WINDSOR LOCKS — Scott Gentile found himself facing a decision Wednesday he’d never had to make before in the more than 25 years he’s been flying.
Soon after taking off at Robertson Airport in Plainville, the 54-year-old realized the landing gear of his company’s twin-engined aircraft was malfunctioning.
“Basically we had a very strange situation that we were unable to get the left landing gear to extend,” Gentile told Hearst Connecticut Media in a phone interview Thursday.
That left him with the uneasy prospect of bringing the Piper Aerostar back down for a landing on two wheels. Once the aircraft touched down, he knew the left wing would sink to the ground.
That concerned him, because the Aerostar’s wing was filled with fuel that he worried could ignite if it touched the ground.
He and his 20-year-old son, Jake Gentile, had taken the plane up to practice flying by instrument in the clouds.
“‘I clearly don’t want a fireball, especially with my son in the cockpit,” Scott Gentile said.
In flight, he called his aircraft mechanic, who assured him the chances of a fire were extremely low.
Scott Gentile said he suspected the hydraulic system that operates the landing gear could have caused the malfunction. He knew that if the system failed, the wheels would come down, but potentially leaving them with no other option than landing on two wheels.
“So I told my son, ‘we’ve got to get this plane down now,’” he recalled.
With that, he decided to bring the plane in for a landing at Bradley International Airport — on its belly. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “You land the plane, you have some scraping.”
Ryan Tenny, a public information officer for the Connecticut Airport Authority, said the aircraft reported an issue with its landing gear around 1:12 p.m.
As they approached the ground, Jake Gentile, a flight instructor, “feathered” the aircraft’s twin propellers, cutting power from the engines. The two have been flying together since 2012.
“Jake was a complete pro and a huge boon to us getting down safely,” Scott Gentile later wrote in a Facebook post.
The plane came down on runway 24, according to Tenny. As the plane was “skating down the runway,” Scott Gentile said, it felt solid as a rock.
He said the safe landing was a testament to its designer, Ted Smith, who he said also designed aircraft during the Second World War.
“It’s not something you find in the book,” he added.
Emergency personnel were dispatched and were standing by when the aircraft landed on runway 24, Tenny said.
“The aircraft landed at Bradley Airport, gear up, at approximately 1:35 p.m.,” he said.
No one was injured.
Immediately after the aircraft landed, the two were surrounded by first responders.
“I feel both unworthy and grateful for the incredible professionalism from our first responders,” he later wrote in a Facebook post on the Facebook page for his company, A2A Simulations.
The Simsbury-based company models aircraft for flight simulators used in training— Gentile said the company’s clients include members of the military.
The Aerostar he and his son were flying was intended to be modeled in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, released earlier this year.
The aircraft has what Gentile described as a cult following, renowned as the fastest piston twin-engine plane in general aviation.
“Everyone’s dying for this airplane,” in the game, he said, adding that the company still intends to model it— event if it means borrowing one from someone else to fly.
The emergency landing caused a JetBlue flight inbound to Bradley from Florida to divert to Providence before heading back to Bradley, Tenny, the airport spokesman, said.
The emergency landing closed one of the airport’s two runways, but the airport remains open, Tenny said.
Gentile said he hopes to repair the Aerostar, but is unsure if that will be feasible under the aircraft’s insurance. Both engines will need to be torn down because the propellers struck the ground, he said in the Facebook post.
“I hope to never belly land an aircraft again,” he said.
Staff Writer Tara O’Neill contributed reporting