Nearly half of all reported mishaps in retractable-gear airplanes are related to the landing gear system. The vast majority of those appear to be related mainly to pilot action or inaction, often under the stress of distraction. There is a small component of the Landing Gear-Related Mishap (LGRM) record, however, that is a function of aircraft maintenance.
Despite the awful and costly results of a mechanical gear failure, my good friends in the aircraft maintenance and inspection business have countless stories of owners who skim on landing gear upkeep, and many more who, taking their airplane to a mechanic specifically knowledgeable about that type of airplane’s landing gear system for the first time, learn that their ‘regular’ mechanic had overlooked items because of lack of familiarity with the design. In those mechanics’ defense, many of the shop and maintenance manuals put out by lightplane manufacturers are themselves lacking in a lot of detail. Part of that is the result of history-at the time most RG airplanes were designed and marketed it was an entirely valid assumption that any mechanic looking at the airplane had been thoroughly trained in system troubleshooting as a result of World War Two or Korean-era military training. Another part is the fact that aircraft manufacturers until the early 1980s relied on a field maintenance force in factory-authorized service centers where mechanics would work on large numbers of the same design almost exclusively. Unfortunately both assumptions no longer hold true.
On the Ragged Edge
The low purchase price of some early RG airplanes, now 40 and 50 year sold (or older) means that some owners purchase airplanes that are really beyond their means to properly maintain. This creates a class of ownership that is operating on the ragged edge of its ability to safely operate the airplane. A $40,000 B35 Bonanza or Piper Comanche 180, for instance, looks mighty good when compared to what even a Cessna 172 costs-but that $40,000 V-tail is 55 years old, and the Comanche not really much younger. Both will require substantial investment (and not a little salvage-yard scrounging) to keep in top shape. It’s becoming axiomatic that the RG airplanes with the lowest initial acquisition cost, those build before about 1960, really need to be owned by among the wealthiest of pilots, because not only do they need to be maintained as diligently as a new-production RG aircraft, they’ve had decades of use (and sometimes, abuse) that has fatigued and possibly damaged the critical landing gear system. It takes more money and effort to keep up these proud relics of personal aviation’s early days, no less so for the complex landing gear system.
So What Can We Do?
So what can we do to avoid maintenance-related LGRMs? First, be realistic about the costs and obligations of ownership. If your prime reason for choosing that early Mooney over a Cessna 182 is your ability to absorb its lower purchase cost, you may need to seriously re-evaluate your decision. Second, realize that the landing gear system takes a lot of stress every time you fly, and maintain it like the critical component it is.
- Insist that your mechanic has (and uses) the shop manual for your specific model and serial number airplane-if you have to, buy this for your A&P and keep it updated at your own expense.
- Read the servicing and recommended overhaul schedules in the owner’s manual, Pilots Operating Handbook, and service or shop manual. Discuss with your mechanic which items you’ll accomplish, and when.
- Voluntarily submit your airplane to a very thorough landing gear system inspection and overhaul/repair as necessary at major aircraft milestones, such as every 2500 flight hours or every 10 calendar years, whichever comes first. Take your airplane to an acknowledged expert on your model of airplane if your regular mechanic doesn’t fit that description. If you own an airplane that hasn’t had such an inspection in that interval do it now, and start the timer for your next major gear check.
- Shims, bushings and other hardware are cheap compared to the cost of skimping on these vital landing gear components. Don’t wait to change them out if they show excess wear or begin to affect the proper operation of your landing gear system.
- Immediately investigate unusual noises, changes in gear operation, or unusual indications. Many’s the owner who knew of a problem but put off a repair until it was too late.
- Join the owners’ ‘type club’ for your model of airplane. Virtually all ‘type clubs’ have technicians who’ll provide a wealth of technical knowledge about your airplane as well as referrals to the experts on your landing gear system.BOTTOM LINE: Many LGRMs, especially the large number of gear collapse mishaps, may have a mechanical component. Ward off these costly and disappointing accidents by committing to proper maintenance, inspection and overhaul of your landing gear system.