My Gear-up Landing
Ever had a gear-up landing? I’ll tell you about mine in a moment, but first, when I was assembling today’s video it occurred to me that retractable landing gear systems are quite the test of human factors engineering. And the modern trend toward high-performance aircraft with fixed gear—Cirrus mainly—is basically genius at work.
I swept five years worth of gear-up landing accidents and I’m continuing the research to build a little more data. I know for a fact that not all of them are reported to the NTSB and some don’t even make it as insurance claims. My educated guess is there are 20 to 40 gear-ups of various sorts every year, a surprising number of them in air transport aircraft. The takeaway is that if you give homo the sap a way to insert himself into what’s supposed to be a faultless mechanical system, he’ll find a way to bollix it up, either through unintentional ineptitude or willful negligence.
The latter relates to owners who just refuse to maintain gear systems even minimally and their insurers pay the price in the $60,000 slide. Given the declining value of airframes, the gear-up damage that used to be routine to fix is now more likely than ever to produce a write off. I think there may be more of this going on than, say, a decade ago, but the data is just too murky to prove it.
As noted in the video, a little more than half of gear-up landings are the result of pilots just forgetting to grab the little handle for various reasons, but mostly because they got distracted by something that interrupted their normal routine. And the next sound they heard was tick-tick-tick, scrape, bang and oh, s&^t. Surprise, we know thy name and the four-inch step off a wing to a runway is it. Some 15 percent of gear-ups are actually collapses, so if you want to exclude them, the pilot-induced percentage is higher.
Designers and engineers have devised various schemes to defeat gear-up disasters with moderate success. I’m a little surprised that given the advances in avionics and with autonomy looming on the horizon, no one has come up with a better automatic gear system than Piper’s airspeed/throttle-based backstop. It’s somewhat cumbersome and caused so much trouble and confusion when it first appeared that for awhile, Piper was selling kits to disable it.
But I think the data show that it’s modestly effective. I found only one Arrow in about 80 gear-up examples. And while the Arrow population isn’t as high as the Cessna 210, it’s underrepresented in gear-up incidents. The 210, on the other hand, is the reigning champion of gear-ups. Almost one in five involve the 210 and it’s higher yet if you include the 172 and 182, which have similar gear systems. Perhaps horns and warning lights aren’t necessarily as effective as the machine itself just slapping the gear down for the pilot. Put it back up if you don’t like it.
My vote for the best design in retractable gear is the Beech system. Beechcraft built more than 17,000 Bonanzas of various ilks, but these represent only 5 percent of gear-up landings, according to my research. My theory is that the Beech gear system—basically an electric motor through a transmission—is both more reliable and more tolerant of poor maintenance. If Bonanza pilots forget to lower the gear less often—and this appears to be true in this limited dataset—I have no explanation for that. Perhaps a broader review will reveal trends I missed. One YouTube commenter suggested it's because with the gear up, a Bonanza just won't slow down and the pilot will notice. Maybe. But the 210 is pretty slick with the wheels tucked, too.
Now, my own gear-up landing. It’s actually a vicarious gear-up because while many pilots who have landed with the wheels folded swore they put them down, I swore I didn’t. Or I couldn’t remember doing it. I was flying a night approach in a C-model Mooney through light, dry snow. I’d been in it for two hours and I knew the airframe was picking up a little P-static; I could see the green glow of it dancing around the windshield. But I had never—and haven’t since—seen how bad this could get.
Just outside the outer marker, the Mooney’s cockpit pedestal started to glow a greenish blue. I was sure it was a fire inside the heater duct. The airplane had an external comm antenna with a BNC jack on the pedestal, right next to the pilot’s right knee. The glow was coming from a fat spark leaping from the BNC to my pants and down to the rudder pedal. I couldn’t feel anything, but it rattled me nearly to the point of panic. My knees were still shaking when I turned off the runway. When flying a retract, I’m obsessive about checking the gear down several times on final, but on that flight, I don’t remember doing any of it. To this day, I don’t remember putting the gear down, but I obviously did. I’m not exactly a believer, but it brought to mind The Shepherd. Whatever lesson I may have derived from that, it stuck. If anything, I’m even more obsessive about checking for wheels down, now. Trauma will do that to you. Or for you.