Gear-Up Landings: There Are Pilots Who Have and Those Who May Have To

Landing an airplane with the wheels not securely down and locked is a dreadful experience, but pilots and passengers are rarely injured.

Most people think that Icarus, human son of the Greek god Daedalus, crashed because wax that coated and formed his feathered wings melted when he soared too close to the sun. But, actually, his retracted legs got glued in the sticky mess, and he couldn’t get his gear down. Thus, the first of many gear-up arrivals.

I was a kid hanging out in the old Lunken Airport control tower the first time I saw one…and it was pretty spectacular. It was the mid-’60s, and a derelict B-25 was heading for the airport with a cabin full of reptiles. Really! Some “wild kingdom” exhibition opening downtown was evidently in financial distress and badly needed to attract a good, paying audience.


The pilot called far enough out and told the tower about his cargo. Problem was he’d had to shut one engine down and needed priority to land. By now the press got wind. As he neared the airport, he radioed that he couldn’t get the gear down and elected to land in the grass. The copilot (I’m not making this up) bailed out just north of the airport, and the B-25 skidded to a halt in the grass. It was wintertime and firemen had to unload and incapacitate a bunch of snakes and alligators. The papers had a heyday. I don’t remember if the show made any money.

That was my first but certainly not last experience with gear-up landings and what put it on my front burner is the latest. A friend with a beautiful A36 loans it to a couple guys—one is a pilot for a large corporation who’s probably among the best airplane drivers I know and a pretty good mechanic to boot. I don’t know the other guy, but he recently put the beautiful Beech in on its belly at Lunken. There were claims that “the electrical system was behaving strangely” and, fearing a fire, he landed with no gear, damaging the prop, engine, flaps, and belly skin.

You can almost bet that any pilot involved in a gear-up landing does two things: They put the gear switch or handle in the “down” position before any rescue arrives and usually have an explanation about why it failed to be down and locked. Almost never did they just plain forget.

If there’s any doubt, you do a tower or airport flyby. Even if it appears to be down, you leave the area and use the emergency gear extension procedure(s) in the pilot’s operating handbook. That’s what happened in a Bonanza with no gear lights I was flying a few years ago. I flew by, went out and cranked it down, and then asked for the equipment on the runway (Why not?). I landed without using any brakes and let it roll out.

The other time was at night with an alternator failure in a retractable gear Cessna Cardinal, totally out of “juice.” I pumped the gear down and could see it, but there were no lights, so I circled the field, hoping for a green light from the tower, but there was nothing. Finally, after watching a corporate guy clear the runway, I landed and, again, stayed off the brakes, letting it roll onto a large, adjacent ramp. When I called the tower on the phone they said, “You did what?” And I responded, “If you guys can’t see any better than that, I’m going to fly my Cub at night.”

These days, there are several aids to total electrical system failures. A handheld transceiver works or, lacking that, keep the telephone numbers of the FBOs, control towers, and approach control you commonly use. I did that a few years ago coming back from Oshkosh, when the generator failed. The landing gear in my Cessna 180 is welded down, so that wasn’t an issue, but at least I could call the tower on my cellphone.

As you might imagine, I’m not always that heroic. As an FAA inspector who did lots of Twin Beech check rides, I rented one of our Part 135 operators’ Beech 18s for proficiency flying with quite possibly the world’s coolest and best Twin Beech driver, Kevin Uppstrom, in the right seat. As we lifted off Runway 18 at Connersville, Indiana (KCEV), Uppstrom simulated a left engine failure by retarding a throttle. I chanted and did the “max power, flaps approach, positive rate, gear up, identify, verify and (simulate) feather.” It was beautiful and, smugly, as we rounded the pattern onto final for a landing, I said, “C’mon, Kev. Admit it. Nobody could handle it better.” He said, “Yeah, so far a great job. Do you plan to put the gear down before we land?”

I guess my funniest gear story involves a rather important CEO of a Cincinnati machine tool company who had a penchant for unique airplanes. He’d owned a single-place Mooney Mite with manually retractable landing gear. But he’d forgotten to use the awkward Johnson bar to extend it before landing. That was before I knew him. By now he was on the cusp of a divorce and rather taken with me (I was nearly seduced by his recently acquired Grumman Widgeon). I was at the hangar after the Mite had been extracted (gear up) from the runway and deposited in his large multi-airplane hangar.

Way before my FAA days, I still knew inspector John O’Rourke, who was walking around the broken bird, pipe in his mouth and clipboard in hand. Mr. CEO was explaining he had no idea why the gear hadn’t extended—he’d certainly put it down before landing. Then the back door of the hangar opened, and the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. CEO came in, surveyed the scene and, in her distinctive upper class, Down East Maine accent said, “Well, I see you’ve done it again.”

I’m not making light of landing an airplane with the gear not securely down and locked. It’s a dreadful experience, but pilots and passengers are rarely hurt. Hopefully, you have hull insurance and knowledgeable people extracting the airplane from the runway without further damage. There’s usually a long wait for overhauled or new engines, props, and repair to other airplane damage. The main problem is ego…and that’s a biggie.

I’ve always loved the memory of a big guy named Ed Creelman, an excellent pilot who flew a Beech 18 for a local paper company. I was nearby as he sat in the Sky Galley restaurant when somebody asked, “Hey, Ed. What happened to your airplane?” Without hesitation, in his signature gruff voice, he answered: “I forgot to put the f—ing gear down.”

He was (and is) my hero.

This column first appeared in the September 2023/Issue 941 of FLYING’s print edition.


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