Never Again

The CFI learns a lesson

June 1, 2006

It had been a rush job, from the moment our chief flight instructor asked me to deliver documents to a company aircraft located at another airport, to the last-minute air traffic control (ATC) request that I land long on the huge Runway 1R at Washington Dulles International Airport. Frankly, I was in over my head, and was about to be brutally reminded of it.

The hint that something was amiss came as a tiny, barely audible clicking sound instantly followed by louder, harsher ones, followed by sustained grinding, and ending in silence. I had just landed gear up, "nicely on the centerline," as the FAA official later commented.

The day began at Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Airport. I was talking with my student when the chief flight instructor asked if I could run some urgently required company documents to Dulles airport in Washington, D.C.: A company Gulfstream could not depart for Egypt without them. My student graciously allowed me to postpone his lesson so that I could make this exciting flight — a welcome relief from my regular flight-instructing routine.

Time was of the essence, so the chief flight instructor handed me a handheld GPS and preflighted the Cessna 210 that I would be using. Meanwhile, I got the necessary charts, obtained a weather briefing, and filed an instrument flight plan for my first solo trip into a big, unfamiliar Class B primary airport.

I wasn't nervous, as I had already flown into several other big airports. Those trips, however, had been in considerably slower aircraft with a second person in the cockpit to share the workload. Events would occur at a much more rapid rate than I was accustomed to, and to accelerate matters, I would experience a 25-knot tailwind on the trip.

I had logged 16 hours in Cessna 210s, but most of that time was in the right seat as a CFII for pilots who were very familiar with the aircraft. I had made only four landings in the 210 and had barely flown any other complex aircraft in the preceding nine months. So I was not all that current in complex-airplane procedures.

The clock was ticking as I rushed out to the airplane, hooked up the handheld GPS with which I was only marginally familiar, and unfolded the charts for the route. I completed the routine cockpit checks and started the engine. I was a bit frantic and reacting to my boss' sense of urgency. I did not want to disappoint him by being a slow rookie. I wanted to be professional — swift and smooth. But in my haste to be swift, I became amateurish. The first indication came during climbout when Pittsburgh departure asked me to recycle the transponder — a subtle hint that I had missed the checklist item to turn on the transponder.

Upon reaching a cruise altitude of 9,000 feet msl on course to my first VOR waypoint, I drew a breath to relax. I was cruising in glorious sunshine above a cloud deck on an important job and flying an exciting, complex aircraft into one of the nation's busiest airports. I felt like a professional pilot at last.

I had finally become comfortable over West Virginia when Washington Center amended my flight plan just as I approached the Dulles area. I reprogrammed the GPS as a backup and then reviewed the Dulles airport diagram and determined that Runway 1R was nearest to Signature Flight Support, the FBO where I was to deliver the documents.

I was still cruising along at 9,000 feet getting close to Dulles when the controller vectored me to Runway 1L. I requested a change to the parallel Runway 1R, which was granted along with instructions to descend as expeditiously as possible toward the airport. Still descending, I arrived downwind along the west side of the airport, parallel to Runway 1L with a groundspeed of about 180 knots. At that point Potomac Approach asked if I could accept a short approach to Runway 1R, which required a quick turn to the east, crossing through the approach path of Runway 1L.

I wanted to be the cool professional pilot handling the approach controller's sudden change of plans. But this unexpected change, coupled with the high airspeed — which was still above the maximum landing-gear and flap-extension speeds — and a descending turn to the base leg, disrupted my familiar pattern cues.

Once I turned onto a one-mile final for Runway 1R, approach handed me off to the tower. I was instructed by the tower to land as long as possible as the FBO was located at the far north end of the 11,500-foot-long runway.

This was the point where my lack of complex currency became a factor. I had missed my customary midfield downwind deployment of the landing gear, and I hadn't really flown a normal base leg to deploy flaps and perform a second gear-down check. Now I was on short final, where I should have completed one final GUMPS check to verify that the aircraft was configured for landing. But it was at that very moment that the controller asked me to land long. The result was that I went back into flying mode, added power, and continued to fly along the runway at low altitude, while focusing on where I should touch down in order to safely land and exit the runway.

About one mile down the runway, I judged myself to be far enough along to initiate a landing. In one fell swoop I chopped the throttle and dumped all the flaps, rapidly decelerating and descending into ground effect as the horn blared in my ears and I held off for a perfectly professional and smooth centerline landing.

Of course, the horn did not indicate that touchdown was accomplished at minimum airspeed; it told me I had not extended the gear.

One of the beauties of working as a CFI is the opportunity to fly a wider variety of aircraft than most pilots. However, breadth of experience may cause one to be less proficient and current in a given aircraft and never truly master any of them. I was certainly not master of the 210 I flew into Dulles that day.

I was in a hurry and felt pressure to live up to my image of a professional pilot. That pressure was accentuated by the never-ending ATC instructions to which I tried to conform. Haste results in sloppiness. I should have slowed down, used the checklist to establish discipline, and, when I became overloaded, told ATC that I could not comply.

Every other contributing factor to my gear-up incident is subordinate to the failure to use a checklist where it really matters — when one is near the ground. Mistakes at altitude may still leave time to correct them. But mistakes near the ground are irrevocable. Pilots must engrave into their flying habits the use of a checklist for every single flight. Use of the checklist should become so ingrained and automatic that it will not be forgotten in moments of stress and confusion, precisely those situations where it will save the day. I had been quite hard on my students, insisting on their use of checklists. Obviously, I had not been hard enough on myself.

I have always embraced the idea that a pilot certificate is just a license to learn. It was driven home to me that the idea still applies when one is a CFI.

Pete Lehmann, AOPA 1834836, is an instrument flight instructor who has given 400 hours of dual and accumulated 900 hours of flight time in five years. He has more than 3,000 hours in hang gliders.

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