Gear-Up Landing: The Mistake So Many Pilots are Prone to Make

Tales of gear-up landings and close calls.

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?

To begin with, the gear handle is centered unless the gear is in transit, so its position tells you nothing. Whereas in most airplanes three green lights tell you that the gear is down, in Melmoth 2 the system is different. All three struts are mechanically connected to a single hydraulic cylinder. One of the connecting links is a torque tube, as big as a man’s forearm, that runs from wing spar to firewall along the right side of the cabin, near the floor. It is painted white and is plainly visible to the pilot. On this tube, where it passes through a hole in a frame, are two slender triangles of bright silver tape, one labeled Up and the other Down, either of which aligns, depending on the gear status, with a single index mark on the frame.

Now, this method of displaying gear position is, you might say, analog, as opposed to the binary, yes-or-no, “three green” method. And that analog property had had a subtle effect on my perceptions. I realized only now, while mulling over my near escape, that I had come to think of the silver arrowheads and the index mark not as gauges of gear status — up or down — but as indicators of the completeness of the cycle.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, and for 10 years of flying it had been, but it was essential to understanding how I could look at the torque tube to check that the gear was down and fail to notice that it was actually up. It was that I was really just checking the alignment of the arrowhead and the index, which looked the same whether the gear was up or down; I was not reading the word next to the arrow, unconsciously assuming that the gear’s status was correct.

“What an idiot!” I hear you say. “How can you look at the word Up and not understand what it says? It’s a pretty short word.” Well, you can. Nolo contendere. Only my fellow ­idiots need read on.

Having recognized the fallibility of the analog gear-position indicator as opposed to the binary, I set about thinking how to improve it. Three green seemed like overkill; it would involve a lot of wiring and microswitches and lights — all potential points of failure — when after all I already had a visual indication of gear position, in the form of the torque tube, in the cockpit with me. Still, it needed some more basic signal than a written word, something even a paramecium would understand.

One obvious idea was to color the torque tube so that it showed red or orange when the gear was up and green when it was down. At first I thought I might color the whole tube, but I then reflected that you don’t want big orange warnings in the corner of your eye all the time — you would get too used to them — so I settled for a big swatch of green tape on the side of the tube that faces me when the gear is down, and a small but conspicuous orange square that rotates into view when it’s up. The small square would not be noticeable most of the time but would be obvious when I consciously looked at the torque tube.

Color seems one or two steps closer to the reptilian brain than text, but I’m not sure it will be more effective in the long run. With long habit, anything can become invisible.

I also taped the pre-landing checklist — which is comparatively long, involving settings for gear, airbrake, flaps, cowl flaps and automatic fuel-tank selector — to the instrument panel.

Several friends contributed other suggestions. One was to add a window in the nosewheel well that would allow me to see, at least in daytime, that the gear is down. This was easy to accomplish, and I did it. Another was a system similar to those on many airplanes, in which microswitches on the torque tube and on the throttle or flaps would trigger a warning light or horn. That in turn got me thinking about various unexpected circumstances in which such a system could fail — after all, airplanes with those systems still sometimes do a gear-up landing, and it’s usually in some sort of nonroutine situation.

Always alert for a new complication to add, I acquired an ultrasonic motion detector. I thought I might install this pointing downward so that a (very urgent!) warning would occur if the airplane were within 20 feet of the ground and the gears were not down.

Oddly enough, on my first landing after the near miss I put the gear down and checked the torque tube — so far so good — but neglected to read the checklist or look through the window at the nosewheel. New habits take a while to get established.

My interest in gear-up landing prevention spawned an infestation of e-mails, and my companion Nancy read some of them. She said dryly, “After all this fuss about your near escape, you will probably never make that mistake again. What you should be doing is figuring out how to prevent the next stupid mistake you are going to make.”

Alas — if only that were possible!

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