The Artistry of the Gear-Up Landing
Bored as I sometimes am with Aviation Hall of Fame nominees and Lifetime Achievement Awards, to amuse myself, I'm inventing a new category: Best filming of a gear-up landing. I'm calling it the Oh-S&^t Award and hope to announce it every year about this time.
I won't lack for examples because there are (a) a lot of gear-up landings and (b) many news helicopters flying around with nothing better to do than film distressed airplanes with fabulous gyro-stabilized HD cameras capable of stunning imagery. The envelope please: This year's award goes to KNXV-TV in Scottsdale, Arizona, which aired this skillfully shot Comanche gear-up.
Even the talking head newscaster does a nice job of introducing the clip without undue drama or hyperbole and the pilot nails the landing, which is typical of how these things end. The whole thing would have been flawless except right there at the end…one of the pilots on the frequency says the gear-up pilot asked to tower to tell his wife he loved her if it didn't work out. Oh no! Seriously? Holy defeatism! Gear-up landings are way low risk. For a lot of pilots, they're safer than landings with wheels; the rollout is shorter and there's less time to screw something up.
I've researched hundreds of gear-up landings, and never found one with injuries or fatalities that didn't involve some weird circumstances, a stall, an overrun or undershoot or a fire before the landing, even in cases where the landing is hobbled by one wheel extended and the others not. Or, and I'm not making this up, a go around attempt after a gear-down touchdown. That's happened more than once.
If you touchdown on the centerline with sufficient runway remaining, the entire thing will be a non-event. (Even for your insurer, who will likely just write the check. The FAA might not even show.) Some worry about skidding into an edge light, ripping open the tanks and causing an explosion. I've seen the edge light part, but not the tank skewering and explosion part.
Runner up for the Oh-S&^t is this one that appeared on CNN, narrated, I believe, by Miles O'Brien. It occurred seven years ago but whether due to lower camera resolution or just YouTube quality, it appears of lower res. It's still good camera work. But you can see and hear what transpires. The airplane is a King Air 90.
The narrator lauds the pilot for shutting down and perhaps feathering the engines just as airplane crosses the numbers. I don't know if that's SOP for King Airs, but either way, it's a blade that cuts both ways. Stopping the engine and pulling the fuel shutoff may save the prop and engine and it reduces the risk of fire, which is vanishingly low anyway. But it also reconfigures the drag so the airplane will scoot along in ground effect much longer than it would otherwise. That introduces the prospect of completely overshooting the runway and ending up in a ball at the end, snatching a catastrophe from the jaws of a lead-pipe cinch. If you're trying to save the engine or otherwise reduce damage to the airplane, you're just saving your insurer money at the expense of your own hide. Does that make sense? It doesn't to me. But you get points for clever.
Then there's this stunt, which you've probably seen. It's the one where a guy in a car speeding down the runway pulls a stuck gear lose from the belly of a T-tail Arrow. According to the YouTube description, it occurred in St. Augustine, Florida in 1985. There are two ways to look at this one, too. It's either quite resourceful and shows good flying and driving or it's just jackass stupid. I can't decide which.
I think if I were doing it as a challenging stunt for a bunch of bucks, I might try it. (I always wondered if it was done as a set-up stunt for the camera, by the way. I suspect it was.) But as a means of saving the aforementioned insurer a few bucks at the risk of getting my head wacked off by a prop or wrecking a car and an airplane, I guess not. There are lots of gear-up landings in which one wheel comes down and the others don't. Or two lock and one doesn't.
They almost always end the same way: one wingtip touches, the airplane pirouettes (maybe) on the runway and comes to a stop. A little more drama; same outcome. No particular elevated risk to the occupants worthy of risking someone getting squashed by the belly of the airplane or beheaded by a prop. And at this juncture, since I'm tanking your day with video links, I'd be remiss not to include the classic 405 movie. Even if you've seen it, it's worth viewing again. That was done almost 15 years ago with technology considered crude by today's standards. Yet it still shines.
Given the frequency of gear-up landings, I wonder how many of us have direct experience. I've seen three gear-ups, two first hand as a witness and a second indirectly, of my own airplane. (Nope, I wasn't flying.)
One occurred while I was waiting at the hold-short line with a student. I looked up from the radios just in time to see a 210 flash by 50 feet away with the gear tucked in the wells. It was such a shock that my brain couldn't process what my eyes saw and before I could get to the PTT, the airplane touched down. The rollout—slide—was just breathtakingly short. It looked like about 100 feet, but was probably more like 200. It took the stunned occupants of the airplane quite some time to exit, but at least the step down to the runway was short. If you've ever seen the aftermath of a gear-up, it's always a goat rope. It seems to take hours for the recovery crew to decide what to do, more hours figuring out how to do it and a few more to find the equipment.
One of the most common gear-ups happens to Cessna twins, which seem to have gear reliability issues. I saw a 310 gear-up in Maryland which could have been a mess but, thankfully, wasn't. The nosegear wouldn't extend so the pilot informed the tower, which informed the crash crew which promptly foamed the runway, something the pilot said he didn't want. So he landed on the grass adjacent to the runway, figuring it would be less slippery than the foamed runway and would do less damage. This is a bad idea and it was borne out by the results. The grass slide is problematical because the aircraft can dig into the soft surface and instead of causing less damage, it can cause more. Sure enough, the nose gear doors scooped up dirt and got mangled and bent, which probably wouldn't have happened on the hard runway surface, foam or no foam.
Gear-ups result in mostly cosmetic damage, but are expensive nonetheless. That was the case for the third gear-up I witnessed, vicariously. Back in the salad days of the Atlantic City casino business, I had a charter job flying high rollers from northeastern airports to ACY. One nice winter evening we were returning to Hartford when the approach controller mentioned to another aircraft there was an emergency in progress at Bridgeport, with a closed runway. We were just about over the airport at 7000 feet and sure enough, we could see the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. From the tower frequency, we learned that there had been a gear-up landing. Poor sod, I thought. Poor indeed.
The airplane turned out to be our company Mooney, bellyed in by one of our editors doing some night proficiency work. Poof! Another $30,000 insurance claim that directly led to selling the airplane a month later. Sadly, we didn't even get a video out of the deal. A definite oh-s&^t, but no award.