I Learned About Flying From That: Two More Pilots Join the Club

One instructor relates the teachings only a major mishap can provide.

I Learned About Flying From That

I Learned About Flying From That

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
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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.

Only seconds passed before the student and I were out of the airplane, surveying the damage. A couple of firetrucks and a large delegation of airport employees, safety workers and the curious were rapidly approaching like a horde of angry villagers. There was no fire, but this was the peak of the rural fire season, and so our misadventure was witnessed by dozens of heavily equipped rural firefighters, fire spotters and tanker crews who were set for the day’s grass and forest fires.

They were only too glad to respond to this more spectacular event. Although the task at hand was primarily to aim fire extinguishers at the benign wreckage, the newspaper reported, in its inflated fashion, that “fire crews were on the scene for over an hour when the plane was forced to land with defective landing gear.”

All wrong, of course: The Comanche was jacked up — the gear put down — and then towed to the hangar within an hour.

This incident was classic in that it took a chain of no less than four or five influences to force the mishap to its conclusion: the beautiful and windless day — and two blissfully comfortable pilots — giving rise to complacency; the assignment of a nonstandard, no-flap landing (which, in the pilot’s mind, led to “no need to push the switch” that unintentionally included the gear switch); the distraction of the helicopter and the pleasant chitchat that pulled my attention away from the situational awareness just when the gear would have been lowered and confirmed; the fact that the gear warning horn and light were not working — something I did not know but should have (that alone would have likely saved the day); and our failure to recognize the odd long-and-fast float just before touchdown when we should have been on high alert.

In the immediate aftermath of this event, the student owner-pilot and I were, of course, riddled with guilt, remorse and embarrassment. Within the hour, the student was on the phone, confessing to the FAA, unaware that that was not actually required after an uncomplicated gear-up event. As a result, two FAA officials appeared a few days later to conduct an investigation. I escaped with only the requirement to take a check ride with an aviation safety counselor, a ride for which I prepared a very detailed “explanation” of what happened (a longer version of this article). I was rather let off the hook since the owner-pilot had more total hours than I did, including much experience in his own airplane, and, more to the point, was flying with an inoperative gear warning. He had also performed maintenance on the airplane, for which he was not authorized, and also had various discrepancies in his flying and maintenance logs.

Still, I was the CFI in charge of the flight, had given the student the assignment of the no-flap landing, and had assumed the task of communicating with the helicopter. I neglected to maintain total situational awareness and had forgotten perhaps the one most important thing to be aware of on final approach in a retractable-gear airplane. I also should have — and since this incident always do — checked the logs, maintenance records and Operating Handbook for each airplane with which I am unfamiliar. I am also careful not to divide PIC tasks between two pilots without a clear plan of who does what.

The happy ending was that, in the litany of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” we were both unharmed, the airplane was repairable, we became better (and quite humbled) pilots, and I became a better flight instructor for it. No amount of hangar flying, safety meetings, reading or recurrent training teaches a lesson as does the slap in the face of an incident, a near-miss or an accident — the surprise that waits for every pilot, ready or not.