I have been flying high performance retractable airplanes for more than 35 years and have never come close to landing gear up. The record of never landing gear up still stands. The record of not coming close has been shattered.
I was getting close to needing a flight review. Since I was making a trip to Texas where my brother is a CFI, and is still a partner in the Mooney I was a partner in before I moved, I asked him if he would give me one. He would be free, as opposed to the $75 an hour I would pay locally, and I could put gas in the Mooney cheaper than I could fly the club 172. He was amenable, so we set a time to get together.
He wanted to go late in the afternoon when temperatures would be cooler and hopefully the incessant west Texas wind would have subsided some. We pulled the airplane out and completed the preflight. As I settled into the left seat, what I saw was unfamiliar. I had checked out in the airplane and flew it several hours, but I hadn’t flown it enough to be totally comfortable. And the last time I was in this seat was six years ago. They had completed a major avionics upgrade since I left, but Philip would be handling that, so that wasn’t the issue, but other things were. I asked him to refresh me on the starting procedure. I remembered that Lycoming engines start with the mixture at idle cutoff, but the rest of the procedure had escaped me. He handed me a checklist. That’s what instructors do. I went through the sequence of getting the engine primed, and then turned the key. Nothing. “You have to push it in,” he said. Oh yeah, I had forgotten that.
As we waited for the oil temps to come up, he tutored me on the Garmin GFC500 autopilot. I had asked for the autopilot work since the 172 I normally fly has one installed. And I had no idea how to operate it. That tutorial behind us, we headed for the runup area. “1800 RPM?” I asked. “No, 2000”, he replied. I started looking for the tachometer. I had forgotten it was on the far right. Rusty again. Runup completed, we took the runway.
There was a slight left crosswind, and he was squawking about me not having enough left aileron input to compensate. The wind wasn’t that strong, but I complied. With the RPM up to the proper setting, I sensed an issue with my headset. Things weren’t coming through clearly. I tried to adjust it on my head, but it continued to be hard to hear. I made sure I had pressed the on button for the ANR. I unplugged it and plugged it in again. Nothing. He had programmed the autopilot to take us to 5,000 feet on the assigned heading. He was making sure it was doing as expected as I was fiddling with my headset trying to get it to clear up. By this time, there was an annoying intermittent buzzing that made it almost impossible to hear ATC or Philip.
As we neared the practice area, if I had any thoughts of him cutting me any slack because he was my brother, they were soon dispelled as he told me we were going to do a power-on and power-off stall sequence. I negotiated it down to a power-off stall. I don’t like stalls. Then he wanted to see steep turns. I don’t like those either, but since I had already obtained a concession on the stall, I didn’t argue with that.
Dusk was approaching by this time, so it was time to head back. Philip mentioned something about how I would be flying the instrument approach (ILS) to runway 17. Since I’m not instrument rated, that didn’t seem relevant, but I was too busy looking for the airport in the deepening dusk to argue with it. I finally located the airport. They hadn’t turned the beacon on yet. We had been given a straight in for 17, so I was positioning myself for about a 10 mile final. By this time, my headset had gotten so bad I could hardly hear anything.
I told Philip he was in charge of communication. As I proceeded down final, I heard a beeping noise. “What’s that?” I asked. It had something to do with an altitude alert on the ILS. My headset was buzzing so bad I couldn’t really hear what. I tried to ignore it, but it was still distracting. About that time, the tower called and told us to keep our speed up as much as possible. There was a King Air and a regional jet on our tail. Airspeed at that point was 110 knots and Philip said we could hold that for a while. On about a three mile final, I figured it was time to slow down so I pulled the throttle back and trimmed the nose. It slowed down some, but not to the 80 knots I needed. About that time, another beeping noise could be heard over the buzzing in my headset. “What’s that?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” was the reply. Now we were about a mile and a half from the runway. Thankfully Philip did his GUMP check. Gas, undercarriage. Then we both noticed where that other beeping noise was coming from. The gear was still up. He reached and extended it, the airplane slowed down, and while it wasn’t pretty, I got it on the ground.
A number of factors were in play here. First, I wasn’t that familiar with the airplane. Second, my buzzing headset was a distraction. Third, he was distracted with setting up avionics and monitoring an ILS that I wasn’t even paying attention to. All of those factors combined to divert the attention of both of us from what was really important.
When I was routinely flying our Bellanca, I had my routine down so much that it seemed almost impossible to forget to put the gear down. Two turns of the trim, three twists of the throttle, and wait about a minute. Airspeed would be 140 knots which was the gear speed. That dropped speed to 120 knots. One notch of flaps gave me 110 knots. Final notch of flaps gave me 100, which was approach speed. It was routine. You would have had a hard time slowing the thing to approach speed without the gear down. I was having that kind of slowing issue with the Mooney, but didn’t recognize the cause. There was no routine this time.
I never thought I would come that close to forgetting something so obvious. Of course, I had not been flying a retract for several years, so I was somewhat out of the habit. I now understand fully how people can get distracted enough to forget it.
The lesson? Ignore distractions and fly the airplane. Both of us were distracted. Me by the unwanted noise, and he by monitoring radios and trusting my skills with this airplane too much. If we do this again in a couple of years, both of us will be more diligent. In the meantime, I’m sending my headset in for repairs.
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