The RG Factors

It can happen to anyone. And it does with alarming regularity.

At minimum, nearly half of all mishaps involving piston engine, retractable-gear airplanes result from failure of the pilot to properly operate the landing gear. A recent survey I’ve been conducting of owners of one particular line of RG airplanes reveals that nearly one in three have a gear-up landing or a gear collapse on the runway in their background. Although pilots and passengers are rarely hurt in these Landing Gear-Related Mishaps (LGRMs), quite often the damage is enough to “total” the airplane…and even with Cirrus and Cessna churning out (fixed gear) airplanes, the total certified general aviation fleet is declining. Those LGRM airplanes that are being rebuilt are done at the cost of many millions of dollars every year to the insurance companies—costs they naturally pass along to the rest of us, flying RG airplanes or not. In most cases retractable landing gear gives us better performance and economy, an option most of us would like to enjoy. We’ve GOT to do a better job with what should be an intuitive piloting task—putting the landing gear down, and keeping it down for as long as the airplane is on the ground.

The piston engine, RG airplane mishap record reveals that consistently nearly half of all LGRMs are the classic “oops, I forgot”-style gear up landing. Another near-half of the LGRMs occur when the gear is down but does not stay down while on the ground, usually collapsing the nose gear (with an accompanying metallic dischord) during the landing roll. Very few of the LGRMs, less than 15%, have an obvious mechanical cause.

Insider’s tip: These LGRM figures do not include reports of hard landings, runway excursions, etc., that resulted in, but were not the result of, a gear up or gear collapse incident.

My very first iPilot article outlined the problem and very briefly discussed some techniques to avoid LGRMs. For several years I’ve been studying the problem and have noticed some common contributing factors associated with landing gear-related mishaps. Knowing where the risks lay is the first step in managing risks to avoid mishaps. So what are The RG Factors?

  • Dual instruction: Perhaps surprisingly, the most common single factor associated with LGRMs is the presence of an instructor pilot on board, providing training. You’d think that two heads on board would make it virtually impossible to forget the landing gear. Not so. Ten to 15% of all forgotten landing gear extensions or inadvertent gear retractions on the ground happen during dual flight instruction. And often this happens during refresher training, when both pilot and instructor have significant experience in the type.
  • Strong or gusty surface winds. LGRMs are distraction-related accidents. Strong or gusty winds at the surface introduce distractions and unusual ground speed visual cues that may trick a pilot into a gear-up landing or invite disaster by suggesting rapid aircraft reconfiguration (such as gear retraction) during the landing roll. The LGRM record clearly reflects this correlation.
  • Electrical failure. Almost all lightplane retractable landing gear systems are run by electrical motors, or electrically-pumped hydraulic fluid. A large number of gear-up landings and especially gear collapses during the landing roll happen after an electrical failure in flight.
  • Touch-and-go practice. Complacency seems to set in and rapid cockpit reconfiguration lead to mistakes during touch-and-go practice, because T&Gs are a common contributing factor both to gear up and gear collapse mishaps. Interestingly, the T&G mishaps tend to be about evenly divided between those with an instructor on board and those done with perhaps more experienced pilots at the helm.Visit my website and you’ll find far more detail and additional observations on LGRMs that result from about four years of closely studying the problem:
  • Since most LGRMs as specifically excluded from NTSB reporting requirements and there is no rule requiring such mishaps be reported to the FAA (although if reported, the FAA is required to follow up), it’s highly likely that the LGRM problem is greatly underreported, and the problem is even greater (and most costly) that these conclusions assume.
  • The cockpit location and type of landing gear selector and indicating system do not appear to be significant in the LGRM rates. Far more important that selector position or indicating type is retractable landing gear transition training and recurrent training and discipline.
  • The record shows that the traditional ‘three times around the patch’ RG checkout is insufficient for instilling a significant change in cockpit habit patterns required to avoid LGRMs.
  • Significantly reducing the rate of LGRMs would dramatically reduce the total general aviation accident rate, with a likely substantial reduction in aircraft insurance costs.BOTTOM LINE: Increase your vigilance when you note one or more of these warning signs during your flight. Over the next few weeks we’ll look closely at each of The RG Factors and propose an initial and recurrent training regimen designed to dramatically reduce the hazard and expense of landing gear-related mishaps.