The story is a cliché: Pilot moves from “those who will” to “those who have” landed gear-up, despite his protestations in the past. Different day, airplane, pilot — actually two pilots, but the story is, in so many ways, always the same, but different too, and so worth telling — and there’s another lesson for us all.
It was a perfect Saturday morning in June — cool, calm, the forests and meadows below radiant in their varied spring greens, the lakes shimmering and reflective. Our nontowered airport, Bemidji Regional Airport (KBJI), lies west of our town and lake by the same name, Bemidji, Minnesota. We are in the midst of the 10,000 Minnesota lakes. The early meanderings of the Mississippi River arrive from the headwaters to the south before passing through Lake Bemidji. Then the river bears east for a while before turning south toward New Orleans. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, stand on the shore of the lake.
I was instructing an instrument-rated private pilot in his own single-engine Comanche for the Commercial rating. He had hundreds of hours in the airplane, and I had given more than 500 hours of dual for various ratings and certificates in a variety of airplanes. This was our second or third flight together, and after an hour of various takeoffs and landings, slow flight, steep turns, stalls, chandelles and lazy eights, we were entering the downwind leg for a landing on Runway 31. It was to be the end of the lesson.
“Make this a no-flap landing,” I said. “And set it down right on the 500-foot mark.”
As we approached the midpoint of our downwind leg, a medical helicopter alerted us that he was taking off from the hospital and would be crossing our base leg, at 200 feet, on his departure. I took over radio duties at that point and told the student to proceed with the landing and that I would talk to the helicopter pilot while we maintained safe visual separation. After we turned base, the helicopter became “no factor” and we said goodbye to one another. I returned my attention to the student as we turned final. We were a bit fast and I suspected we’d land long, but I kept silent, waiting for the student to reduce power to idle. He did. We were still fast, now floating long over the 6,000-foot runway with lots of asphalt to spare, but this was hardly a spot landing.
Just when the visual picture seemed very wrong somehow (the student pilot and I rather hypnotized by that very wrongness), the spinning prop tips hit the tar with a jarring clatter and thunk as the airplane bellied in, screeching and sparking, and then came to a sudden and stinky halt, surrounded by the steamy smoke of abraded metal, paint and rubber.