There are many planes flying around these days and as, a general rule, the later the model, the better looking it is inside. It’s simple, designs have been refined over the years, and newer planes are nicer and more comfortable than aircraft have been in the past. Nicer usually translates to more padding, better insulation, and special covers that hide structural members from the eye, covering them instead with a pleasant, smooth and painted surface.
COVERS ARE JUST FINE WHEN THEY ARE INSTALLED CORRECTLY. Note the key word “correctly.” Installing a cover incorrectly (perhaps after maintenance) can cause problems. In the later Bonanza models, the rear cover of the landing gear bay can be removed. It is also designed to allow the emergency gear extension crank to be accessed. The crank handle and shaft protrudes through a hole in the cover, so if the landing gear ever fails to electrically extend, the pilot can reach back and crank a full 52 turns to get the gear is down.
IN THIS CASE, OUR OWNER HAD JUST FINISHED UP AN EXTENSIVE ANNUAL INSPECTION. This included a check for cracks of the carrythrough spar web of the plane, which required all the decorative covers to be removed from the spar cover. Once the inspection was completed, the shop reinstalled the covers, and signed off the logbooks for the plane to return to service.
OUR OWNER PERFORMED A THOROUGH PRE-FLIGHT INSPECTION. He checked the security of the control surfaces, and even checked that they moved in the right direction when he moved his control wheel. He checked all the fuel and oil levels, and even sumped the fuel tanks twice, just in case. He checked everything … except that emergency gear extension handle.
On takeoff, the Bonanza took to the air with ease and climbed out quite well. He retracted the landing gear, and headed off for his $100 hamburger, some miles distant. As he approached the destination, he reduced power and slowed down, and then went to extend his landing gear. To his surprise, when he expected to hear the gear motor run, instead he heard nothing.
At this point, our pilot pulled out his emergency procedures. He contacted the control tower, and made a low pass — the tower confirmed his gear appeared up and locked. He then climbed to a safe altitude, engaged the autopilot and reached back to perform a manual landing gear extension. WHEN HE LOOKED FOR THE COVER OVER THE LANDING GEAR HANDLE, HE WAS SURPRISED WHEN HE COULDN’T FIND IT.
WHO GOOFED UP? Well, EVERYBODY.
- The shop has a piece of this problem — they installed the cover incorrectly, and made it impossible for the pilot to reach the emergency gear extension handle. Worse yet, the handle was damaged by the cover — even if the pilot had managed to get the cover off, the chances are that it wouldn’t have done any good.
- HOWEVER – The pilot shares responsibility. The pilot should have caught this during the preflight. This is a safety item, and is part of the pre-flight checklist.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR SAFETY EQUIPMENT? While this story is about a Bonanza pilot that had a bad day, the same is true for many other airplanes, whether retractable or not. After annual, you need to confirm that everything works, and that includes:
- Emergency landing gear handles — can they be reached, and if a pump system, can the handle be installed or extended?
- Emergency fuel pumps (wobble pumps) — can the handle be extended?
- Air box cutoffs (You never need it until there is a fire on board, and then you can’t live without it!) — is it functional?
- Gust locks — either for the rudder or main controls — are the gust locks removed / disengaged?
BOTTOM LINE: Becoming a pilot is a privilege earned through a great deal of sweat, effort and cash. To maintain your skills as a pilot you can’t take anything for granted — especially when it comes to flight safety. During your preflight make sure essential systems are functioning; those few calm minutes on the ground can spare some very long ones in the air. Maintain your vigilance in the air, but also on the ground during preflight. Your life will be easier.