Landing gear up – how the unthinkable happened to me

A friend had just bellied his twin into the pavement floor of his hangar. I was a little smug about it. He had many, many hours including hours in a Blackbird, where he was the holder of record for the fastest time New York to London. He held this record time for several years and to the best of my knowledge, may still be the holder of record.

I let it be known among the several people who worked for me that I would be happy to give any of those a ride in my airplane. I was the proud owner of 98 Sierra Whiskey, a retractable. At least it looked like an airplane when viewed in flight.

A young girl who worked in the lab at the local hospital was especially interested in securing a ride for her children and husband. One evening when she was working, I agreed to meet them at the local airport for the purpose of fulfilling their desire to have a ride in an airplane. The weather was perfect. I would not have to put up with having a barf bag at the ready.

The logistics would spell out that I needed to make two trips. The first would be for two children. The second would be for one child and the husband.

The first trip was 100 percent uneventful. I wish I could say the same about the second. I sat back and allowed the beautiful sunset unfold before me. I made a pass to the south, then a similar pass to the north, figuring that would put me back near the airport from which I had departed.

That was true until I landed and was brought to my senses by a tremendous noise followed by an ominous quiet. In this quiet there was no sound of the motor. I realized that the airplane had stopped. I could get out of the airplane. I scrambled through the door only to be met by the tarmac three feet closer than it had been. It was not where I expected. I had crash landed. The wheels were still up. I had landed in a daydream.

Cessna on runway
“I felt that I had experienced daydreaming as a prelude to landing wheels up.”

The first thing to experience is that in an aircraft crash everything happens suddenly. There was a little smoke but very little. The change from a lot of noise to no noise is sudden. When exiting the plane, I scrambled in part to help my passengers get out, then to meet the ground two feet nearer than I expected it. I expected to step down to terra firma. Instead, I had to step up if anything. The skid marks on the runway were much shorter than I would have expected.

If there was a way to prevent this, it might have saved 98 Sierra Whiskey and it might prevent similar catastrophes that might befall other pilots. I expected the speaker at the local pilots meeting to mention this or something better for preventing accidents since he was an official representative of the FAA. No such luck.

Now the work began. This was a functioning airport or at least it was until I crashed. It could not be a functioning airport with Sierra Whiskey “parked” on it.

With no thought of inflicting further damage, my former passengers and a few gawkers from the nearby hangars assisted me in clearing the active. The last thing I would want was to jeopardize the health or safety of an itinerant plane or its passengers.

There were a few people at the hangars. They helped move the plane off the runway. Unfortunately, we moved the plane off the runway the wrong way. When most planes are made, their “skin” is assembled so that if the skin is subjected to torque, it is peeled, inflicting a minimum of damage. The easiest way to move the plane appeared obvious: move it to the nearest grass.

A comment: there were only a very few people who knew what happened to 98 SW.  They were among the very few who helped themselves to a free sectional map.

When I had some time to do a little introspection, I recalled how smooth the final flight had been from turning toward the airport to touchdown to end of skid. It was absolutely without a single bump. I felt that I had experienced daydreaming as a prelude to landing wheels up. In fact, I would attribute daydreaming to be a cause of many accidents, i.e.: auto accidents, industrial accidents, etc.

I called the FAA and told them about the plane sitting in the grass a few feet from the runway. After I attended to details, I left the airport. I had to make sure my passengers got home. The father of the passengers said it was the noisiest landing he had ever experienced. Since he had never been in a plane, it was the only landing he had ever experienced. His daughter wrote an essay for a class which she entitled “My Brush with Death.” Her family thought that this was hilarious.

With no one around to watch out for 98SW that night, she was a sitting target. When the last light is quenched, it is mighty dark in the country. Free sectionals: I would prefer not to travel if I did not have a current sectional covering the route of intended flight. That is how I interpret the law.

I called my insurance agent. By phone he walked me through how to strip the plane of any vital part which basically was the removal of any functioning radio.

Some friends advised me against flying the plane without a thorough inspection. However, that is just what the operator of a school did. He bought the plane and flew it across the country to his flight school.

Although the nearest inspector had written in the log of a pilot who had experienced a similar fate that he was free to fly, he demanded more from me. I have about 1,000 hours. When I showed up at an arranged meeting for a check ride in a fixed gear plane, that was not good enough. I could not reason why. In fact, as a citizen of the USA and flying as I did, I was paying his salary!

I decided that the hours that I had would be sufficient for me. I wrote off any more attempts to fly. When I walked away from the airport that day, I felt that a heavy weight had been removed from my shoulders.

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

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