We’ve all heard the old saying, “there are two kinds of pilots, the ones that have done a wheels-up and those that are still going to”. I however have met many pilots that reached a ripe old age and finally hung up their headsets without joining this embarrassing club. I personally have never had a wheels-up mainly due to the type of aircraft I once upon a time flew, they were all the “gear down and welded variety” so this was never an issue, although I have experienced some interesting approaches and landings that would have almost certainly ended in the dreaded wheels-up if the option was available.
Distractions on approach is normally the culprit, whether it be other aircraft in the circuit, unexpected changes to normal procedure due to sudden weather condition changes, a in cockpit technical issue or anything else out of the ordinary.
I recall an incident I witnessed a few years ago where a pilot decided to go for a short flight before taking his wife shopping. He got airborne from his local airfield and immediately heard that there was increased traffic in the area, he inquired as to what was happening and was promptly told there was a Fly-in and Airshow at a field about 50nm away. He decided to make his way there for a short visit, which unfortunately ended up being a long embarrassing one.
Once he joined overhead, he started thinking what his wife was going to say about his impromptu landing as she was waiting for him to do his husbandly duty and take her shopping. On final approach he was pretty engrossed with devising a fool proof excuse as to why he was late, so much so that he completely forgot to throw the Dunlop’s at the ground.
When he finally fully extended the flaps and came back on the power the gear warning sounded, it was too late and he put her down on her belly on the centreline. He sheepishly emerged from the cockpit and after removing the relatively undamaged aircraft from the runway, with a bit of spectator help and expected banter, was forced to make the dreaded phone call to his irate wife.
A recent study in the USA concluded that 54% of all wheels up landings are due to simply forgetting to lower the gear, approximately 30% are due to technical hang-ups where the gear just wouldn’t extend. And the remaining 16% was due to gear collapses on landing sometimes due to a bad landing and a lack of proper maintenance on the gear.
Distractions can’t be avoided in the airport environment but there is one thing, if it’s done every time, that will keep you from making a wheels-up landing.
Double-check gear position on final approach!
Preferably out aloud something like “Final Landing Check Gear Down?” and actually touch the gear handle physically in the process. If this becomes habit you might just prolong your inauguration into the Wheels-up Club indefinitely. A good idea is to devise a trigger to remind yourself to check passing through 500ft or reaching a certain speed are but some of the reminders that may help. If you are landing at a military installation it is immediately noticed that after getting landing clearance from the ATC they ask you to confirm “gear down and locked?”, although this wont help you at an unmanned field I feel it should become part of the ATC procedure at all manned civilian airfields, it would definitely reduce the wheels-up incidents.
In the case of a gear malfunction, totally unavoidable by the pilot, it is advisable to keep the engine or engines running as long as possible. Adding the extra stress of a dead stick landing to the already stressful situation is never a good idea. Saving the engines and props sounds great but at the expense of making the landing more dangerous than it already is just to save the insurance company a bit of money may not be worth it. if the mixture is pulled as the aircraft touches the ground it should be sufficient to save the engines.
Gear collapse due to whatever reason is a very unexpected event, and the pilot pretty much becomes nothing more than a passenger as soon as the gear lets go. Making sure that you have enough runway on every landing may just make things a bit safer if the gear or even the breaks fail on landing. it will usually only be one of the three legs that gives way in a gear collapse.
Be safe out there.