Gear down… or is it?

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

Recently my memories of earlier days were rekindled during a chat with a friend regarding wheels-up landings. We were discussing my own misfortune of last year of having to land on two wheels in my Twin Comanche – the right main wheel had not locked down.

Our discussion included my recollections of my time with the Royal Air Force Central Flying School flying the Folland Gnat – one of the highlights of my aviation career.

It emphasised to me again, no matter how often you fly and how long you have been doing it, there is always something to learn, particularly in a demanding aircraft, as was the Gnat in an engine-out forced landing.

Wirraway trainer
The Wirraway, where an important lesson was learned.

But the incident I had in the Gnat was spawned many years before during training for my RAAF “Wings” in a Wirraway Basic Trainer; almost identical to the USAF T-6.

The flying program showed a progress check with the CO. In those days we were always having our progress checked. The “Hate Sheets,” AKA Training Records, had the P-A-T assessments, short for “Progress, Attitude, Technique,” written up after every instructional flight.

Progress was mandatory, as was attitude. If you did not have the right attitude you would be suspended from course and re-mustered to a ground job. The right attitude had nothing to with standards as sometimes accepted these days. It meant discipline and training as an officer and that meant ability, one day, to command and lead those for whom you would be responsible.

But that went right over our heads. All we wanted was to be fighter pilots and dreams of other ambitions had yet to materialise.

The Wirraway aircraft was the Australian version of the American Texan T6 and I had not gained my wings and was about half way through the course.

“OK Baston, just start up, take off and we will see what aerobatics you can do and then some forced landings and some circuit work.”

The CO was an ex-Korean War veteran, medals all over and a legend to us all. Later in my career I learnt even more and gained greater respect for what these brave people had done before us, in actions that give us the freedoms we have today.

“Trim; rudder three o’clock; elevator 11 o’clock. Mixture Full Rich; Pitch Full Fine; Fuel – Ki-gas locked – Mains selected and sufficient” – and so the mantra was performed and the words like a choir were recited.

Not a bad well-judged forced landing I thought to myself. In my mind I was hoping for an “above average” assessment but the chasm of despair was soon to present itself. “OK Baston. Assume the weather has deteriorated and it’s getting dark. Show me a bad weather low level circuit.”

I think, “No Worries” – such is the ignorance of youth.

In those days , for better or worse, the first priority was find the runway and complete a timed circuit with much head out-of-the- cockpit required but also a touch of instrument flying, albeit in visual conditions.

Landing gear lights
Three green you say – but did you look?

Abeam the touchdown point; start the stop watch – time three times your height (300 feet = 9 seconds) downwind and turn base, still with the aircraft clean and no gear or flap selected until aligned on the short final.

“Base gear green” and cleared to land.

So I landed and not a word from the CO. Obviously I had impressed him and would go to the next stage of my training – the dreaded Instrument Phase.

Wrong!!!!

“Taking Over” came the order from the CO as he brought the aircraft to a stop on the runway. “Now get out and I shall see you at the debrief in the crew room – and run, I won’t wait forever.”

The order was gruff and clear and we were about two miles (three kilometers) from the squadron and I wondered what was happening. Soon I was to find out!

I finally arrived, hot and exhausted, having lugged the parachute and flown for a full hour but I was grateful that the CO was waiting. I didn’t want to make him unhappy.

And then it was revealed. I was told in no uncertain manner that if I was to graduate the way to do it was not make automatic radio calls. They sound nice but if I was to call “Base gear green” then the gear should “damn-well be down… not up and locked as it was on your so called low-level circuit.”

I was mortified. Was I to be suspended? Given another chance or…?

As it was I did graduate and from that day on I have always, every time, in every aircraft I have flown – wide bodies or Cessnas – always had a “last-look” at the gear lights shortly before touch down.

RAF Fairford
RAF Fairford, with plenty of runway.

Fast forward 10 years and I was a CFS Gnat Instructor at RAF Base Fairford and about to convert an experienced pilot onto the Gnat. I was on an exchange posting from the RAAF and this was to be my first Instructor – Student job and would be a good introduction for me for the remainder of my tour training RAF pilots to be Gnat Instructors.

It was the second sortie where the profile was upper air work, some high speed flight and some supersonic advanced turning – strictly under radar surveillance.

The final segment was for forced landing practice and a couple of circuits would see the exercise completed for that day.

In the Gnat, the configuration for a simulated engine failure and seizure was to set 65% RPM and have the speed brakes extended. The speed brakes were in fact the undercarriage but only half extended for speed brake actuation. For realism it was also assumed no hydraulics were available, therefore, no flaps and the flight controls were in the “follow-up” mode – these days known as manual flight.

Another idiosyncrasy of the Gnat was when in the engine out configuration with no generator on line, only battery operated trim of the stabiliser was available and a flare could only be achieved if the stabilizer was kept in the green range of the Tailplane Indicator (TPI).

Gnat landing gear
The landing gear on the Gnat could be used as speed brakes when half extended.

So a forced landing was a demanding maneuver where the aircraft was clean, a fast glide speed required, a limited landing flare capability was available with a slow, battery-operated stabilizer trim. Furthermore, it was vital to maintain the TPI in the green range to ensure the flare maneuver could be achieved.

From memory the “High Key” was 7,000 feet and accurate judgment in the forced landing pattern was an absolute necessity.

So here I was, a new instructor with very limited time on the aircraft but an awareness from my previous instructing time in the RAAF knowing that I needed to be very careful.

I positioned the aircraft approaching the “High Key” configured in “follow-up” flight control mode with speed brakes extended and with 65% RPM set. “Handling over,” I said and proceeded to monitor the TPI and the aircraft position while my convert flew the forced landing pattern.

Speed was a little high as we came downwind and I sensed a tailwind that had not been evident before. Turning base a little early I thought with the TPI on the full forward limit of the green range and then I noted the TPI went forward out of the green range so gave a clear instruction to trim it back.

My student was under stress and so was I but the approach was under control as we lined up on final – and as I had earlier briefed – “point the ‘broomstick’ at the threshold.”

The “broomstick” descriptor was the tongue-in-cheek name I gave the aircraft –just a touch of humour for my British colleagues… for that was how it seemed when flying the Gnat with the broomstick-like pitot tube pointing the way.

And flying the gnat and has often been described by others – “you don’t get in a Gnat, you put it on.”

Gnat with drag chute
That drag chute will help you slow down if you’re too fast – assuming the wheels are down.

We crossed the threshold too fast but enough flare capability to do a reasonable touchdown on the long runway at Fairford and stopping with a drag chute if needed was not a problem; and then as had been my normal practice for years I took a last look at the gear lights.

Three glowing reds.

In a less than calm voice I can vividly recall how I shouted “Taking over” and stretched the glide in a prolonged hold-off as I slammed the throttle against the stop.

In those days the spool-up time on jet engines was long and the Bristol Siddeley Orpheus was no exception. At least I had started at 65% RPM, not idle, but as I held the aircraft off with the nose getting higher and higher and the engine slowly spooling up it would be pure luck as to what would occur first

Runway contact or a surge of full thrust.

As it happened luck was with me that day and I went on to complete my tour without any further incident… and while I no longer fly high performance jets, I still keep the habit of doing a last look in my little Twin Comanche for every landing.

I learnt about such things a long time ago – taught convincingly by my Squadron CO. No more automatic radio calls and no more long hold-offs or slamming throttles and testing luck for me anymore.

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6 Comments

  • Maurie, a very refreshing story, and one with much merit. Thanks for the mental motion picture. I too long ago developed the habit of stealing at least one last glance at the “anti-skid” lights just before touchdown; although, I don’t remember from where. But now it’s automatic….

  • Years ago I added no red lights and no horns to my three green lights call out. But I always sneak another peek on short final. Scares me and I use to be fearless!

  • A first class story that reminded me of my own experience with landing gear warning lights. A last minute glance at the landing gear status saved me from embarrassment on the day I was being tested in a Convair 440 Metropolitan for my Royal Australian Air Force annual flight instructor renewal. The testing officer from the RAAF Central Flying School acted as my co-pilot although he had never flown in a Convair before. He asked me to demonstrate a single engine low level circuit at 300 feet.

    Joining the circuit with one engine at zero thrust on the “dead” engine, the landing gear was up and partial flap deployed. I was very busy flying virtually single-handed while the testing officer listened to my `patter` ATC cleared us to land and as I was turning towards a close final still talking and telling the “student” what I was doing, I completed my patter with the words “Note we are turning final and the speed is bleeding back to threshold speed and about here, we make a final check for three greens – Oops!!” I quickly reached over and selected gear lever down.

    I had clean forgotten to lower the gear turning base because I was so distracted doing everything myself including the radios. In fact I should have immediately admitted I had cocked up and gone around again on two engines.
    Instead, pride got the better of me and I continued the approach on one engine, hoping the inexperienced testing officer hadn’t noticed the gear was still up and that my quick selection of gear down was SOP for a low level single engine circuit at 300 feet. The three greens came on in time and the landing was normal with me still `pattering` all the way until we stopped on the runway.

    If the testing officer had noticed anything abnormal he certainly said nothing about it; so I presumed he was simply unaware how close it had been to wheels up single engine landing. At the subsequent de-briefing he still made no mention of it. I kept my mouth shut. It was the habit of a last second check of 3 greens that saved the day and I was given a tick in the box.

    Many years after I left the RAAF I was instructing a student on a PA44 Seminole. He lowered the gear on the downwind leg and we both checked three greens. The sun was behind us on final and again I silently checked the three greens although they were difficult to see; this time because of the sun shining on the instrument panel. The lesson of the Convair incident was still with me.

    As the student flared for landing I took one last look at the greens only to find with horror there were only two greens. I took control and went around from the hold-off and raised the landing gear. Back in the circuit the gear was selected down and sure enough the absence of one main gear green light indicated a problem. I wiggled the offending light module and a green light appeared. It nothing more than an intermittent loose electrical connection to the light globe and we could have landed safely even if I had not seen the defect. Better safe than sorry, however.

  • Benjamin Franklin said that its easier to prevent a bad habit than it is to cure it.

    Likewise….Hopefully good cockpit habits will help when distractions and fatigue are ganging up on us.

  • I have had 3 nearly wheels-up landings. The first was on my instrument rating test. The testing officer had given me a simulated engine failure in the procedure turn of an NDB approach and in setting zero thrust the gear up warning horn was sounding. From memory it was on the right hand throttle and that was the side of the simulated engine failure. I was half-way around a circling approach, still asymmetric, and from past experience I knew you couldn’t have both approach flaps and gear down and I was leaving gear until final and committed.

    I knew something wasn’t right but was totally committed to keeping the aircraft lined up when it hit me like a sledge-hammer. GEAR. The company had a practice of checking runway at 400′ and then committing to land if clear. I called out, “400′ Runway clear. Landing”, at putting the gear down. Phew – close. The other two occasions were both from being interrupted during the approach and having to change my course. On both occasions I caught the problem by being aware that I was going too fast for what I thought was the configuration.

    Not long after this I was talking to a very experienced pilot about the incidents and he told me of a practice that had kept him safe over the years; that whenever there is a runway in front of him, he checked the undercarriage state, even if he had no intention of landing on that runway. I adopted the practice and recommend it. I never had another incident again.

  • I took my first flight in a complex arrow Monday. For 2 days prior to my flight my instructor Dylan Smith drilled into me gumpf, repeating it for two days straight. Along with calling out loud gear down 3 green positive from downwind to final. As a final emphasis I have to look down one last time and call out 3 green clear as I’m leveling out. After reading all the comments I have to say thank you all for making it crystal clear.

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