We expend most of our time and energy in this feature discussing aircraft “accidents,” operationally defined as events that require notification of the National Transportation Safety Board under 49 CFR Part 830. But plenty of occurrences that damage or even total an aircraft aren’t covered by Part 830, which is narrowly tailored both in its scope—a parked airplane walloped by a careless tug driver won’t be counted because it wasn’t “occupied for the purpose of flight”—and by the peculiar definition of “substantial damage,” which seems specifically designed to exclude the majority of gear-up landings.
A check of the record confirms that impression. Since 2014, the AOPA Air Safety Institute has logged accounts of gear-ups as they’ve appeared in each week’s FAA preliminary reports. In calendar year 2016, for example, we counted 159 (and might have missed a few). Only five were either deliberate (one during a forced landing off-field and one after a collision with a deer during the takeoff roll removed a main gear leg) or the results of equipment failures. In the other 154—an average of three per week—the pilots presumably neglected to select “gear down” despite whatever horns, warning lights, or other safeguards the aircraft designers dreamed up to help prevent this.
The good news is that gear-up landings almost never cause serious injuries—at least, as long as the pilot doesn’t try to go around after hearing the prop strike. That’s one of the reasons that less than 10 percent of those 159 unintended belly rubs made it into the NTSB accident database.
But while an incident without injuries is almost always preferable to an accident with, that doesn’t make them innocuous. Repair costs start with a new propeller, and not just your basic wooden Sensenich; the odds are overwhelming it will be a constant-speed model, quite possibly with more than two blades. There’s the required engine tear-down that may turn into an overhaul (or replacement) if the engine is late in its service life or the damage is particularly bad. Airframe repairs may not be limited to skin replacement: bulkheads, stringers, wing flaps, cowl flaps, gear doors, and even components of the gear themselves may have taken a beating. If the airplane is a twin, the engine and prop expenses, at least, will be doubled.
Insurance companies have been known to balk at putting $40,000 into fixing an airplane whose market value was pegged at $50,000 a week earlier. That leaves the owner with the unappetizing choice between coming up with the cash and scrapping an otherwise repairable aircraft. Anecdotal evidence (and perhaps common sense) suggest that many take the second option. Indeed, there’s speculation that gear-up landings may be the leading reason complex piston airplanes are retired from the fleet, a situation whose ripple effects inconvenience prospective renters and may drive would-be commercial students to other providers (see “The Vanishing Complex Trainer” in the August 1, 2011, issue of Flight School Business).
What’s the solution? Instilling focus and checklist discipline from the beginning of the training process would certainly help. An overwhelming majority of pilots involved in gear-ups point to distraction in the traffic pattern or during the approach—some little or not-so-little thing out of the ordinary that threw off their customary flow. Always consulting and seeing the checklist, and verifying that each item has been done, has been the first line of defense since the dawn of aviation.
But technology may have a role, too. The automatic back-up gear extension system Piper developed for its early Arrows and Lances probably saved many more airplanes than it put at jeopardy, but the system ultimately was dropped rather than risk the consequences of an uncommanded deployment at an inauspicious time. With increasing numbers of airplanes sporting GPS, though, more sophisticated alternatives ought to be possible. The navigator already calculates airspeed, altitude, location, and heading; all it needs is a gear-position input and an algorithm to determine when the gear are still up as the airplane is getting low and slow and pointing at a runway. Rather than triggering the gear horn, which is probably already going off, we’d favor a synthetic voice saying something like, “Hey, dummy, put the gear down!”
Of course, pilot preoccupation can shut out any warning system. We’ll always be grateful to the guy who had the honesty to admit to the FAA inspector that he was “so distracted by the noise of the gear horn that he forgot to lower the gear.”