Only seconds passed before the student and I were out of the airplane, surveying the damage. A couple of firetrucks and a large delegation of airport employees, safety workers and the curious were rapidly approaching like a horde of angry villagers. There was no fire, but this was the peak of the rural fire season, and so our misadventure was witnessed by dozens of heavily equipped rural firefighters, fire spotters and tanker crews who were set for the day’s grass and forest fires.
They were only too glad to respond to this more spectacular event. Although the task at hand was primarily to aim fire extinguishers at the benign wreckage, the newspaper reported, in its inflated fashion, that “fire crews were on the scene for over an hour when the plane was forced to land with defective landing gear.”
All wrong, of course: The Comanche was jacked up — the gear put down — and then towed to the hangar within an hour.
This incident was classic in that it took a chain of no less than four or five influences to force the mishap to its conclusion: the beautiful and windless day — and two blissfully comfortable pilots — giving rise to complacency; the assignment of a nonstandard, no-flap landing (which, in the pilot’s mind, led to “no need to push the switch” that unintentionally included the gear switch); the distraction of the helicopter and the pleasant chitchat that pulled my attention away from the situational awareness just when the gear would have been lowered and confirmed; the fact that the gear warning horn and light were not working — something I did not know but should have (that alone would have likely saved the day); and our failure to recognize the odd long-and-fast float just before touchdown when we should have been on high alert.
In the immediate aftermath of this event, the student owner-pilot and I were, of course, riddled with guilt, remorse and embarrassment. Within the hour, the student was on the phone, confessing to the FAA, unaware that that was not actually required after an uncomplicated gear-up event. As a result, two FAA officials appeared a few days later to conduct an investigation. I escaped with only the requirement to take a check ride with an aviation safety counselor, a ride for which I prepared a very detailed “explanation” of what happened (a longer version of this article). I was rather let off the hook since the owner-pilot had more total hours than I did, including much experience in his own airplane, and, more to the point, was flying with an inoperative gear warning. He had also performed maintenance on the airplane, for which he was not authorized, and also had various discrepancies in his flying and maintenance logs.
Still, I was the CFI in charge of the flight, had given the student the assignment of the no-flap landing, and had assumed the task of communicating with the helicopter. I neglected to maintain total situational awareness and had forgotten perhaps the one most important thing to be aware of on final approach in a retractable-gear airplane. I also should have — and since this incident always do — checked the logs, maintenance records and Operating Handbook for each airplane with which I am unfamiliar. I am also careful not to divide PIC tasks between two pilots without a clear plan of who does what.
The happy ending was that, in the litany of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” we were both unharmed, the airplane was repairable, we became better (and quite humbled) pilots, and I became a better flight instructor for it. No amount of hangar flying, safety meetings, reading or recurrent training teaches a lesson as does the slap in the face of an incident, a near-miss or an accident — the surprise that waits for every pilot, ready or not.