The Artistry of the Gear-Up Landing

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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.

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Comments (15)

Then there was the gear up landing during a commercial ASEL examination. Bad flow, nothing wrong with the aircraft. DPE lost ticket.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 19, 2014 7:47 AM    Report this comment

With just a little over 7 years in the seaplane world writing articles about seaplane egress and accidental gear down accidents, I am one of those sick people who absolutely LOVE gear up landings. Gosh, I love them! Heck, I hope every seaplane pilot landing on water always and ever experience nothing BUT gear up landings. Best is to never have to experience the loss of someone you like or love due to having a piece of rubber hanging out at the wrong moment. Rubber blows (I don't think I should type sucks, here) and it can mess up your day, night and the rest of your life (which might be short in case you try). Rule # 1: If the water is near, raise the damn gear! Please! (This message should be disregarded by seaplane pilots intending to land without amphibious seaplanes or operate such equipment on hard surfaces, Thank you!) As for accidental gear ups in landplanes, yeah, they have some sad entertainment value, but oh heck and harry help you when you're the one forgetting the rubber. Laughs on you, Paul. Task saturation is serious business and it costs a lot of mula, so lets not let it happen...

Posted by: Jason Baker | October 19, 2014 1:10 PM    Report this comment

It looks like he saved the prop or am I just seeing the video wrong?

Posted by: ARTHUR THOMPSON | October 20, 2014 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Saw a gear-up landing in a hangar once (actually it happened 2 mins before I taxied up).
A Piper Arrow was having landing gear maintenance done while sitting up on jacks in the hangar. Something shifted and when I got there the jacks were poking through the wings and airplane was sitting on floor. Nobody hurt except the wallet. I think he would have rather bellied it in...

Posted by: A Richie | October 20, 2014 11:55 AM    Report this comment

Did you notice (in the 1985 video) the celebratory drumming on the Saab's (?) roof by the guy that pulled down the gear? He'll have none of this retreating to the safety of the car. That's back when men were men folks :-)

Posted by: A Richie | October 20, 2014 12:13 PM    Report this comment

That was the late Jim Moser in St. Augustine FL beating on that Audi's roof. No doubt a macho move, but I think I would've let the plane land gear up and let the insurance company handle it.

Posted by: PETER BEDELL | October 20, 2014 12:39 PM    Report this comment

I fly a fairly pristine old Bonanza (1954 E35) and have a few friends who do as well. The problem with these older airplanes is that a gear-up landing will often cause the insurance company to "total" the airplane (whether or not you tried to "save" the prop and engine). This means you aren't able to restore your old beauty to its original condition - the insurance company hull insurance limitation doesn't cover the complete repair. So the message is, have a very robust "gear check" routine for short final, and/or bump up your hull insurance limit to cover gear-up landing repair. I guess it's also possible to purchase your totaled plane from the insurance company and pay the extra $$ to fix it. For us Bonanza owners, it's also a no-brainer to ensure the your A&P follows the specific guidelines for landing inspection during annuals!

Posted by: BRUCE POULTON | October 20, 2014 1:52 PM    Report this comment

I was in a club in the 80's that had a very nice Cessna Cutlass that I flew often. We decided to really
fancy it up with a new paint job. The maintenance officer brought it home from the paint shop and it looked great.A couple of the guys took it on it;s first trip, went from cenral Florida to Georgia and
landed gear-up. Talk about angst! Naturally it neede a new prop, engine tearddown, etc. which Avemco
covered with no problem. The belly needed repainting after rubbing that pretty paint all over the runway. We gave the maintenance officer all kinds of grief for not finding paint that could handle more than one gear-up landing.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | October 20, 2014 7:57 PM    Report this comment

Every time I read about someone trying to salvage a potential gear-up landing, I am reminded of the 1991 death of Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz. The Piper Aerostar he was flying in had a gear problem and a helicopter was sent to look at the gear. The two aircraft had a midair and 7 people died, including all on both aircraft and two children in the elementary school where they crashed.

Posted by: Jeff Callen | October 21, 2014 10:33 AM    Report this comment

A bunch of years ago I was at Oshkosh. I was sitting with a bunch of friends in the North 40, watching the planes land on runway 9. I was facing west, so I saw each plane approaching. All of a sudden I saw a Cessna 310 approaching with its gear up. I jumped up, but I couldn't get any words out -- I was just pointing at the plane, saying "Ah! Ah! Ah!," finally blurting out, "Gear up!" Just then, the pilot lowers the gear...perhaps 10' off the ground. We all thought that was a stupid idea -- he should've gone around, rather than risking not having the gear fully locked on landing.

Posted by: SHELLEY ROSENBAUM LIPMAN | October 21, 2014 12:52 PM    Report this comment

I always wondered what would happen if a DC-3 landed gear up. If you look at one in flight, the tires actually protrude enough that you should be able to roll it on while gear-up without scraping the belly. The props (and therefore engines) would get dinged, but maybe no airframe damage. Anybody know the answer to this long-pondered thought?

Posted by: A Richie | October 21, 2014 1:54 PM    Report this comment

I watched a Beech 18 do an unintentional gear up landing. I saw the results of damage done to the airplane when it was moved to a hangar. Beech 18 landing gear tires also partially protrudes below the engine nacelles. It was designed that way to minimize airframe damage on a gear up landing. The Beech Twin Bonanza has the same feature on it's landing gear, so does the Queen-Air, and the King-Air with the single tire main gear. That Beech 18 I witnessed spent the winter getting new props installed, replaced belly antennas, and repaired lower cowlings, and flew again the following spring. I would imagine the same thought went into the design of the landing gear for the DC3 also.

Posted by: matthew wagner | October 21, 2014 7:27 PM    Report this comment

We had a V35 on our club, flying out of Lansaria SA going to Rustenburg. After takeoff the right tank was a bit low so a change to the left tank was executed. Half an hour later the engine stopped, changing tanks and trying to restart was fruitile as the fuel switch was faulty, so it was decided to land in a recently plowed corn field gear up (didn't want the wheels to dig in the ground). The farmer came to see what had happened and when he arrived saw that the passenger was a famous SA rugby player and was so chuffed that he took the pilot and passengers to his farm for a braai (bbq). The aircraft suffered little damage and was quickly repaired and returned to service

Posted by: Bruce Savage | November 9, 2014 12:22 PM    Report this comment

Ah, yes, I do vividly remember how a pilot/editor at The Aviation Consumer screwed up one night -- landing the magazine's M20J gear-up while doing touch-and-goes at Bridgeport's Sikorsky Airport (BDR). What's not widely known about that incident, however, is that a few weeks earlier that same pilot/editor had also been doing solo late-night touch-and-goes at BDR - an impromptu practice session while on a Nantucket-to-Westchester night flight; and seconds after turning final, on his fifth touch-and-go, he was shocked to notice he hadn't gotten the gear down. Yikes! He belatedly extended the gear, his heart pounding. He was well aware he'd come close to disaster -- though he was unsure how it had happened. Accordingly, he consulted with one of Belvoir's fellow editors - a blustering CFI who assured him it was just a fluke...that it happens...and not to worry about it. Moral of story: Don't fly with or seek advice from flight instructors who, in the pit of your stomach, you have doubts about -- especially in an atmosphere of poisonous office politics.

Also, it's a bit disingenuous to say that Belvoir's M20J (3880H) was sold as a "direct result" of that gear-up. There were other reasons as well -- though I won't go into the details here, except to say that the narrative presented here is the one the author prefers for murky personal reasons.

Finally...an interesting tidbit regarding what became of The Aviation Consumer's Mooney after it was sold. One day, shortly after a daylight take-off, the Mooney's new owner suffered a catastrophic engine failure. The plane was totaled. Fortunately, the pilot had the good sense to do a straight-ahead dead-stick landing in a swamp, rather than trying a 180-degree-turn back to the runway, a maneuver that enthralls the author. Neither he nor his two teenage passengers were injured.

The demise of 3880H was interesting given that during a routine engine tear-down after the gear-up when Aviation Consumer owned it, the engine was found to be on the verge of a major failure. In one sense, then, that gear-up landing was serendipitous -- a point made in a "Never Again" column for AOPA Pilot, whose editors scrubbed the role a CFI played in that incident.

Posted by: David Paulin | January 8, 2015 1:18 AM    Report this comment

Ah, yes, I do vividly remember how a pilot/editor at The Aviation Consumer screwed up one night -- landing the magazine's M20J gear-up while doing touch-and-goes at Bridgeport's Sikorsky Airport (BDR). What's not widely known about that incident, however, is that a few weeks earlier that same pilot/editor had also been doing solo late-night touch-and-goes at BDR - an impromptu practice session while on a Nantucket-to-Westchester night flight; and seconds after turning final, on his fifth touch-and-go, he was shocked to notice he hadn't gotten the gear down. Yikes! He belatedly extended the gear, his heart pounding. He was well aware he'd come close to disaster -- though he was unsure how it had happened. Accordingly, he consulted with one of Belvoir's fellow editors - a blustering CFI who assured him it was just a fluke...that it happens...and not to worry about it. Moral of story: Don't fly with or seek advice from flight instructors who, in the pit of your stomach, you have doubts about -- especially in an atmosphere of poisonous office politics.

Also, it's a bit disingenuous to say that Belvoir's M20J (3880H) was sold as a "direct result" of that gear-up. There were other reasons as well -- though I won't go into the details here, except to say that the narrative presented here is the one the author prefers for murky personal reasons.

Finally...an interesting tidbit regarding what became of The Aviation Consumer's Mooney after it was sold. One day, shortly after a daylight take-off, the Mooney's new owner suffered a catastrophic engine failure. The plane was totaled. Fortunately, the pilot had the good sense to do a straight-ahead dead-stick landing in a swamp, rather than trying a 180-degree-turn back to the runway, a maneuver that enthralls the author. Neither he nor his two teenage passengers were injured.

The demise of 3880H was interesting given that during a routine engine tear-down after the gear-up when Aviation Consumer owned it, the engine was found to be on the verge of a major failure. In one sense, then, that gear-up landing was serendipitous -- a point made in a "Never Again" column for AOPA Pilot, whose editors scrubbed the role a CFI played in that incident.

Posted by: David Paulin | January 8, 2015 1:19 AM    Report this comment

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