire had broken, probably due to fatigue, breaking the circuit and disabling the flap motor. After a quick and simple fix, the airplane was back on the flight line.

But the experience provided a valuable lesson. I'd practiced no-flap landings many times in the past, but this was the first time I'd experienced an actual, unexpected failure. I was embarrassed that I completely failed to diagnose the problem, but I was also reassured that I adapted to the situation and flew the airplane to a safe landing.

A specific lesson learned is that if I should ever see unexpected instrument indications, the first thing to check is my configuration. It might not be a big deal in an airplane like the Cessna, but in our club's A36 Bonanza, this could prevent a gear-up landing!

But the more general lesson was this: if something doesn't look right, it probably isn't!

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