Gear-Up Landings

I stumbled across this video of a picture-perfect, gear-up landing and it got me thinking about gear-up landings.  Why do they happen?  How can you avoid them? What do you do if you can’t avoid them?

There are essentially two main reasons for gear-up landings:

1. Pilot error – you simply forgot to lower the gear or you reconfigured the aircraft inappropriately.

2. Aircraft malfunction – you either cannot lower the gear due to an aircraft malfunction or the gear fails upon landing (typically caused by squat switch malfunction.)

It’s a lot easier to fix the first reason for gear-up landings.  If you fly a retractable-gear aircraft you need to get in the habit of reaching for the gear lever at the appropriate time on takeoff.  In UPT, Air Force pilot trainees are taught to check for two positive rates of climb (usually positive VVI and altimeter increasing) before verbalizing, “two positive climbs, gear clear”.  Realize that GA retractable gear aircraft may be able to wait a little longer prior to gear retraction as they still have the option to land in the event of a thrust-related emergency assuming there is runway available.  Also, slower aircraft are not in danger of over-speeding the landing gear as quickly as high-performance jets are.

When practicing landings, know your pre-landing checklist cold and get in the habit of setting gear and flaps.  In some aircraft, you can almost connect the two.  In the T-38 we drop the gear and immediately select full flaps for a normal landing.  There’s nothing like muscle memory to keep you on track, but verbalizing your actions (even when flying alone) can back you up.  “Below [insert gear limiting speed here], gear is clear”

Lowering the landing gear handle is not enough.  Once it is lowered, it is imperative to confirm your configuration.  In the T-38 we verbalize, “handle down, three green (meaning three green landing gear position indicator lights are illuminated), flaps are full, two good pressures (confirming good downside hydraulics to the gear).  This will be the first time you can confirm all the gear have extended normally and you have a landable configuration.

I’m a big proponent of preparing for the worst-case scenario.  What’s the worst-case when it comes to pilots forgetting to lower their gear? Being distracted – either by an emergency, clearing for traffic, flying in IMC, or talking on the radio.  The best way to train for this is to grab an instructor, go to a relatively busy airfield, and get started on the touch-n-go’s.   Yes, I am an advocate of touch and go’s because that is some of the busiest flying you will do (lots of stuff going on in a relatively short period of time.)  You can start with stop and go’s if you are still trying to get comfortable with raising and lowering the gear handle.  The point is that you need to push yourself to near task-saturation in order to ensure you will act appropriately in a non-standard situation.  The safest way to do that is with a Certified Flight Instructor on board.

There is a great article on AOPA about developing the habit patterns required to avoid gear-up landings.  Let me be clear, I don’t agree with their statement that you should NOT practice touch and go’s in retractable gear aircraft.  I understand their reasoning, but in my mind the students are missing out on valuable training, and the experienced pros are missing opportunities to increase proficiency.  Everything else in the AOPA article is spot on.

As far as mechanical failures go, you may or may not be at the mercy of the aircraft.  Check your POH and become familiar with the procedures for addressing landing gear extension anomalies.  In any case, you may want to get in the simulator and practice gear-up landings.  You can start out by slowing to the minimum practical airspeed for your aircraft and smoothly flying the airplane onto the runway instead of flaring it off (i.e. you don’t want to the aircraft to stall fully flared several feet off the runway and drop in.)

In any case, if you already fly retractable gear aircraft, keep that gear handle in your crosscheck.  Complacency is real and it is imperative you keep the “little” things in your crosscheck.  If you are learning to fly retractable gear aircraft, develop good habit patterns.  You don’t want to be the next guy to forget to lower his gear on landing!

Fly safe!

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