Well It Finally Happened Zachary. I Landed Gear Up*


The shock of it all still hasn’t worn off. About things which can kill me, embarrass me or cost me a lot of money, I am obsessive in making sure they don’t happen. Yet there we were on the runway, with the gear switch in the retracted position.

Oh, the humanity! After this sentence, you can scroll down to the comments and bash me for a nakedly click baitish headline. The gear-up landing was virtual since I was flying the new Cirrus TRAC, which has a landing gear “simulator” to train budding students to remember to slap the wheels down before landing. Still, I had forgotten to go through the motions of doing that, even though I believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t even think of it long enough to cognitively acknowledge to myself that the switch was there but I didn’t need to use it. No foul, but sloppy by my standards.

As detailed in this week’s video, I flew the TRAC with Cirrus’ SR program manager, Ivy Mciver. (She also landed gear up, I hasten to add. I found the switch up when I settled into the right seat.) Cirrus is making a run at the training market with an SR20 configured as the ideal flight trainer. But in a world where airplanes seem an afterthought whose function is just to ferry around tarted up avionics, what is the ideal trainer?

I’ve been asked this before and recently discussed it in a panel presentation—well, a faux debate really—at Redbird’s Migration conference in Denver in October. My off-the-cuff reply was that the best trainer is one of modern design, with modern avionics and a center stick. If you think I had Diamond’s DA40 in mind, you’d be right. In retrospect, that’s risibly simplistic and if I gave it more thought, it would probably be just as simplistic given my tendency toward being a simpleton.

When most of us think about what a trainer airplane should be, we veer toward things like stability, practicality, affordability, a decent climb rate to recover from stalls and maybe cabin size. But to big flight schools like Embry-Riddle or the University of North Dakota, three things top the list of ideal trainers: Economics, economics and economics. That’s a gross exaggeration for editorial effect, but the dollar numbers loom large for big schools. They care about what the airplane costs, what it costs to operate and how reliably it can be dispatched to fly day in and day out, eight hours a day without unpredictable AOG. For smaller schools, affordability may be an even bigger driver.

But what about how the airplane behaves in flight? Stall characteristics? How it lands? Cockpit visibility? Yeah sure, but not if the thing breaks a lot or it has some peculiarity that generates big-dollar recurring costs. Although it happened a decade ago, some schools still smart from troubles they had with Diamond’s Thielert-powered DA42, even though they otherwise liked the airplane.

Smaller schools might not be quite so hard over on dispatch reliability, but they sure can’t afford to have maintenance downs that keep them from flying and renting airplanes. That alone explains why the venerable Skyhawk and Piper PA-28 are such favorites. They may be boring as hell, but they’re predictably boring as hell.

Philosophically and technically, do the flight characteristics of a trainer even matter? On the one hand, if you train a student in a nice-flying, benign design like the aforementioned DA40, have you then preloaded the student not to be able to handle something weird in a like airplane or just a weird airplane? And if you train someone in something harder to fly—like my Cub—can they now fly anything or just airplanes with ambiguous trim and pitch characteristics, a ton of adverse yaw and imaginary brakes? Does that make the girl a better pilot? And someone eventually more capable in the left seat of the shiny new recertified 737 MAX?

At the Denver conference, my friend Dave Hirschman insisted that in his world, he would put the student in a taildragger flying off a turf runway until solo. Well, that’s good, I suppose, if that person will be flying taildraggers off grass runways. But what does it have to do with flying a 180,000-pound jet transport? I’ve asked one of our contributors who flies one those and little airplanes for his take on stick and rudder carry through. So far, he hasn’t come up with anything.

Although I fly ‘em and love ‘em, I’ve never bought the theory that taildraggers pilots are “real” pilots or somehow better. They’re just taildragger pilots. When I get into a modern tailwheel airplane, like a Carbon Cub, say, I screw up the first landings same as anybody else. I sometimes get a by because people know I own a Cub and then I immediately demonstrate I don’t deserve such consideration. And anyway, good tailwheel skills are perishable. If you haven’t confronted an angry crosswind in one in, say, a year, it ain’t like riding a bicycle unless your idea of riding a bicycle is exploring a roadside ditch.

When I canvassed some of the major schools about what they want in a trainer, things like stalls, slow flight characteristics and cruise speed didn’t pop up as bright radar targets. But things you wouldn’t think about did. The University of North Dakota’s Jeremy Roesler told me the school is tilting away from Cessnas and back to Pipers because they limit the Cessnas to 25 knots of wind, but the Cherokissers are good for 30. And that’s not a flying consideration, but taxiing on icy ramps, which they obviously do a lot of. Just as an aside, being confident taxiing in an Arctic vortex is, in my view, every bit as critical a skill as twaddling with an FMS. Maybe more.

Hangarage is a thing, too. Roesler told me the school really likes the Diamond aircraft, but they’re long of wing and students have to put all the airplanes away at night in a large group hangar. Short wings are a plus for that. Purdue’s Brian Dillman told me they tried Cirrus SR20s for a fleet cycle, but found them too heavy to muscle into the T-hangars they store the airplanes in. Complicating it was more complex maintenance on the SR20s, which Cirrus may encounter as a barrier for some schools.

At the moment, the trainer market is hot, but not red hot. One new design is afoot, Piper’s Pilot 100. It’s a low-cost entry, that’s as much as $150,000 cheaper than the competition. Nice idea, says Florida Institute of Technology’s Isaac Silver. But the Pilot 100 has a new, untried engine—Continental’s Prime IO-370—and Silver says low price or not, schools will think twice before they throw over a known entity like Lycoming’s IO-360 for an unproven powerplant. No one likes maintenance surprises, least of all flight schools.

I was at Diamond Aircraft last week flying the DA40 NG diesel, which is selling briskly, despite a near half-million dollar sticker. Diamond has noticed the price of used DA20s has almost doubled so they’re cranking up the line to build new ones. That airplane is a proven design and a good performer with the Continental IO-240. It’s fun, easy to fly and reliable. Evidently, with Skyhawks north of $440K, schools are rediscovering it, otherwise the used prices wouldn’t be climbing.

It has warts, of course, as all airplanes do. But if all you need to do initially is get the student to understand the relationship of the stick to the size of houses, do you need an acre of TFT glory to pull that off?

It a bright shining moment of stop the madness, I’m gonna go with no.

*With apologies to Cheryl.

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    • Actually, both versions are acceptable in modern usage. How do I know this? Because the last time I used bye, the grammar police pounced. The context is “to pass by.” It’s not pass bye. I’m stickin’ with that version.

  1. The future for training aircraft is with electric machines. Just imagine getting rid of that nasty mess of parts trying to break apart and kill you under the cowlings. The reciprocating piston engine is a dinosaur from the steam age. If it weren’t for Frank Whittle we would still have them in Airliners.
    I have run Electric Motors for 87,000 hours (10 years) and then only changed bearings.
    Think about that. Batteries for training and Fuel Cells for long distance flying is the future.

    • “Just imagine getting rid of that nasty mess of parts trying to break apart and kill you under the cowlings”

      That is WHY training aircraft need to remain using fueled engines (because airliners also have a nasty mess of parts trying to break apart and kill you under the cowlings). The real world is still turn and burn for the foreseeable future.

    • “I have run Electric Motors for 87,000 hours (10 years) and then only changed bearings.”

      How fast did your room full of motors climb?

      I’m guessing that your motors were wired into the local power panel. A plane would need a REALLY long extension cord.

  2. Oliver’s world sounds nice. How many years before the folks with the Beaver have a legal airliner?

    Also, I seem to remember Diamond proposed a gear training switch a decade ago. It was pretty controversial at the time. Not sure if they ever installed it.

  3. The old Aeronica/Champion Lancer (Google it) was a fixed gear airplane that had a gear switch. If you didn’t move it up and down at the right times, it had a horn that went off. The props wouldn’t feather so if you pulled power, on one it would barely maintain altitude. It’s been said that there are 2 types of pilots flying retractable gear airplanes. Those that have landed gear up and those that will. (knock on wood….).

  4. About the gear up ldgs – do folks land with sooo much power that the
    gear horn isn’t activated???
    About flight schools – I do believe that electrics will be the future, like one comment says – economy – economy – economy.
    You think we will go another 120+ yrs with piston engines?? Ha

  5. Finding the perfect trainer airplane is like finding the perfect mate: There is no such thing. It all depends on what you consider most important, and you learn to live with the rest. Good article, Paul B. (Or should I say P. Bertorelli?)

  6. There is no one size fits all aircraft trainer.

    Part of the problem is the end game of the flight school. If the flight school is a local school intended to be focused on getting those interested in completing a private pilot’s license, the training requirements would be different than for a school whose students are destined for the heavies. The primary basic fight training knowledge needed to gain the PPL is the same, but going from the PPL to commercial, to instrument, to multi-engine, to ATP ratings require a different combination of skills, therefore a combination of airplanes.

    When tasked with flight training for mission aviators, we found a very good combination…including meeting the three most critical components, economics, economics, and economics. Primary to solo was the venerable 0-200 Cessna 150. After solo, the airplane we used to complete the commercial and instrument requirements was a Grumman Tiger (with the obligatory short time use of a borrowed Arrow for the commercial check ride meeting complex requirements at that time). We accomplished this with average density altitudes of 3-7,000ft, lots of wind, and T-storm activity 8 months out of the year. There were times we could fly the Tiger but not the 150 because of taxi issues of the lighter, high wing 150. But navigating the Tiger in a 25-30 knot cross-wind to get to the active runway required some skill, too. The end game for the missionary aviator was 500 hrs PIC, Instrument and Commercial ratings, along with an A&P license. To accomplish the last requirement, the students worked on the modification of the Cessna 182’s which included an 0-520, 3.5 ft wing extensions, HD nose fork, leading edge cuff, seaplane V-brace, baggage extension, 100 gallons of fuel, seating for 6,and an interesting mix of avionics. These modified 182’s were the airplane the student turned mission aviators would eventually fly. They were/are the backbone of our mission fleet.

    To subsidize this activity, we trained local students who were just interested in getting a PPL. We used the same basic training regime with the C150 and Tiger. In the 8 years we did both, we had no failed check-rides, and 100% completion rates of those seeking PPL for recreation/business flying or those who went into the mission aviation field …with advanced ratings.

    What we learned in flight training:
    The 150 taught the basics of flying, flying on the wing, in hot, bumpy conditions, in an environment of what an airplane feels like to be at gross weight all the time. The Tiger taught airspeed control, stabilized approaches, responsive controls, and with the free swiveling nose gear, what the pedals on the floor are for. Every student was exposed to grass runways, smooth asphalt, wide and skinny runways, and non-towered and towered fields including an international airport. These airplanes, gave the combined skills needed to make transitioning to a 3200lb gross weight Skylane very easy and smooth for the mission aviator. For the the others, many of our students became high-performance aircraft owners with similar transition ease.

    What we learned about maintenance and flight school business requirements:
    Both airplanes were very reliable. The fiberglass gear of the Tiger was every bit as durable as the 150’s spring gear. The bonded construction was every bit as durable as all metal construction. One issue that became prevalent is how much wear one contributes to the airplane when even the most simple airplane is going through repeated 100 inspections. Properly opening and closing an airplane for an annual/100 hr inspection contributes to a lot of additional maintenance on interior components, inspection panels, cowlings, and engine/exhaust components/plumbing. In some cases we were doing 100 hr inspections 3-5 times a year on both airplanes.

    Pushing around the Tiger and 150 was easy and damage free. The wingspan and weight make a difference on productivity. Trying to man-handle a 182 with a now 39′ 8″ wingspan, an additional foot taller because of the big wheels/tires, and higher empty weight, plus larger fuel capacity often required a minimum of two people, and preferably a tug or mechanical assistance of some sort. Plus, the longer than standard wing contributed to storage issues and hangar rash.

    The total initial investment in the two airplanes, both IFR equipped, was $80K during our start up in 2004. We survived the 2008-2009 economic crisis to continue through 2012 profitably when our contract with the mission operation ended. No one got rich but we paid our bills.

    Unless the Cirrus is put on a diet, I believe it is too heavy for average small flight schools. That 600lbs extra weight makes a big difference when moving, parking, and storing. Try hanging on to a Cirrus tow bar when pushing backwards, even with assistance. Access to items needed to be checked or replace during annual inspections is not particularly easy which contributes to increase wear on the entire airplane just to do the required maintenance/inspection. CAPS maintenance is expensive. Plus, with all the avionics, CAPS and unique electrical demands, combined with the composite construction requires a top notch avionics tech and A&P with working knowledge of composites/CAPS. Plus, depending on the state, special licensing requirements to handle the CAPS explosive cartridges. Even simple paint touch ups are not really simple on a composite airplane. This includes the Diamond.

    Wingspan makes a big difference on moving and storage. This is an issue to be considered with Diamond aircraft. Today, we have Rotax engines, FADEC, different ignition systems, diesels, even unique ground equipment all requiring specialized maintenance training. All of this has to be accounted for in addition to purchase costs.

    I believe most flight training discussions are intended for the expansion of the professional pilot population. The smaller schools will do what we did buying used airplanes that we could reasonably, affordably ( that is a contradiction of terms in aviation) purchase. So, the Cirrus or Diamond, with the proper maintenance support needed, paid for by the higher hourly costs and subsidized by the airlines has a place in the training fleet. Not for the smaller schools.

    Adding a speed brake to the belly when the “gear” is down to slow the airplane down and add some shake could duplicate the similar feeling with a real retractable. With out that similar feel, many more will land “gear up” as Paul did, with no consequences. Had a speed brake on the belly been added with the attending shake, speed, and pitch changes, I doubt if Paul would have “forgotten”. Just a handle with lights and an option to simulate a gear issue is no substitute. Practice trying to hand fly a Bonanza, C210, Arrow, Comanche, light twin, etc when having to hand crank the gear down, deal with the extended pitch changes that the pilot is subjected to in this long process, manage the prop/engine/flaps, and not stall the airplane or over-speed the gear/flap placards. Add to the mix, maybe you are in the clag.

    There is something to be said for simplicity and standard construction techniques that are more available within the maintenance community. It does seem the training requirements for flying professionally is geared toward programming the FMS, understanding and operating the sensory overload available with modern avionics, and prevention of flight extremes from happening altogether, than basic stick and rudder skills. Not saying that these environments are promoting poor pilots. Dealing smoothly and effectively with the all the avionics has to offer provides a lot of prevention of loss of control while fiddling in turbulence with a touch screen panel. Also knowing how to push the buttons can contribute to more heads out of the cockpit flying.

    However, I do wonder and question the pilot abilities when the predictability/familiarity is lost, and now, basic skills needed to be implemented with understanding of on-board systems at the same time. Such skills as demonstrated by notables such as Haynes/crew and Sullenberger/Skiles are required under the extremes of an emergency. Those two accidents were handled by extraordinary skilled aviators whose combined teamwork and primary skills were previously acquired because of interest in different flight regimes other than heavies.

    Aircraft manufactures who successfully manufacture at a profit, a trainer or series of trainers that meets the varied requirements of the particular flight school including economics will rise to the top. Having a Cessna150/172/172RG/310 or a Piper Cherokee/Warrier/Archer/Arrow/Seneca combination did promote brand loyalty and expose the student to a wide range of flight requirements and aircraft. Those trained that way are largely the people flying our airliners today. Students exposed to primarily one airplane designed to be multi-purpose trainers could be potentially shortchanged when it comes to different handling quirks and more complex systems. Under those rare but extraordinary circumstances when MCAS fails, an engine failure destroys all the flight controls, or you have a 500,000+ pound glider, is the one size fits all program the most effective? And other than a trainer with CAPS, there is no other alternative other than sheer flying skills to negotiate a safe outcome. Time will tell.

    • The training market for airframes is both cyclical and easily saturated. What’s telling is that all the loads of new slick LSA designs were too expensive and too fragile and too limited on payload for the daily grind of training. A dumb old used P or C brand boat of an airframe is almost perfect for this niche. Get your certificate and THEN learn to fly.

  7. “Get your certificate and THEN learn to fly.”

    Yeah. I knew a bunch of pilots who did that. ALL of them died in smoking holes. ALL of them.

    • Well, “I’ lived and “I” know that a certificate is just a piece of paper.
      45 years later and “I” am still here.
      People who make holes in the ground only think they knew how to fly.

  8. I guess Paul B has graduated from being one of the aviation world’s preeminent and widely admired writers? Now he’s crafty and cunning, too.

    Now he writes a blog where I — subsequently, after re-reading the article twice — notice that there’s an asterisk in the Title and I have to comb to the bottom (he did say that) to find a link to a YouTube video I have to click on and then pay attention to to figure out that “Zachary” is Cheryl’s insurance agent and the reason for the asterisk and title. (I’m still trying to figure out what an insurance agent and a burning She Shed has to do with a landing gear simulator switch but … I’m slow that way). Connecting the dots USED to be SO much simpler. Cute!

    And then he figures out a way to put some ‘zing’ into the old adage that pulling back on the stick makes the houses get smaller. Never too late to improve upon old adages, I say.

    Finally, during one of my re-reads to solve the puzzle, I notice there’s a quiet embedded link to “This Week’s Video.” I thought there was supposed to be a picture (you know … they’re worth 1,000 words) to bait me into watching. I went back to see if there was one on the web page and there wasn’t. I’m SO confused. Now I have to “hunt” for the video of the week, I guess? Baited into watching, I have to change my bib three times because I’m slobbering all over myself, over myself over myself looking at an airplane I dearly want but can’t afford or justify anymore. Oh well … some lucky youngsters will learn to fly in that thang. I KNEW I shoulda bought an SR20 SRV back in the 90’s (for $160K).

    WAIT! So THAT’s what the “TFT acreage” reference was all about. Being slow, I had to google that one to make sure I had it right. I was still trying to figure out why Cheryl was involved.

    This is better than playing Clue after a night of drinking and a long motorcycle ride in the Smokies.

    I don’t think Avweb is paying you enough, dude. Then again, Elvis got HIS start on the Ed Sullivan show. And all of this at 0500. Now I’ll never get back to sleep because I’m still all jazzed up from solving the puzzle and now trying to figure out how to put a back seat PTT and USB ports in my airplane so I can talk to my dog.

    Genius! Don’t EVER stop … laughter IS the best medicine, ya know (and it isn’t yet on the FAA’s OTC no-no list).

  9. Does the “gear simulator” also have a “gear warning” system? Preferably one that can be disabled by the instructor (to either simulate it’s failure, or for cases when the gear simulator isn’t wanted).

  10. I will never forget when being checked out in a Maryland CAP T34 (Beechcraft to those that don’t know) a pilot landed gear up, horn sounding at a tower controlled KBWI then Friendship Airport.

    It was the late ‘60’s. I was so mad…I was a 20 year old commercial BB pilot next in line for checkout, at about $10.00 an hour dry. Still have the photocopied manual.

    Ah the good old days, commercial and CFI and not having to bother with getting an instrument.

    A false gear lever. What a thought!

    • I flew the T-34A for a couple hundred hours during that same time, Mr ‘Dot’. At Edwards AFB, it was $8 / hr WET in the early 70’s. (I paid $9 / hr for a C150 earlier.) That airplane suffered about a half dozen gear up landings … one of ’em exactly as you described … the Aero Club requirement was to call “gear down” in response to a tower request of “check gear down” and the pilot did it with the gear horn sounding in the background on the tower tape on his first solo flight. That airplane is now in the Flight Test Historical Museum collection at Edwards and will likely go on display soon?

      I once participated in recovering a second T-34A from the scene of the crash near George AFB when an SR-71 pilot forgot to secure the fuel cap properly at night. We picked it up out of the desert with an Army CH-47 and flew alongside in a UH–1. It was rebuilt and still flies today in private hands.