When the pilot of a small plane was on final approach to Ontario International Airport last week he forgot to do one thing -- lower the landing gear.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said Wednesday that the single-engine Cessna 210 probably would have crash-landed on the runway if not for the quick action of a Southwest Airlines pilot and two air traffic controllers who managed to spot the problem in time.
"I'm terribly embarrassed," said William R. Otto, 57, of Big Bear City, the Cessna's pilot and registered owner. "Fortunately for me, aviation people try to help each other out. I'm just so grateful."
FAA officials said the Cessna was coming into Ontario about 9:45 a.m. Sept. 4 when a Southwest pilot who had just pulled his Boeing 737 onto a taxiway noticed that the Cessna's landing gear had not been lowered.
The Southwest pilot radioed the control tower immediately, and Carlos Rodriguez, who had been on the job only seven months, moved quickly to verify the report even though he was handling the ground movements of several aircraft.
After spotting the Cessna, Rodriguez notified another controller, Bruce Bradigan, who warned Otto over the radio about his landing gear.
"I yelled at Bruce," Rodriguez said. "My heart was just pounding. The guy was 20 to 30 feet above the ground."
Otto veered off, lowered the landing gear and circled back for a safe landing. Had the Cessna crashed, FAA officials say, the accident would have closed one of the airport's two runways and disrupted commercial flight operations.
"It was awful close," said Bradigan, a veteran controller who had encountered a problem like that only once before. "If there's a hero in all this, it is the Southwest pilot for noticing the Cessna."
Otto, whose family owns an aviation instrument company in Ontario, said he had been a private pilot for almost 30 years, but didn't use his checklist for the landing.
"I made a mistake," he said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said Ontario's air traffic controllers would prepare a report on the incident, which would be reviewed by the FAA's safety office. He said it did not appear at this time that Otto had violated any federal regulations.