COMANCHE TECH TALK
By TC Johnson
With 35 years as an airline pilot and 25,000 hours in retract airplanes, I landed my Twin Comanche gear up. NTSB and FAA called it an incident (by the way, if it had been a Beech, it would have been an accident … don't you just love Comanche's?). Even before that, I'd thought about checklists.
I did a little work at the Pan Am flight academy years ago on the 707 and 747 training programs, and making check lists work was part of the safety program we constantly worked on. With the big iron, there are two pilots and we used a challenge and response check list for many things, and then we used a "scan" checklist for setting the cockpit up. With a proper scan check, the checklist itself merely confirmed the item was properly done ... a double check of sorts.
Coming back into light planes, single pilot operation took some adjusting for me. While taxiing out, reading checklists can cause greater problems than no checklist. I find this true for other phases of flight also. For instance, flying a nice clean, fast approach in a blizzard to minimums, when you break out, just calmly reach over and get the checklist and start reading? I think not. Even in two pilot cockpits, with division of duties, it was difficult at times.
So what's a pilot to do? Only fly on nice days where constant traffic scan isn't required and faithfully read every item on your 50 lines of checklist, or develop a plan?
Even though the Comanche is an advanced aircraft, with the same techniques
needed to successfully fly a King Air, developing a short checklist and combining that with a scan I believe will do the trick. I currently fly not only my Twin Comanche, but Cessna 310's, 340's, and Navajo's, so here are my methods of trying to stay out of trouble:
When I haven't flown a particular bird in awhile (for me that's not much more than a week or so), I get the checklist out before starting and read all those items to get me in the air safely. This refreshes me as to the differences on the airplanes, also. Then I do my cockpit scan. For me, this starts with (and I'll use the Comanche) what I call "stuff". Stuff is the junk that clutters up my bird; charts and approach plates for the area I'll be in, oxygen mask and O2 available, sick sacks, fire extinguisher, Doug Killough's Manual on the airplane, flashlights ... you know, stuff. Now comes the flight setup: I start at the fuel selector(s), then up the gear area to the circuit breaker panel, and up the throttle quadrant. Then, to the bottom row left; master on ... switch positions to the right side. Next, fuel and engine gauges, and across the radio stack. Radios are still off, but I make sure 1200 is set, as well as check the audio panel. Then, back across to the left side, up to the whiskey compass and to the overhead panel, and trim set.
Now, start the engine(s), and the instrument scan right to left as before. As
you scan; for instance, the voltmeter ... check it; this is the time to confirm systems like oil pressure, vacuum, and such ... it is all there in front of you. OK? Alright, turn on the avionics and set your radios and nav instruments. It's really safe to do at this time; you aren't taxiing, so you can listen to the ATIS/ASOS, look at the wind sock, and start thinking about where you are going. At this time, I set my HSI (or DG) to the magnetic compass and set my course or heading bug to the runway I plan to use.
Here we are on the taxiway. Devote almost all your attention to this task; I think this phase of "flight" is a marvelous opportunity to screw up. Almost ready to take off now, did the run up once … the needles are in the green, now for my scan checklist: I use CIGARTIPP, yet there are other good ones out there. Controls (free and clear, and set ... i.e. takeoff flaps); Instruments (one more scan, and you know what you want to see); Gas (double check the wing caps, too); Altimeter (this means you have the weather … right?); Run up (did that and all is well); Trim (again); Interior (passengers belted and briefed, door checked, and even though you made sure the radios are all set for the departure on the instrument check, look again and have your departure procedures handy for any changes); Prop(s) and that means the mixtures next to it are up there too; and, finally, Pumps on. If I haven't flown for awhile, I'll grab the long checklist and make sure that my scan check hasn't missed something.
Cleared for takeoff, and I don't have a good gouge for this ... maybe someone
out there has a neat one. I think of the "final four". Remember the heading set for the runway, it should match. If it doesn't, get it sorted out, especially with multiple runways. To the right, verify transponder on. Now, down to the levers and knobs: one last chance at the mixtures (here, in the high country we lean to taxi and there is a possibility of over leaning, so when the throttles are pushed up, you will know immediately), and lights (all the bright stuff you left off so as not to annoy your fellow pilots).
Positive rate (of climb), gear up, watching for traffic, flying headings and such ... no paper work now. Once you level, clean up. This means the cockpit scan again, with the pumps off and cowl flaps set, cruise power and the more relaxed part of flight. Again, if I haven't flown the bird in while, I'll pull out the big checklist and review it and preview the parts to come.
Nearing destination and getting the weather, I look at approach plates or the airport diagram. If it will be on instruments, I brief myself on the most likely scenario as to fixes, altitudes and runway. If VFR, I picture myself in relation to the active runway and potential traffic, and review the frequencies needed. Also, look for information on your escape plans, while you're in the relaxed part of the flight. Missed approach? Where else to go if someone closes the runway, and the fuel and range you have for plan B, or even plan C in bad weather.
Landing, I use GUMPP... three times, at least. Nice day, entering the traffic
pattern … GUMPP abeam the numbers or the 45 off the numbers. Turning final,
GUMPP. And, short final, while trying to get that airspeed down ... just about
over the lights, and numbers in sight, GUMPP. Gas,Undercarriage,Mixture(s),
Pump(s), and Prop(s). The reason I use those three times as a habit, is because of the screwy things that happen in traffic patterns or on approaches. If you are carrying ice, you may fly a fast, clean approach down to minimums before getting a chance to GUMPP. At 200 AGL, this leaves 20 to 30 seconds to touchdown, and reading the big checklist is the least of your problems. Thus, that final GUMPP.
Also, the approach doesn't always go as shown in the AIM. For instance, landing the other day in a Navajo, I broke out of the overcast on a step down approach, got rid of Center and was trying to find the Mooney on downwind. Finding Mooney's are tough, so I start S turning and slowing to make sure I stayed out of the pattern till I'd located him. As I was slowing, I put the gear handle down and started throwing out flaps, all the while looking for the traffic and exchanging positions. By the time I saw him on very short final, I had to do some fancy altitude losing to get down while staying clear of some scuddy clouds. Finally stabilized on final about a mile out, I got to the final GUMPP and no green light. I checked the handle and it was in neutral, so I put it down (again) and it worked fine. No wonder I had trouble bleeding off altitude and speed; I must not have put the handle down firmly enough the first time.
So ... experienced professional pilot (me), how did you land gear up? Well,
I was flying without a professional attitude. I was flight testing some new
bar-graph engine instruments I'd put in and wanted to check the EGT's for
various mixture settings (home base is a high altitude airport; over 7,000
feet msl). I had planned on doing a series of nine approaches and landings;
the first three with full flaps, then three with normal landing flap
settings, and the last three with zero flaps. I was rolling on my last touch
and go, getting ready for the last circuit and final landing, when a
Cherokee entered the pattern. Thinking about matching speeds, slowing for
the Cherokee, I told myself, "I'll just suspend the checklist and leave the
gear down for the whole circuit" ... already in the landing configuration,
so to speak. But as I lifted off from my touch and go, it was "Positive
rate, gear up ....... "
Hey, it's a habit …..
My touchdown and slide out was very controllable and smooth. The only damage (besides my ego and reputation and wallet) was to the skin and antennas on the bottom. And a few crossmembers had to be rebuilt. With my Lightspeed headsets, I never heard the horn or the props striking. I did hear the bottom wire antenna; it sounded like an old fashioned curb feeler but, at that instant, I decided it was safer with a belly landing rather than to go around with possible prop/engine damage.
The Feds and insurance people said, "Distracted, huh?", and rather than explain (at that time I really had no explanation), I agreed with them. I hope to write a piece about "the Professional Attitude" in the future and show how, like me, folks get into trouble on the quick hop, or "I'm just going to … ", or "watch this … " Anyway, I welcome your thoughts, so email me at email@example.com and I'll try to get back to you.
TC Johnson, born in 1938, began his aviation career with the USAF as an instructor in navigation and electronics warfare. He took his first pilot lesson in 1966 and soloed after four hours. Ten months and some 700 hours later he was hired by Pan Am, got his MEL in the Boeing 707 and earned his ATR in the 747. He spent 25 years with Pan Am, and nine more years with Delta, flying various Boeings and the Airbus. Retired now after 25,000 hours in airline cockpits, TC owns a Twin Comanche, and is Chief Pilot for Star West Aviation at Evanston, WY.