My Gear-up Landing

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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.   

Comments (13)

Most light airplanes would benefit a lot more from a good drag cleanup--properly-fitted wheel pants and gear leg fairings, an efficient cowling design, tight-sealing baffles, low-drag or flush antennas and lights, fairings and covers for all the little protuberances--than they will from trying to suck the gear up. Retracts may get you a couple more knots and look cooler, but they cost a whole lot more to design, build, and maintain, and they carry a significant weight penalty.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | July 10, 2017 4:43 AM    Report this comment

Great article and video Paul. One can never be reminded enough about "gear down." Love "The Shepherd" short story.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | July 10, 2017 5:48 AM    Report this comment

And, I learned about flying from that! Good story Paul. I can relate to the pucker factor and the gear-down feeling of uncertainty one has just before runway contact.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2017 8:05 AM    Report this comment

I would LOVE to see the results of Cirrus' CFD analyses of fixed gear on their Vision personal jet.
Pilots' ego drives LOTS of aircraft design decisions.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 10, 2017 8:39 AM    Report this comment

Simplify, simplify, simplify....fixed gear is the way to go. Streamline the heck out of it, but the BEST wheels up landing is the one you never have to do.

I've often thought that there needs to be an obvious visual cue that the gear is "down"; but that's hard to do when it's tucked away underneath the belly. For example, look at the safety lever on a Mauser-pattern rifle; when the safety is "on" the lever is flipped up into the aiming line of sight and there is no way anyone would attempt to aim and shoot it with the safety sticking up and blocking the sights. Retractable gear airplanes need a simple mechanism like that; thank goodness I've not done it (yet), but I know a man that belly-landed a Mooney...not once, but twice!

Posted by: A Richie | July 10, 2017 1:16 PM    Report this comment

When I was flying in USAF Aero Clubs, there was a 10 hour minimum requirement before one could solo a retractable gear airplane like the T-34A we had at Edwards AFB. So some guy goes thru all the expense and training to be able to solo the thing and on his very first flight, coming in for a landing the tower says, "Check gear down, clear to land." He responds and you can HEAR the Beech gear horn going off in the background. Then he proceeds to land the thing on the augmenter tubes and flaps.

I made a recommendation to add an F-4 "Wheels" warning light on top of the instrument panel and tie it to the horn's power circuit. Some second lieutenant turned it down saying it added too much workload to the pilot. No kidding !! As I remember it, the Beech system used a switch to activate the loud horn when the throttle was pulled back to about 15" Hg.

These days, whenever someone asks for my recommendation on an airplane, I tell them to steer clear of the retracts ... period. The additional cost of insurance alone is a major detractor. And, you're right ... that gear needs maintenance and lubrication ... which many don't get.

So ... the "commentariat" HAS to know ... did your pants catch on fire in that Mooney ?? :-))

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 11, 2017 5:11 AM    Report this comment

I personally don't see what the big deal is over the avoidance of retracts. Yes, you can get aircraft that fly just as fast with fixed gear, and if you want to go that route, that's fine...if you can afford those planes. But for those of us with a more modest budget, sometimes the only way to get reasonable speed with the payload and range one needs is to go with a retract and accept the higher insurance costs.

Remembering (or forgetting) to lower the gear really isn't that much different in my mind from remembering to retract the 40-degrees of flaps in a Cessna 150 on a go-around. Except that I'd bet there have been fewer injuries and deaths from gear-up landings than forgetting to retract the last notch of flaps during a go-around.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 11, 2017 8:47 AM    Report this comment

I have to second the comment on Bonanzas' built-in "reminder" that the gear is up. Their wimpy flaps (as compared to Cessna) insure you will definitely notice something is very wrong if you are not in full landing configuration toward the end of the approach. Never (yet!) has my final pre-flare check on gear-down caught a failure to extend.

The opposite is not true, however. Several times a take-off distraction has resulted in an eventual realization that the answer to the "why isn't this thing climbing properly?" question is that "gear is still down, dummy!"

Posted by: John Wilson | July 11, 2017 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Pants not charred, but soiled.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 11, 2017 2:43 PM    Report this comment

You forgot the #1 reason for gear up landings.
Amphibious seaplanes.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 11, 2017 4:58 PM    Report this comment

Seems to me like a lot of retracts are sold mainly to fill the complex training role more than to gain any performance. Look at the Cessna 210 mentioned in the video and the other Cessnas. Complicated gear to add a few knots to airframe that's still probably pretty draggy. I'm no an engineer, but I suspect you could make a high wing fixed gear aircraft faster the 182RG I trained by giving it a better cowl to drop cooling drag and making a cantilever wing.

Posted by: Edwin' Ball | July 12, 2017 5:42 PM    Report this comment

My first gear-up landing occured in an old (like me, at the time) underpowered Navion with an E-185
Engine, overloaded for an uphill take-off--- short runway, with 3 passengers. Our Navion Society in the 60's had a weekend fly in at Temple Bar, Arizona, Lake Mead, and we were in leaving in late Sunday afternoon, with temperature around 115 (all the earmarks of a disaster the making). But I was perhaps too old, bold & forgetful at the time, with lots of flying & maintenance hours in the make & model.

It was so damned hot that afternoon I couldn't hold the stick, so held the shaft to pull back the elevator.
When I neared the top end of the top of the runway I hogged it off the ground, flipped the gear up & staggered over the large boulders.

That's when I panicked, as a cloud of what I 'assumed' was smoke came out from under the dash & my whole family in the plane is screaming loudly at me that we are on fire. That (panically) made me a firm believer when the side windows & windscreen clouded over and my was also wipiing the windscreen with a beech towel to see where we are going at the moment. I was not IFR rated.

Fortunately for all of us, something I read long before about fire in an aircraft clicked in, "FLY THE PLANE & get-er down asap". So, I did a kinda-sorta flat skidding safe 90 degree turn till I saw the lake straight ahead & steered for it thinking fire/water/yep. For some unknown, unexplainable, reason I kept the plane in a slow-climb mode gaining a wee bit of altitude, till I got next & high enough to make the runway, so (being too close) performed another crop-duster turn & made it with the gear still up.

The plane sustained very little damage because the nose-gear on this plane stuck out blow the gear doors & the big heavy flap brackets uno away down with the flaps up.

After the plane was on the ground & and skidded smoothly off the runway into the grass, is when it first dawned on me that the plane wasn't in fact on fire. Rather, it was a hydraulic problem. When I flipped the gear-up button the hydraulic feeder line cracked open under the dash like a spray gun, causing a very fine mist down by our feet & then quickly engulfing the entire cabin & windows on sliding canopy.

Yep, I panicked, because there was a hydraulic power shut-off button on the dash that I was well aware of & obviously understood that smoke doesn't stick to the windscreen!

Shortly after that incident it dawned on me that I should do what a lot of my elderly pilot friends had, like hang it up & say "been there & done that, with a lots of good-luck" & fly from the L seat.

Bob Robertson (now 88)

Posted by: Robert robertson | September 1, 2017 12:56 PM    Report this comment

I'm sitting in the "R" seat now, not "L". Had a senior moment there.

Bob Robertson

Posted by: Robert robertson | September 1, 2017 3:43 PM    Report this comment

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