Despite our determination to do better, we pilots are human. Frustratingly, because of that we make mistakes. Fortunately, most of those mistakes damage only our self-image as steely-eyed superior beings although from time to time they result in damage to our airplanes.
We’ve been trained to keep an aircraft right side up and on the runway’s straight and narrow and we do a pretty good job. However, we haven’t been trained in what to do in the aftermath of a misstep— the time that while we stayed on the runway’s straight and narrow confines, we did so after forgetting to extend the landing gear.
If the time comes that you damage an airplane and/or you realize that you’ve inadvertently violated one of the FARs, start by realizing that all is not lost. It really isn’t. Take a deep breath, stop everything for a moment and begin acting rather than reacting. We’ll talk about what to do so that you don’t make matters worse.
Trauma And Stress
You’ve just had a traumatic event. Even if there was no visible damage to anything, your reptile brain is working full time and you are not going to be entirely rational for the next 24 to 72 hours. We’re not kidding. We’ve been there.
Yes, you are a great pilot. You wouldn’t be flying if you didn’t think so. But when something happens that smacks you in the face with the fact that you are not infallible, your ability to talk objectively about what just happened goes down the tubes. Trust us, you can’t self-evaluate—right after the event if someone asks you for directions to the airport, you’ll say “Wichita” and won’t have a clue that you’ve not responded even close to appropriately.
Nevertheless, there are some things that you’re going to have to do right away, and some of those involve telling people that you’ll talk with them later.
First and foremost, if it’s an injury accident, make sure that the injured get medical attention. You’re the PIC: Take charge and get the medics on the way.
After that, do everything you can to stop any sort of steamroller from flattening you. If the airplane is blocking the sole runway and has shut down the airport, don’t agree to having it bulldozed out of the way. If people are trying to hurry you, that’s a huge red flag. Slow down.
Before you or anyone who shows up out of the woodwork rushes to call the NTSB to comply with NTSB Part 830.5’s immediate accident notification, stop. There is a good chance that the event does not meet Part 830.5’s requirement for immediate notification. If it doesn’t, you are not doing yourself any favors because notification of the NTSB will result in it notifying the FAA and the FAA scrutinizing the event and you.
If you are the only person around that can notify the NTSB and/or law enforcement in a non-injury crash, slow down and make sure that you are required to do so. We suggest that you put the issue aside for an hour or so; you have more important things to do.
Secure Your Airplane
Your next step is to take action to secure the airplane against further damage. Don’t let anyone push you into moving it if there’s any risk that the move will make matters worse. We are reminded of a Cessna Citation I that had a failure in the flap system causing them to suddenly retract—leading to a hard landing.
The airplane wasn’t badly damaged until the airport manager directed that a forklift be used to move the jet. The operator jammed the forks through the pressure vessel in the fuselage, turning a perfectly good airplane into salvage.
In general, you’ll want to get the airplane into a hangar or similar structure where it is out of the rain and can be locked up against the interests of those who wish to acquire avionics at a deep discount.
Next, get on the phone to your insurance broker—or, if Avemco is your insurer, you don’t have a broker so call the company itself—and report the event. You are not making a claim under your policy at this time, but your policy does require you to notify your insurer of an event within a limited period of time if you do make a claim. You’ll have time later to decide whether you want to make an insurance claim.
Your next call is to your aviation attorney. If you do not have one, contact AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services (www.aopa.org) to get the names of aviation attorneys in your area. If you’re already a plan member some of the cost of your consultation with a plan attorney is already paid. We think it’s an excellent deal and worth the small annual membership fee. If you’re reading this and haven’t yet made a mistake in an airplane this month, we suggest you join the plan now.
Listen to what the attorney tells you. We’ll tell you right now that much of the initial advice is to keep your mouth shut. We know that is hard, as pilots tend to be honest and think that they can “fix” something by applying their huge intellect and talking with someone about it. At this point believe us when we say that there is virtually no chance that you can make things better, and it’s very likely that you can make things worse by running your mouth. So, in general, shut up.
The police will wish to speak with you. Keep it as brief as possible—mostly just say that you’ll speak with them after you’ve had a chance to make sure that you are not injured and have spoken with a lawyer. Keep it polite and keep it short. Anything you say can be twisted and used against you. You can’t talk yourself into a legal jam if you don’t talk.
All of this means that for at least 24 hours after an incident or accident, do not talk more than briefly to an official who is investigating the accident. You are not required to do so right away. Politely get the inspector’s telephone number and arrange to call in the next day or so. Do not call until you have spoken to your attorney.
In a word, don’t. No matter if you slid that gear-up landing to the most beautiful stop in history, don’t talk to the press because you cannot control the story in any fashion. You can easily be made to look like a serial killer barely thwarted in your plan to take out an elementary school with a lethal weapon—your airplane full of fuel. Plus, on the video, your hair will be messed up from your headset and, if you are over 30 and wearing a jumpsuit with patches on it, you’ll look like a clueless dolt.
Don’t return media phone calls or emails. Let it go away—they’ll lose interest soon as they have other stories to cover. Believe us, you cannot save general aviation or inspire others to learn to fly by agreeing to a post-accident media interview. The risk is that you’ll say something that will give the FAA something to latch on to and investigate a low pass gone bad rather than simply concluding that the event was an inadvertent gear-up landing.
FAA And NTSB
When speaking with either, keep it short and concise and do so only after you’ve spoken to a lawyer. Seemingly innocuous statements have a way of turning into violation actions.
If you are asked to provide a written statement, keep it as brief as possible, then go over it with your lawyer. The bottom line is to make sure that it is 100 percent accurate. Lying to a federal investigator is a felony.
If you know that you made a mistake and busted a reg—and it was honestly a mistake—it may be best that you do talk with the FAA and admit that you made a mistake. We suggest that before doing so that you take dual with a CFI and go over the area of the regs that you inadvertently violated. You want to make sure that you don’t do it again. Plus, that shows your determination to comply with the regs when you speak with the FAA.
Under the terms of the FAA’s Compliance Philosophy, its inspectors seek to counsel pilots regarding inadvertent violations rather than hammer them. The policy has been in force for over five years and, in our observation, it’s a huge success. Speak with your attorney first, but the odds are that the FAA will, at most, spend time talking with you about how the situation might have been avoided and have you take some additional dual with a CFI before it closes the file.
We are in a “hard” (expensive) insurance market, but we have seen no evidence that aviation insurers are actively looking to find reasons to deny coverage following accidents.
The law on denying coverage in aircraft accidents has been settled for some years. Simplified, if you violate a Federal Aviation Regulation in the midst of having an accident, that violation is almost never grounds for denying insurance coverage. The violation has to be directly related to the cause of the accident and even then it is difficult to deny coverage.
If you have lied about your experience, ratings and/or medical condition on your insurance application, such misstatements are legitimate grounds for an insurer to deny a claim. Never lie or exaggerate on an insurance application.
Bottom line: If you have an accident, your insurer will almost certainly pay under the terms of the policy if you make a claim. Your insurer will also be a resource that can help you in the process of getting the airplane repaired.
As the market hardened in the last several years, we began learning of pilots who could not get their aircraft insurance renewed, or had to pay a great deal to do so. The most common causes were age or an accident history.
We spoke with Kim Skipper of Avemco (www.avemco.com) who told us that when an insured has made a claim the company is going to look at the cause of the accident when it’s time to renew the policy. Frankly, there is some risk that the insurer will not renew the pilot’s policy if the pilot showed bad judgment or poor skills.
That is consistent with what we heard from another broker who did not want his name used. In this market insurers are trying to reduce risks as the cost of repairing airplanes continues to spiral upward, and some underwriters believe that a pilot who had an accident due to questionable skill or judgment is likely to have another.
We did learn from Ms. Skipper that if you do have a claim and your insurer does agree to renew you, stick with that insurer for at least the next few years. Insurers value loyalty. Besides, with an accident history there is an elevated likelihood that it will be hard to find another insurer to cover you.
Skipper told us that Avemco looks back three years for a history of accidents, incidents and claims. We were told by the anonymous broker that other companies look back five years.
During our conversation with Mike Pratt, a broker with Foundation Risk Partners (www.foundationrp.com), he expressed his ongoing frustration with what he called stupid claims, primarily by pilots who had not taken any sort of rigorous recurrent training for well over a year and showed that they couldn’t handle even a moderate crosswind in a tailwheel airplane or decided to go so far below minimums on an instrument approach that they hit something.
It looks to us that the insurance companies are now less willing to insure those who have demonstrated a willingness to perform stupid pilot tricks.
First and foremost—take frequent recurrent training, especially in crosswind landings as that’s where you are at the highest risk for bending an airplane. We recommend every six months. Once you pass 12 months since your last Flight Review, your accident and/or FAR violation risk starts shooting up.
Join the FAA WINGS program and stay current—experience shows that your risk of an accident or reg violation will drop dramatically.
Enroll in AOPA’s Pilot Protection Program.
More rigorously self-evaluate before and during flight. If you’re a little tired or “just not quite 100 percent” either don’t make the flight or be even more cautious in making full use of checklists, flying a little higher and making more conservative decisions on fuel needed and weather.
Resolve to avoid “hold my beer and watch this” situations. A low pass down a runway is almost always a regulations violation because you aren’t 500 feet from the hangars, parked airplanes and people—and everyone has a cellphone camera.
Finally, don’t do anything dumb.
Is The NTSB Investigating Non-Accidents?
A pilot involved in an aircraft accident must immediately notify the NTSB. By statute, the NTSB is required to investigate all aircraft accidents. No big deal, we learned that in private pilot ground school. However, there is a question that has to be answered: Is the event really an accident? If it’s not, there’s no obligation to report it to the NTSB—and the NTSB doesn’t want to hear about it, it has enough on its plate.
If it’s not an accident and someone reports it to the NTSB anyway, the FAA is going to hear about it and will be questioning the pilot, potentially leading to problems for the pilot if the FAA then finds something—totally unrelated to the accident—wrong with the pilot’s medical, recency of experience or compliance with maintenance requirements for the airplane.
Naturally, if an event isn’t an accident, there’s no reason for the pilot to report it and there’s no reason for the NTSB to investigate it.
That leads us to inadvertent gear-up landings, which the NTSB investigates, and accidents involving engine power loss, which the NTSB investigates but does not find a cause of about a quarter of the time.
Bottom line, we have not found an accident involving an inadvertent gear-up landing of a civilian airplane since World War II in which anyone was hurt—but people have been killed in engine power loss accidents. In our opinion, the resources spent investigating inadvertent gear-up landings should be focused on the causes of inflight power losses/engine stoppages.
Here’s the detailed background: Part 830.2 of the NTSB Regulations (49 CFR Part 830) defines an aircraft accident, and sets a surprisingly high level of damage or injury before an event is an accident.
To be an “accident” under Part 830, there must be substantial damage to the aircraft and/or death or serious injury to a person. When you go to the definition of “substantial damage,” things get interesting because it is more substantial than people realize. Plus, there are exceptions carved out of the definition that, in our opinion, make it clear that an inadvertent gear-up landing does not meet the definition of “accident” because it does not involve “substantial damage.”
To be “substantial damage,” there has to be damage that affects the structural strength or flight characteristics of the aircraft. It goes on to define precisely what damage occurs in a garden variety gear-up landing— bent fairings or cowling(s), dented skin, small holes in skin, ground damage to props and damage to the landing gear—and specifically states that it is not “substantial damage.”
We’ve looked at the aftermath of inadvertent gear-up landings for 50 years and have noted that almost invariably the damage is limited to scraping of fuselage skins, sometimes a bent flap and pretzeled propeller. The engine has to be torn down, but that’s true for any prop stoppage. We’ve seen geared-up airplanes jacked up, the gear extended, a replacement engine and prop hung and the airplane ferried for repairs.
After all, retractable gear airplanes are designed for gear-up landings.
We have looked at general aviation accident reports for the last 50 years trying to find one in which anyone was hurt in an inadvertent gear-up landing. We have yet to find one.
We recently had a very good conversation with Peter Knudson, a spokesperson for the NTSB. We were immediately impressed with the breadth of his knowledge of the NTSB and general aviation accident investigation. We were concerned that the NTSB had to investigate every event reported to it. He told us clearly that such is not the case—there has to be substantial damage—and the NTSB does not investigate a high percentage of the events reported to it because they don’t meet the accident definition.
We spent time talking about inadvertent gear-up landings and our assertion that they, by regulation, do not meet the definition of “accident.” Mr. Knudson asserted that there was substantial damage in the inadvertent gear-up landings the NTSB investigated.
We also discussed our experience reading 100 accident reports every month for the Used Aircraft Guide and our concern that about a quarter of the engine power loss/stoppage accidents result in an unknown cause. As those accidents are often fatal, and we fly behind those same engines, a lot of unknown causes doesn’t give us any warm fuzzies.
Mr. Knudson has been kind enough to go to the database number crunchers and look at the unexplained power loss issue. We’re looking forward to further discussions.
For now, it’s our opinion that the NTSB could better utilize its resources by digging deeper into engine power loss events and following its own definition of “substantial damage” and not investigating inadvertent gear-up landings.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.
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This is all great advice but many times the situation is totally out of one’s control. I have never had the unpleasant experience of an accident but I have seen fellow pilots deal with them. The first thing that happens is someone calls 911 before even verifying whether there are any injuries. Airport managers also tend to call the FAA and the NTSB without regard to the legal reporting requirements. The police also think both agencies need to know about it too. Advice about how to handle these types of situations would be of great help.
Very true Stephen S. I had a forced landing in my advanced ultralight (Canadian version of the American Sport Plane category) with a passenger on board. 8 miles from a controlled airport (CYHM) and was in radio contact with them the whole way down. I was even able to relay that we had made the field before I lost radio contact. The field was a winter wheat field, several hundred acres and was basically the smoothest and by far the largest runway I’ve ever operated on. Apparently that farm does sod some years… anyway, it was a beautiful landing. 🙂 What followed was a complete poop show. Transport Canada has a base at CYHM, and launched one of their King Air C-90’s to come and “help”. I didn’t know this, so I’m at the nearby house chatting with the owner and phoning the tower to tell them I’m ok, when I see the King Air (C-90) circling overhead. I told the tower everything is good, then walked down to the plane and grabbed the radio to speak with the King Air. I told them everything was good. Somehow they had heard there were serious injuries… I still can’t figure out when/how/who told them that. As I’m explaining that we are fine and the plane is fine, I hear the sirens… 3 fire trucks, 2 ambulances, 3 police cars, several reporters in their marked news cars and the local news helicopter all show up in a big way. Somehow they were all informed there was a plane crash and at least one person was dead. Yeah…. so once that was cleared up, I was never able to find out where they got their misinformation from, but they all left after 3 hours or so. I did not speak to the media, as it was obviously a slow news day and it was not going to be a positive story. And on the evening news that day, it was not, but it blew over fast since they had nothing but a little white plane in a field and no deaths (which is all they wanted). So, yes, controlling the scene is not always possible. 😀
I believe you forgot to mention a very important tool to immunize yourself, the ASRS report. The legal beagle will undoubtedly remind you to do it; go to https://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/ and describe what happened.