It was the end of a long day instructing in a new Beech Baron. We were on a left downwind to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in Kansas when I reached up and reduced throttle on the left engine to simulate an engine failure. As expected, the familiar "beep, beep, beep" of the landing gear warning horn sounded as the throttle moved toward idle.
The drill was to have the student identify and secure the failed engine and then land with the "dead" engine set at zero thrust. But there was a catch. It was windy and turbulent (we were in Kansas, after all); turning base and then final, the Baron's groundspeed slowed to a crawl. We were on about a half-mile final when I realized that the pilot had forgotten to lower the landing gear — and I'd forgotten to check. The low groundspeed and turbulence resulting from the strong low-level winds conspired to make airplane performance appear as if the gear was down.
It can happen to anyone. Conditioned after years of giving engine-out training to ignore the gear warning horn, that safeguard did not hold my attention. Luckily I caught the oversight in time, and since then I've dramatically changed the way I look at, and teach, landing gear extension. If you're like me, your introduction to retractable-gear airplanes consisted of three or four landings before you were sent off solo — but the record shows that a few times around the patch might not be enough to prepare students to avoid gear-up landings.
"There are those who have, and those who will." How often have you heard that said when talking about landing retractable-gear airplanes with the gear up? This statement is a fine example of the "resignation" mindset — that a gear-up landing is inevitable, and there's nothing we can do to avoid gear-related mishaps. Instead, let's teach this mantra to our retractable-aircraft students: "There are those who have, and those who won't."
Landing gear-related accidents (LGRAs) in retractable-gear airplanes are commonplace. That's why we all know the "those who have" clichÃ�. FAA preliminary incident reports show that more than half of all accidents involving piston retracts are LGRAs — often as many as six or seven a week. Because they rarely cause injury or reportable damage (most LGRAs don't meet the requirements for a National Transportation Safety Board report or investigation), they're seldom reflected in the statistics used to compute the general aviation safety record. Yet the average cost of repairing an airplane involved in a LGRA runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. And although they rarely cause injury or total an aircraft, they may render the pilot uninsurable for up to five years.
LGRAs come in three types:
Historically, LGRAs are about evenly split between the first two scenarios, with a comparatively few true mechanical failures thrown in.
In many cases strong surface winds or other distractions (like doors open in flight or electrical failures) are contributing factors in the "oops"-style gear-up landing. Gear collapses very often result when a pilot is in a hurry to clean up the airplane during the landing roll, or while performing a touch and go, and inadvertently moves the landing gear handle instead of the flap switch.
How can flight instructors teach students to avoid this all-too-common type of mishap?
Landing gear-related accidents put pilots at physical and financial risk, remove good airplanes from the active inventory, and result in increased insurance cost as underwriters pay to repair airplanes. It can happen to any of us if we let our guard down. Landing-gear discipline requires a completely new set of traffic-pattern and instrument approach skills for pilots used to fixed-gear airplanes, and gear procedures for one make of airplane may differ significantly from another. Spend as long as it takes in the airplane when conducting a retractable-gear checkout or transition, so your student will join the ranks of those who won't.