Been There, Done That
9 December, 1999
Since this issue of the Comanche Flyer is focused on preventing landing gear problems and ultimately gear up landings, we thought you might like to hear about an actual gear up landing. So, we looked around and the obvious choice was to choose someone that had experienced one. Me.
First, a sobering fact or two. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation report on the Piper Comanche and Twin Comanche noted, for the single engine Comanche, that pilots with 0 to 100 hours in type had 48% - almost half - of the serious accidents and 41% of the minor accidents. Those with 200 to 400 hours of total time had 17% of the serious accidents and 19% of the minor accidents.
For the serious accident category in the Twin Comanche, pilots with 1,200 to 1,400 hours total time were involved in 19% of all serious accidents. That is four times the rate of similar aircraft. Pilots with 800-1000 hours of total time and/or pilots with 400 to 500 hours in type had notably higher accident rates than the comparable group.
In other words, low total time or low time in type raises the risk of accidents.
There is one other very important thing that you need to understand. Statistically, gear up landings tend NOT to happen because of a mechanical problem but because pilots simply forget to extend the gear before landing.
My ignoble experience happened because of both factors.
I had 76 hours in type. That evening I was on a training flight with an instructor working on an Instrument Competency Check as I was not instrument current. It was late afternoon and we were shooting multiple practice approaches at Monterey, Salinas, and Watsonville CA. We were shooting a final approach after two long hours of approaches, holding, partial panel, etc. We were going to complete the NDB approach into Watsonville, land and have dinner at the airport, before returning to our home base, San Jose. It was right after sunset. As is my habit, I lowered the gear at the final approach fix to initiate the descent. Approach cleared us to the CTAF and we immediately announced our position as inbound on the NDB from the Southwest. The active runway was opposite of our inbound course and there were five or six aircraft in the pattern.
As we continued inbound, an aircraft announced takeoff with the intent turning crosswind after takeoff. We reached MDA and still had almost a minute before the missed approach point. We didnīt see the departing aircraft and decided to abandon the approach, enter downwind, and land. I added power and climbed to pattern altitude, all the while my CFII and I were intently scanning for aircraft. Someone announced they were entering downwind midfield, and at that point we were downwind midfield. We were definitely heads up and looking for traffic.
Turning base and then final, we still weren't sure we had all the traffic in sight and for the third and fourth times I announced our position. Our only obvious traffic was on short final. We crossed the threshold exactly at the altitude I wanted but a little bit fast. I was intent on making this a good landing. This was prior to the installation of gap seals and my understanding that precise approach speeds make for good landings in a Comanche. In other words, I periodically (or not so periodically) dropped one in. With my instructor and good friend along, I was committed to making the best landing I could.
I flared and held it off. It took a long time to touch down and I was prematurely congratulating myself on a wonderful landing when all of a sudden there was an incredibly loud noise that reverberated around us and the airplane stopped within a matter of a hundred feet or so. Outside the front window a single propeller blade sat forlornly with about 6 inches of the tip bent 90 degrees. Just like that! Short and impressive!
I shut down everything, master, mags, fuel, etc. and we quickly exited the airplane. A quick look around and I realized that an airplane was turning final and in the fading light they might not see us. And, surprise, there was a small fire under the floor in the back seat. I handed the fire extinguisher to my friend and used my handheld and a very bright flashlight to continue to warn any traffic in the pattern that the runway was closed.
The fire was quickly extinguished and people began arriving within a minute or two. We maintained a watch for landing traffic during the recovery procedure and the police in an attempt to help placed a cruiser on the end of the runway.
I lucked out in that there was a shop on the field with a reputation for excellent repair work. They were called and carefully jacked up and moved my airplane to their shop. The airframe damage was limited to superficial scrapes on the skin on the bottom of the fuselage. Of course the antennas on the bottom were destroyed. But with the exception of the bent prop and the fuel strainer that caught on fire, and the fact that the engine would have to be disassembled and inspected, we would have been able to safely fly it home.
How did such a stupid thing happen? I must note that since then an A&P discovered that the landing gear wiring harness was absolutely rotten. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that I put the gear down and they didn't actually extend. What undoubtedly happened was that I extended the gear on the approach, retracted it when I climbed back to pattern altitude and never checked it again. But to this day I don't remember retracting it.
Someone recently asked me what I would have done differently, what I do differently now, and if I had any other thoughts about that event.
The most important thing is that I am now very religious about using check lists. I thought I was before. I am now. I use two landing check lists. The first is the Do list and it is completed as I enter the airport traffic area or just before beginning an approach. 70P is a 1960 Comanche and it has the Johnson bar that protrudes into the cockpit just behind the nose wheel well. When I extend the gear, I now place my hand on the Johnson bar and follow it into position. By applying slight pressure I have a tactile sense that the gear actually extends to down and locked and that there aren't any tight spots during the extension. I didn't do that before. I now do it every time. Then, I check for a green gear down light.
"Over the fence" I do a final check of gear, carb heat/prop/mixture, and flaps. On that check I look both at the green light and again manually confirm with my hand that the Johnson bar is up and in its proper position near the nose wheel well. I had a duplicate green gear down light installed right below the attitude indicator, comfortably within my field of vision. It makes checking the light easy and I find myself glancing at it almost every time I flare for landing.
What did I do right? To begin with, I had a fire extinguisher handily located in the cockpit. Without that, I know that 70P would have ended up a smoldering hulk. You carry a conveniently located fire extinguisher, don't you?
Second, I was engaged in a safe flight mind set. Even though I forgot to check the gear, both my instructor and I were endeavoring to fly the safest flight we could.
Third, after the accident, I managed the result as well as I could. I secured the aircraft, ensured the fire was put out, and most importantly, ensured that no one else was injured or killed by running into my airplane during another landing.
The big question is, what should I have done differently? Obviously, put the gear down! But, in fact the issue is more interesting than that. What I should have done when I realized that the pattern was busy and that because of the fading light we were having trouble locating all of our traffic, is to simply depart the pattern and reenter once we had everybody located. Then, the process would have been normal and it is much more likely that I would have extended the gear at the appropriate time.
Surprisingly, there was a real positive learning experience as a result of this incident (other than the FAA and everybody else involved were incredibly nice and understanding). I came away from that evening with a better understanding that whenever I am rushed, whenever I am pressured, whenever I feel I am behind the airplane there is one thing I MUST do and one option that I always have.
The "must do" is to pull out the appropriate check list and USE IT! My option is to go somewhere else, to slow down, to orbit; in other words, to find the time to get ahead of the airplane again. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to rush to get onto terra firma or to rush to do something, anything, but to simply go hover somewhere and let you and your mind get ahead of the airplane again. There is an axiom that the first thing you should do in an emergency is to "wind the clock". That means, before you do anything, take some time to think and make sure what you are about to do is the right thing.
The event itself wasn't that difficult or dangerous. If forced to, I would have no problem landing an airplane gear up. The trick is to pick a long runway (it takes a LONG time to slow down in ground effect), land with minimal fuel, keep the wings level, shut everything down before touchdown, smoothly bleed off the speed, and, like always fly the airplane until it is stopped. Oh, and tighten the seat belts first! You do have shoulder harnesses donīt you?
You've heard the old saw about gear up landings: "there are those that have, and those that will." Iīd heard it before and I heard it from a number of very high time pilots trying to make me feel better after that incident. The fact is, that it isn't axiomatic. It doesn't have to happen. All you have to do is to remember to put the gear down. And to do that, all you have to do is use a check list!