To the cliché that there are pilots who have landed gear up and those who will, one might add a third category: those who have, and will again.
I made my first and, so far, only gear-up landing in a Fournier RF-4 motor glider, N7723, on Jan. 23, 1969, at Yucca Valley, California.
The RF-4 had a gear-warning buzzer of some sort, actuated by the deployment of the spoilers. I remember that I did hear an audio warning on final approach, and for some reason I thought it was merely telling me that the spoilers were deployed. Now, why would I think that? The airplane did not have an audio warning for spoiler deployment; no glider does. And yet that senseless notion, having taken possession of my brain, resisted all efforts of the truth to dislodge it.
I had been soaring; the 39 hp Volkswagen engine was turned off and the prop was stopped in a horizontal position, covering the cooling air inlets. Perhaps it was the fact that I was landing dead-stick, which I had seldom if ever done before in this airplane, that disrupted my routine. Presciently, René Fournier had equipped the airplane with two wooden skids under the fuselage, and apart from those being ground down to half their original height and the outriggers near the wingtips needing straightening, there was little damage. My logbook records another flight in the same airplane later on the same day.
After a gear-up landing happens, you naturally spend a good deal of time asking yourself how it could have. This is the interesting part of the experience, since while it was happening you were, for all practical purposes, semiconscious. It’s during the reconstruction of the event and the mental states that accompanied it that you begin to realize what an odd, unreliable computer a pilot’s mind can be. What it knows to be true, what it expects to be true and what it falsely believes to be true are strangely blended, like several semitransparent layers superimposed.
More than four decades, and thousands of hours of flying, passed without another brush with the dreaded gear-up landing. Then, last May, I was on final approach to my home airport when a pilot in a Skyhawk, who was fortuitously holding short of the runway, called the tower to say that my gear was not down. Before the tower could pass this information on to me, I had put the gear down. I acknowledged the tower’s belated transmission and then, in terminology not covered in the AIM, poured out my heartfelt thanks to the anonymous pilot who had saved me and Melmoth 2 from an extremely messy arrival.
Again, I reflected at length (and I’m still not done reflecting) on the sequence of events that led to my being on short final with the gear up. I had a distinct, but evidently illusory, recollection of having put it down. My passenger, a retired airline captain and, before that, longtime flight instructor, said that he had noticed that I had put the flaps down before putting the gear down — not my usual procedure — and that this struck him as odd, but he had decided not to say anything about it and it had then passed out of his mind.
What was stranger, however, than my incorrect belief that I had put the gear down was my even more distinct, absolutely certain recollection that I had rechecked it afterward. That was not an illusion. I had done my GUMP and verified the gear position — but failed to recognize that it was not down.
How could that happen?