Landing Gear

Dick's "Gear Up" has nothing to do with the use of fuselage-style landing gear, but he's got a good story to tell on that subject, too.


||| |---|---| | | | The title of this column is "Gear Up" because I like the symbolism of takeoff and flight. It means to me the moment just after positive rate has been established when, with a short upward pull by the pilot, the airplane is reconfigured, while accelerating, to assume the shape it was designed to have: sleek, dragless, efficient and fast. Many airplanes, ours included, spend much more time on the ground than in the air, with their legs stiffly sticking down, waiting patiently to be stowed. Stowed at that just right moment, when the last available runway disappears beneath the nose and the airplane gathers up its appendages and heads up and out. We're off.

I like the reassuring clunk of the gear doors as they close and the way the "gear unsafe" light winks off. I like the sound the airplane makes as it gets clean. I also like the double meaning of gearing up for a flight. It bespeaks the care of planning, the study of The Weather Channel, the call (or two) to the Flight Service Station, the calculation of the winds aloft, the preflight, the pre-takeoff checklist, the whole getting-ready-to-go part of flying.

More than one wag has suggested that "Gear Up" represents a long history by this author of landings made with the wheels inadvertently forgotten in their wells. If so, I think, the column should be called "Gear Down," as a reminder. But more about my gear experiences in a moment.

Not all airplanes have retractable gear, and there are lots of good reasons for this, not the least of which is you don't have to remember to put them down. Maintenance costs are less; the chance of malfunction is less. In some airplanes stowing the gear doesn't really add much speed, so the tradeoff for risk and cost isn't worth it.

Fixed gear can be sturdy. I started out in a Cessna 150 (not a 152) and I know it had forgiving gear. Thirty years later, while watching my wife learn to land in a 172 of a certain age, I know they still make forgiving gear in Wichita. If you spend a few minutes at a flight school and watch the pounding those trainers take, circuit after circuit, you come away with a new respect for the design and construction of landing gear. This is why the English call touch-and-goes circuits and bumps. You also marvel at the patient forbearance of most instructors and the superior design of the resilient human body. Even a terrible landing rarely results in emergency splenectomy.

In 1976 I purchased a Piper Arrow, in part because the wheels came up. This was the perfect transition to retractable gear. There was a fail-safe mechanism that dropped the gear below a certain airspeed with the power back, so it was unlikely that I'd land with the wheels up. The airplane wasn't all that fast and I don't remember any concern about having to slow to safe gear extension speeds. Nor do I remember any great pitch or speed change when the gear was lowered. I do remember the thrill of having that little round, wheel-shaped lever on the panel, though. It was cool.

||| |---|---| | | | It wasn't until I came to own a 1975 Cessna 210 that I finally understood the drag associated with landing gear. The 210 was much faster than anything I was used to and the gear was helpful in getting the airplane down and slowed down. That model had all those gear doors, and I liked opening them up on the ground, marveling at the closely choreographed door dance that took place as the wheels came up while I was looking out the windshield on climb-out.

This was the airplane, however, that introduced me to gear-related accidents, and it is the only airplane I have ever damaged. In the spring of 1979 I was recovering from hepatitis, gradually regaining strength, and my AME said it was OK to get back in the cockpit. Our beautiful 210, with that great red and white paint job, had sat for six weeks or so since I'd gotten sick. During that time I had arranged for the annual to be done at a shop on Midway Airport in Chicago, where we had recently taken up residence. I was hopeful of better days ahead with lots of flying.

In preparation for a flight to Saint Louis the next day to visit friends, I had the airplane pulled out of our great hangar space at Butler Midway. I was planning a half-hour refamiliarization flight and post-annual checkout, a good idea in any airplane. It was a bright and sunny early spring day and I was glad to get out of bed and out to the airport and into the sky.

Not many discrepancies had been found on the annual and I was relieved, as our budget was tight and I had not yet established a relationship with the shop. The oil had been changed, the compressions were found to be good, and the nose gear doors had been adjusted. I hadn't received the bill yet, but I was hopeful that it would be reasonable.

I took off into clear skies and headed for northern Indiana for some airwork. After a few steep turns and stalls, I headed back to Midway. Tomorrow the five of us would go to Saint Louis on my first cross-country after getting sick.

Midway was landing to the southwest, and, as I turned onto a left downwind, I put the gear handle down and waited for the one single green light to come on. The Cessna engineers reasoned that you could look out of the cockpit and view the mains directly, so the light was to tell you only that all three were down and locked. If the light didn't come on, you could figure out what the problem was by looking out the window. The light did not come on. Both mains were down and looked normal. I circled once, cycled the gear and got the same result. I asked the tower to have a look on a flyby and they reported "something hanging down at the front of the airplane, but no nose gear." I headed back to Indiana. I did some steep descents and abrupt pull ups while pumping the gear handle like a madman. No joy.

I headed back to Midway and spoke on the ground control frequency with the captain of a Delta DC-9 about what else I might do. He had little to add except for his wishes for a safe landing. I was starting to get that quickening of pulse that tells you that you're in trouble. I consulted the Pilot's Operating Handbook, learned that if the nose gear doesn't come down you should land on the mains and keep the nose of the airplane up as long as possible. No kidding, I thought.

After another hour of effort, I was running out of two things: fuel and daylight. After consultation with a very helpful tower controller, we decided that I'd land on the runway not the grass (Midway has crisscrossing runways, so no long stretch of grass seemed workable) and that emergency equipment would follow me down the runway. Twilight now, with a red sunset I'll never forget. My mouth was very, very dry, and I swallowed hard over and over. On base, flaps to full, mains down. On final to 22R, I made a last transmission to Midway tower and turned all electrical equipment off. With the runway made, I pulled the fuel to idle cutoff and with the starter tried to position the three-bladed prop so that it wouldn't hit the ground. It kept windmilling, so I just turned everything off and cracked the door open so I could get out if the fuselage were badly bent.

Touchdown was remarkably soft and I remember thinking that all this anxiety was good for my landing skills. The nose stayed up. It stayed up forever. I must have been down to 40 knots when it finally fell through and the noise started. It was a screeching sound, not horrifying, but not comforting to any airplane owner. The airplane was stopped in a few seconds, and I ripped off the belts and jumped out of it.

As I ran away, I saw no flames. I realized it had become quite cold. A loud, rude horn blasted me back to earth as a massive fire truck was bearing down on me. For just an instant, I thought that I might survive a plane crash and get killed by the rescuers! A yellowed page in my logs reads "3/15/79; 1.9 hours; 1.9 hours solo; 1.9 hours day; Remarks: nose gear." The next day I borrowed a Cessna 210 and flew to Saint Louis. You've got to get back on that horse.

Almost 20 years later, I found myself wishing again for a green light. The airplane was our Cessna 340 and the circumstances were prosaic enough. We'd had out of town guests and had just dropped them off at the airport for their commercial flight home. Cathy and I decided to go by the airplane and spend some time polishing. While I did the spinners, she did the interior and a half an hour later we were done. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful airplane and we figured, "What the hey, why not a tour of the local beaches before tucking into a Sunday night?"

We took off to the north, flew over Saint Petersburg, Florida, then came back around to land. On final, though, we got a nose gear and a left gear light, but no right main light. I recycled the gear with the same sad result, and we headed off east at 1,600 feet to sort things out. Cathy got out the emergency checklist and, although I sounded very cool on the radio, I kept asking for the engine-out checklist, rather than the gear checklist. She kept correcting me; "It is the gear we're working on here!"

Using the hand crank didn't change things. Trading light bulbs didn't change things, either. We were stuck with two wheels down and an invisible traitor under the right wing. Was it down? We flew by the tower, who said the gear looked "cocked."

A local medevac helicopter volunteered to come up close, but I had visions of Pennsylvania Senator Heinz, who was killed in an Aerostar when a helicopter got too close in just such a circumstance. Our chopper had little to add, and we started for 27 at TPA, with my now customary emergency equipment at the side of the runway. Doesn't everybody do this? The 340 is rigged so that a loud horn blares if you select more than 15 degrees of flaps without the gear down and locked. In we came, with "whaaa, whaaaa, whaaaa" assaulting our ears, reminding me to tell those engineers that a recorded soothing voice should be installed instead.

We touched down gently again. (Maybe I should just pretend each landing is a gear-up drill.) I put the left main on first, then waited. The right wheel touched and held and as I looked at the panel; the green light for the right main had come on at touchdown. It was a switch problem. Nonetheless, I shut the engines down and we hopped out into the arms of the waiting firemen, who were quite dismayed to see that such poorly dressed slobs had been riding around in such a nice airplane.

Despite these excitements, I love the idea of retractable gear. I like watching gear come up on all kinds of airplanes whenever I'm near the airport. I like the form of a clean airframe. I just wish I could get the gear up more often. Airplanes are built to fly. When the wheels are down, they're just waiting.