2 min read

I am a student pilot with 42 hours of flying time and am just getting ready for my flight exam.

On Sunday I was practicing touch-and-goes and after my first landing, I retracted the flaps, added power and started to climb out. I immediately noticed that my climb rate was lower than normal.

Flap switch

The switch is up but the flaps are down?

The water tower directly ahead started to look larger and larger. I knew I had full power but wasn’t getting the climb I normally would on a cold day, at 11 degrees F.

I looked out the window and was shocked to see that the flaps did not retract and were in the full flaps configuration.

I immediately slowed the 172 to 65 knots so there wouldn’t be any structural damage and tried to reset the switch three or four times to no avail.

I checked the circuit breakers and they were all in so at this point I decided to concentrate on flying the airplane and to land ASAP.

Everything was fine on final, on glide path at 65 knots and looking good until all of a sudden the 172 took a steep nose dive. My first thought was a bad downdraft so I first reduced power, pulled back on the yoke to slow the 172 back to 65, and the added power to maintain altitude.

When I looked out the window, I was again shocked. The flaps had fully retracted.

I floated more than usual and landed a little fast but had plenty of runway to manage the landing.

I notified the FBO and placed notes in the airplane indicating I had pulled the breaker for the flaps since they had malfunctioned. The FBO immediately took the 172 out of service and put it down for maintenance.

As a beginner pilot I learned several lessons.

First, when doing touch-and-goes I will look and verify that the flaps have retracted prior to adding power for takeoff.

Second, if I ever have the flaps fail to retract, I will leave the switch in the full flaps position which would have avoided the flaps retracting on final. I had left the flaps switch in the “up” position.

Third, I think concentrating on flying the airplane rather than worrying about how to fix the flaps was the best decision.

In closing, I hope this provides a lesson for all new pilots.

David Schollhammer
Latest posts by David Schollhammer (see all)
34 replies
  1. Ed
    Ed says:

    Good outcome- way to keep a cool head. The 172 can and will take off with full flaps, as you found out, but why slow to 65? 85 knots is the limit with flaps extended. And yes- leave the flap lever alone once you have a flap fail and the aircraft is under control- this is the same technique we use in the CRJ-200, which is plagued by flap failures.

    • Vincent
      Vincent says:

      Thanks for your summary. Your flap motor was intermittent I believe.
      On the C-172 you can vary your flap setting. I would suggest you relocate the flap handle to 1/2 full travel roughy 15 degrees. If the flap motor does kick in as in your case the flaps will only return to 1/2 effect and lesson the drag. Your next landing may be a bit longer but not a signifcant amount. Did you notice if the flap indicator was moving when you moved the handle to the up position?

  2. george
    george says:

    you probably got a little confused and were using the switch the wrong way around. It does happen, I have seen landing gear levers used inversely, it is no big deal, but it is the most likely cause. Unless you found a burnt wires or knackered switch.

    worth thinking about.

  3. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Nice article, thanks for sharing your experience.

    I wouldn’t get in the habit of reducing power and pulling back on the yoke on final if you see the nose fall. You should of course get the nose back up, but do not reduce power. This is a recipe for a stall.

    Read about wind shear and Delta Flight 191. I know what happened on final was because of the flaps, but you might see similar indications if you encounter wind shear on final. And the last thing you want to do is reduce power.

    • Kai
      Kai says:

      Reducing power alone won’t stall the plane if AoA is correct. But pulling back on the yoke alone(especially if doing so abruptly) when the glide path is already getting steeper(because of the previous nose drop) has the potential to increase your AoA(the angle between the chord line and flight path) to critical angle. The author was doing the right thing to use pitch change to control airspeed(AoA).

      • Matt
        Matt says:

        While it’s true that reducing power alone won’t stall the airplane, maintaining the same AOA with a reduced power setting may result in imminent contact with the ground. So while the airplane might not stall, the outcome would be similar.

  4. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    That was an interesting failure. Touch and goes have always been somewhat of a controversial operation and maybe your experience points to the advantage of stop and goes. The setting of flaps, trim and carburetor heat is checked on a stop and go. With touch and goes, there is kind of a flurry of activity in which those things don’t get checked but are just dealt with on the fly.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I agree Stephen. Touch and goes are a practical way to train, but I’m not a fan of doing more than about 2 in a row. You just get too rushed.

      • Duane
        Duane says:

        John – I’m kinda surprised to see you write that doing muliple touch and go landings results in “get(ting) too rushed.” Really?

        No reason to rush

        Practicing touch and goes is like practicing any other somewhat (but not really all that) complex flight maneuver in an aircraft … do it often enough and it becomes part of “muscle memory”. Ditto with practicing stalls, steep turns, 360s and 720s, or any other basic flight maneuvers.

        In fact, it continues to amaze me that I’ve known so many private pilots who NEVER practice maneuvering flight at all – no stalls, steep turns, no touch and goes, no go-arounds, no nuthin’ … the only time they ever do any of that stuff is when they’re forced to during their BFR, which they tend to dread.

        I tend to believe that’s why GA still continues to suffer so many stall/spin accidents in maneuvering flight … too many non-professional pilots seem scared to do anything in their airplanes beyond the minimum maneuvering to get from point A to point B.

        Practice (which by its nature is repetitive) is also fun … not to mention that practice makes us better pilots.

        • John Zimmerman
          John Zimmerman says:

          I see some pilots–especially new students–just get overwhelmed on touch and goes. Sometimes you need to pull off the runway and let the learning sink in. That’s the “rushed” part of it.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      Stephen – actually, touch and goes are great practice for when you have to do a go-around as a result of a botched flare and landing, when the pilot indeed has to manage power, carb heat, flaps, ailerons, and rudder simultaneously. Yes, it’s challenging – and that’s why it’s important to practice it over and over. And at busy urban area airports on weekends, touch and goes accommodate a lot more pilots and operations than do stop and goes.

      • Stephen Phoenix
        Stephen Phoenix says:

        Duane – All true, but I would question the need to practice something “over and over” which may be a flawed procedure. I don’t believe the airlines practice touch and goes for the event of a botched flare even in their simulators, yet their safety record is pretty good. Generally, in an airplane, a smooth methodical procedure is preferable to a rushed, unchecked activity.

        • Duane
          Duane says:

          Well, I’m not an airline pilot, so I wouldn’t know what they practice in their simulators … but it sure would have helped a great deal if Asiana 214’s crew had had a little more practice on recognizing and recovering from botched approaches to the runway .. it just might have saved a life and a whole lotta pain and injury.

          Not sure that holding up the airlines as the holy grail of stick and rudder skills is the way to go, either. Seems like a lot of aviators lately are saying just the opposite – i.e., that the airline jocks pretty much have lost touch with the necessary S&R skills.

          And on your last point: repeated practice makes for smooth and knowledgable, not rushed and unchecked … for anyone who truly knows their flying and their aircraft, there’s nothing rushed or unchecked about a well-done T&G.

        • Anonymous
          Anonymous says:

          Airline training consists of “balked landings” which may or may not result in a touchdown. We don’t practice touch and gos in the SIM, because SIMs do not replicate landings very well- even million dollar Level Ds.
          However, airlines did and corporate flight departments without access to SIMs still do practice TnGs.
          I loved teaching them in small planes, I thought it made my students better pilots. They do come with a bit of risk – as the above article attests to.

  5. Jason
    Jason says:

    I had a similar problem while doing some recurrent training with an instructor in my 182. I tried to retract the flaps during a touch and go, and the instructor noticed that the flaps remained fully extended. We pulled off the runway, shut down, and after powering up again, the flaps worked fine. I’ve never had the problem again. Ever since then, I always check flap deployment and retraction during my preflight.

  6. Duane
    Duane says:

    That’s why I own and fly a Piper. Manual flaps operated via a johnson bar is much better than Cessna electric flaps – the pilot knows exactly where the flaps are, by both touch and feel … and the manual control never lets you down.

  7. T-rat
    T-rat says:

    I should warn that your conclusion is wrong: “Second, if I ever have the flaps fail to retract, I will leave the switch in the full flaps position which would have avoided the flaps retracting on final. I had left the flaps switch in the “up” position.”

    You should leave the switch in the position where flaps got stuck. If after a few attempts flaps don’t work it’s better to leave it that way, that way you can’t get surprised like you did when things start to “work” again and surprise you.


  8. Mark
    Mark says:

    I had one flap stay up once on final. It broke a rod and stayed up when the other came down all the way and the plane rolled hard over to the left. I figured that if the flaps coming down made it roll, I better put them back up and so I did, and then landed and we all lived happily ever after.

  9. Dan H
    Dan H says:

    I had the same thing happen in a 172…at night at a mountain airport – three people on board. Airplane would barely climb, stall horn blaring, full power, chose to make a pattern and return to land same airport rather than try to climb out of a valley with hazardous terrain in three quadrants. Still remember seeing trees flashing by in the landing light as we staggered around the pattern barely holding altitude for what would be our final landing of the evening.

    Grew to appreciate the simple mechanical flaps of the Piper Warrior I later owned and built time in.

    Very glad for the slow flight training all of us receive in flight training and reliance on the axiom of “fly the airplane first”.

    MORT MASON says:

    If that had occurred during a floatplane landing in a C-206, you would have been in deep trouble indeed. When that happens in the Cessna line of airplanes, suspect one of the several micro-switches in the flap circuit. This is not an unusual condition . . . . .

  11. Galen Hanselman
    Galen Hanselman says:

    I had a similar experience with the electric flaps in a C-182. I was flying into a particularly short unimproved airstrip that I hadn’t been into before and the flaps wouldn’t come down. Instead of landing, I returned to the departure airport, made a no-flap landing and taxied to the maintenance shop. After pulling into the shop, the flaps worked perfectly. We checked for corrosion and loose wires – nothing unusual. Its never done this again. Maybe it just wasn’t my day to land there. I returned the following day and all went well.

  12. Jim Frankenfield
    Jim Frankenfield says:

    I was checking out a Dentist in a 400 Comanche (many years ago) and the first approach, on final at Wings Field, Philla., when he put the (elect.) flaps down, unbeknowest to either of us (me in the right seat) the good Doctor experienced a hard roll to the left. He applied a bunch of right rudder/aileron against the roll, powered up for the go-around and milked the flaps (flap!) up. We tried flaps again at altitude…only the right one deployed. Made a no-flaps landing at home base, nearby. Old (nor so bold) Jim

  13. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Friend of mine, instructor guy, owned a C-172 and a couple of C-152’s. As I worked for him, every once in a while, he’d give me some free flight time. One day he told me to take 08G out for some pattern work. His theory was the plane needed to be used, instead of just sitting there looking pretty. An hour of time in the pattern was also what I needed, to burn off some of my rust, and he knew it. Coming around for my second approach, noticed I was a bit high, so added some more flaps. All of a sudden, there was a rapid sink rate, but engine was providing all the power at the setting I had. As this author did, checked my flaps visually, and noticed they were fully extended, in effect, giving me air brakes effect. Lowered the nose a little, added some power, and managed to get the flaps back to the proper setting. When I got back to the hangar, asked the brother, (an A&P/IA,) if I could help sort out what went wrong. We finally figured out I messed up, but failing to pay appropriate attention to what I was dong when I lowered the flaps. Held the switch down too long, and didn’t actually watch what I was doing. I received a good dose of humble pie from the owner, and a refresher on proper landing procedures. (Couldn’t log that ground school time though.)

  14. James Macklin
    James Macklin says:

    Rather doing touch and goes, ask the tower [if there is one in operation] for “the option” which is permission to do a touch & go, a full stop to the taxiway[ramp] or a stop and go which gives you landings that count in the logbook for currency.

    When I soled back in 1967 in Cessna 3058J [I said Juliette and the ground control said Junk :-)] it was standard to say, “do two touch and goes and then meet me on the ramp.”

    When I was a CFI I learned to say “do three full stop landings, I’ll wave you on unless something changes” so I retained some control and the student was able to concentrate and do the check list without the rush.

    At a tower airport it is a good practice to advise the tower that you are a student pilot on a first solo. That will alert ATC to not issue an instruction that would lead to trouble such as “follow the FedEx 757 on a 2 mile final” or expedite, traffic is a Learjet on a 2 mile final following you.”

    BTW, my pet peeve with FAA is ATC doesn’t control anything, pilots control. ATC is Air traffic coordinators who issue clearances, instructions and helpful advice. But I’ve never heard of any ATC deaths or injuries in an accident.

    Student pilots, the phrase, “UNABLE” is what you should say when the tower tells you to do a 360 for spacing when you are on a 1/2 mile final. “UNABLE, will go-around, which way do you want me to turn?”
    A controller issued that instruction to me before I knew about the magic word, unable. I did the 360 at 400 feet so the ANG C47 did not have to go-around.

  15. Chris
    Chris says:

    When I was first learning to fly a friend of a friend was doing a single engine go around in a twin Comanche. They did not realize that the flap circuit breaker tripped. The result was a VMC roll at KJOT.

    • Dick Collins
      Dick Collins says:

      Most Twin Comanche flaps problems came when one flap retracted and the other did not. This could happen if the flaps tracks were not kept clean and lubricated. I had it happen a couple of times and it gave a good imitation of an engine failure.

  16. Mike Brown
    Mike Brown says:

    One point which should be mentioned – one comment says “The 172 can and will take off with full flaps”. That’s not necessarily true, depending on which model 172 you are flying. In a 172M like mine, “full flaps” is 40 degrees, and you’re really going some to get much climb even at full throttle. If you’re carrying any weight or the density altitude isn’t around sea level, don’t count on it. The 172P and later models are limited to 30 degrees of flaps for just that reason, because too many incidents in earlier 172’s during go-arounds with full flaps. If you’re flying an older 172 the 40 degree flaps are great for short approaches, as the airplane descends like an elevator, but if you have to do a go-around and can’t retract the flaps you should be thinking about landing straight ahead instead of assuming the airplane will climb.

  17. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    I had something very similar happen to me about two years ago flying a Cessna 150. It has the flap switch with “Up”, “Neutral” and “Down” and I was doing a stop-and-go (I was not allowed touch-and-goes) at a near-by airport. I used to have this OCD thing where I HAD to put the switch back to neutral as soon as the flaps were done go up or down. Well after I stopped and made sure I put the flaps up I accidentally flipped the switch too hard and it went back to “Down” so on take-off I started loosing more and more power till, by the end of the runway, I was getting something like 60FPM climb and barely missed having to change my pants as I skimmed over the tree-tops and figured out what had happened. So glad I’m not the only one who has done this and lived to tell about it. I learned some very important lessons that day, one, leave the switch in the appropriate position and, two, don’t EVER hurry up for any reason when flying. Run the checklist and just enjoy the time.

  18. RFR
    RFR says:

    Same thing happened to me, only at night on an unfamiliar 3000’ airstrip. Fortunately, my 172 had a 180hp conversion (flying club airplane). My response was the same as yours initially, followed by deciding to go ahead and land and wait for my wife to drive 3 hours to pick me up, then finally after cycling the flap switch a few times the flaps retracted. I headed home, and landed without flaps. I read up on this, and there may be a pressure switch of some kind that is a factor. I noted this with our A&P at annual time, which was a month ago. No update on it yet, but I will be following up. I will think carefully about go-arounds/touch and goes on short airstrips, especially while heavy and at high DA. Interesting lesson for both of us, and especially for you with the flaps finally retracting at a bad time!

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