The Human Factor and Airplanes

The way people work with machinery, or to say it better, the way machines work with people is a field of study called human factors. When we look at general aviation aircraft, few have a worse reputation for human factors incidents than the early Beech Bonanza models. This is because in an effort to make an airplane that was as beautiful to see as it was to fly, Walter Beech created the infamous “piano key” control panel.

With the “piano key” control panel, all the switches were in a single row, and all for the most part looked pretty much identical. Sure, there were labels on the switches, but they were illuminated by an overhead flood in many early models, and weren’t exactly easy to read sitting back in the seat. As with anything, people learned to “work around” the human factor challenges induced by the switches. As a result of those efforts, as well as a few ADs that made modifications to the critical landing gear and flap switches, the Bonanza line’s suffering from historical prejudice has been minimal.

The Lesson: However, if we look at the actions that the Bonanza pilots have taken over the years to work around the challenge of their instrument panels, there is something in those actions that every pilot can learn from. The work around is to basically reach out and touch the control in question, then to look at it and verify that the right control has been selected. Finally, as the control is moved, the pilot verifies that what they expected to happen really happened.

If the control was extending the flaps, the pilot would look out and verify that the flaps did indeed move. For the landing gear, the pilot would watch the indication change. In this manner, they verified that the action they had expected to take place had actually taken place, and that they hadn’t just turned off their nav lights or some other accessory load on the plane!

EVEN IF YOU DON’T DRIVE AN EARLY BONANZA, this same approach can help you. How many times have you found yourself on short final without the plane where it should be in terms of setup? If the answer is once or more, GET OUT YOUR CHECKLISTS and use this technique.

TOUCH the control in question.

VISUALLY VERIFY that your hand is on the correct control.

ADJUST the control as necessary.

VERIFY that the action called for takes place.

It sounds so simple, but dozens of pilots end up landing each year with their landing gear up. Take this example (I witnessed the aftermath first hand). The older, J model Bonanza had experienced a gear-up landing. The ATP rated pilot claimed that, while landing, the landing gear collapsed.

The landing gear was found in the following configuration:

  • Inner gear doors – folded on to landing gear;
  • Landing gear legs – partially extended;
  • Nose gear doors – open
  • Nose gear – partially extended.

The aircraft was found resting on the partially extended landing gear. Once the plane was lifted with jacks, the collapsed gear doors pulled away from the tires, and the landing gear switch placed in the DOWN position, the landing gear extended and locked down. In this case, the landing gear switch was found in the UP position, and the gear extended and locked down. It would appear that the pilot’s statement about the gear’s unaided collapse was not accurate.

The Bonanza in question had the piano key instrument panel. From the as-found condition of the gear, we could deduce one of the following scenarios:

  1. The landing gear was not extended until the last minute prior to touchdown.
  2. The landing gear was retracted as the plane was starting to flare.

Given the normal sequence of landing gear extension (inner gear doors open, landing gear extend, inner gear doors close), and the as-found position (inner doors collapsed around the landing gear), either of these could be the cause. Since the pilot quickly departed the airport, only to return later with a fresh prop to fly the plane out the same day, we were unable to further investigate this incident.

BOTTOM LINE: One way or another, following the checklist and performing the verification of expected actions should be sufficient effort to prevent this kind accident from happening to you. By incorporating these simple self-checks into your checklist routine, you will be able to avoid the embarrassment and cost of a gear-up landing for the duration of your flying years!