The RG Factors: Dual Instruction

Landing gear-related mishaps (LGRMs) account for nearly half of all reported accidents involving certified, piston-engine retractable gear aircraft. Up to 15% of these gear up and gear collapse mishaps happen when you’d least expect it: during dual flight instruction. Certainly much less than 15% of all RG flying happens with a CFI on board. How can we account for this high rate of dual instruction LGRMs, and more importantly, how can we use this knowledge to avoid this sort of mishap?

Double (engine) Trouble?
The closest I ever came to a gear-up landing was while providing dual instruction in a Beech Baron. We were in the pattern at Wichita, Kansas’ main commercial airport and, while on downwind, I gave my student a simulated engine failure. He managed it well and when appropriate turned base and then onto final approach. We were about half a mile out when I noticed that the landing gear was still up. The problem was easily fixed and, after landing, provided a good lesson for us both.

What about the gear warning horn, which blares a staccato beep when the throttle(s) is/are reduced to near idle and the gear is not down? Multiengine pilots-in-training (and their instructors) get conditioned to hearing the gar horn in simulated engine-out work all the time, as the ‘dead engine’ throttle needs to be reduced to near idle to simulate the effects of engine-out operation. So the horn becomes just part of the backdrop of much MEL flight training. In fact, many multiengine airplanes have a method of disabling the gear horn for such work (and a Pilot’s Handbook recommendation to use it)…with the hazard of forgetting to re-enable the warning horn when the lesson is done.

RG FACTOR: Dual instruction in multiengine airplanes invites LGRMs by conditioning pilots to fly with the warning horn continually activating, or encourage disabling the warning horn-either way a vital ‘last ditch’ gear-up avoidance system is rendered ineffective. Counter the threat by maintaining landing gear awareness and discipline, and by using a short-final callout check to confirm landing gear position. After training, be sure to follow checklist steps for re-enabling any disabled alarm systems.

Pattern Complacency
A common training scenario puts pilot and instructor in the traffic pattern for repeated takeoffs and landings. Inevitably the instructor will want to ‘mix it up’ for added training benefit (no flap landings, short field landings, etc.), and both instructor and pilot attention will be drawn to the ‘added’ technique. Further, it’s natural for complacency to set in after the third or fifth or ninth time around the circuit, complacency that can cause both pilot and instructor to let his/her guard down-until they hear the sickening screetch of propeller blades making first contact with the pavement.

RG FACTOR: It’s not uncommon for a reported gear-up or gear-collapse landing to take place after several successful trips around the traffic pattern. Counter the threat by constant pilot and instructor vigilance, and by limiting pattern sessions to about three landings at the beginning of a flight, followed by a pattern departure and other air work and then a couple more practice landings at the end of the session to break the complacency chain.

Touch and Go
Easily five percent of all reported LGRMs happen during ‘touch and go’ training. Many things have to happen during the on-runway portion of a touch-and-go, including a big trim change in some RG airplanes in addition to repositioning flaps and other controls for takeoff. It’s painfully common for the pilot to reach for the gear handle (instead of the flap control) during this hectic time…and typically the nose gear unlocks, driving the propeller(s) into the ground.

RG FACTOR: Touch and go landings artificially raise risk of a LGRM by requiring a lot of critical actions be done in a very short period of time. The best defense is avoidance-make all landings to a full stop, even during training. If you and your instructor decide you must perform touch-and-goes, divide the cockpit chores (pilot flying adjusts power, instructor adjusts flaps and trim) to reduce workload in this high-LGRM event.

Things to Think About
‘The typical ‘minor damage’ single-engine LGRM costs the insurance company an average of $40,000 in repair and claims administration expenses. Given this average the U.S. insurance industry paid at least $16 million in LGRM claims in 2003 alone! Reducing the number of LGRMs will not only make us safer, it will significantly lower the cost of doing business for insurance companies, perhaps making it easier to get coverage on an RG airplane at a lower cost.

‘Aircraft owners are beginning to report that at least one major insurance underwriting firm may no longer write new policies on RG airplanes, even very popular types, built before dates as recent as 1974. This corresponds with the FAA’s definition of an ‘aging aircraft’ as one that is at least 30 years old. Reducing the incidence of LGRMs may be the only way to demonstrate to insurance carriers that older, well-maintained airplanes are still worth their risk.

BOTTOM LINE: Dual instruction is a factor in a disproportionately high number of LGRMs. When providing dual instruction, the CFI’s primary role is safety, taking precedence even over delivery of the flight lesson. Pilots receiving instruction, however, should not let their guard down. To continue to operate and insure the RG fleet we all need to significantly improve LGRM avoidance.