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How Complacency Led An 18,000 Hour Pilot To A Gear-Up Landing

Think you'll never fly yourself into a gear-up landing?

This pilot has a warning for you, and what they learned from their mistake. It really can happen to anyone...

Farhill

"It Can Happen To Anyone"

Gear-up landings happen nearly every week. Sometimes it's due to mechanical failure, but other times it's due to pilot error. The following NASA ASRS report highlights what can go wrong when standards and habits meet an unusual situation, leading to pilot error.

Since I had not flown in about 5 weeks, I chose to go out early before the heat had become oppressively hot. I departed ZZZ in my BE-35 Bonanza. I proceeded northeast to the practice area and climbed to 3,000 ft. MSL for steep turns, slow flight, and stalls. After completing these maneuvers I returned to ZZZ for a few full-stop landings and take-offs.

I entered the traffic pattern for Runway XX and completed four take-off and landings to a full stop. I decided to do one more spot landing on the numbers. After takeoff, two corporate jets reported that they were inbound for landing on UNICOM. I announced that I would extend my downwind leg to let both land ahead of me. My normal SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) is extending the landing gear opposite my point of intended touchdown and I don't normally extend wing flaps. I continued downwind until I could see that both the other aircraft had landed and cleared the runway and then turned the base leg. By this time I had wing flaps set at 20 degrees down.

When extending the landing gear, my habit is to verify both the green light for the main gear and the mechanical indication for the nose gear and call "gear down and locked" audibly. I repeat this again on final approach. As usual, I performed the checklist while on downwind leg and checking for the other traffic's position. However, in retrospect, I must have thought in the back of my mind that I extended the gear when in fact it was the flaps. I recall my "gear down, locked" on the downwind leg and on short final.

My mind was so intent on touching down on "the numbers" that I had tunnel vision. I'm sure that I looked at both gear indication on final but, only saw what I expected to see, not what was apparent. I recall just before touchdown that the thought that the sight picture wasn't normal - I was lower than normal. As soon as I realized this the stall warning horn blared. At that instant, I heard the propeller hit the surface and saw and obviously struck the propeller blade ahead. My next thought was to attempt to keep the aircraft on the runway. The cabin began to fill with smoke from the burning/scraping paint on the belly. The aircraft quickly came to rest. I quickly shut off fuel, master switch and mixture and exited the aircraft unhurt except for terminal injuries to my pride and probably terminal damage to my beautiful aircraft.

Perhaps a more thorough application of checklist would have been preventative as would more regency of flying. Complacency and familiarity are certainly suspect. After over 50 years as a pilot and nearly 18,000 flying hours, I can testify that regardless of experience, this type of accident can happen to anyone. An additional thought is that distractions from the normal require additional vigilance and situational awareness.

Though not the same airplane, the following unintentional gear-up landing is a great example of how this accident happened. Caution: there is some strong language used in the video.

"Slips" Occur During Task Execution

Slips are actions not carried out as intended or planned. It could be something as small as typing a fix incorrectly into your navigation system or flipping the wrong light on. They typically occur at the task execution stage, and when significant, they can pose real hazards to safety-of-flight.

One of the most common slips is due to something called expectation bias. When we expect to hear or see something, our minds have a tendency to trick us into thinking we've accomplished the stated goal. In the case above, a pilot with over 50 years of flight experience and 18,000 hours expected the landing gear to be down, with three green lights, just like every other landing. Expectation bias is a real threat to all of us as pilots.

Boldmethod

Habituation Causes Diminished Responses

Habituation is defined as "the diminishing of a physiological response to a frequently repeated stimulus." Strong habits in a well-practiced, familiar task put you at extra risk of falling into habituation.

In this case, the pilot had a habit (or SOP) for putting the landing gear down abeam the intended point of touchdown. Because the pilot extended the downwind leg of the pattern, they may have forgotten to put the gear down entirely.

Once out of the "standard" realm of habitual operations, the task wasn't completed and the gear never came down. This is where checklists play a crucial role. They help us verify that we've completed tasks for situations just like this.

We can all memorize a checklist for normal operations, but the second something doesn't go as expected, it's difficult to get back on track. Physically reading and verifying each item on the checklist keeps us from slipping and making costly, dangerous mistakes.

Aleksander Markin

What Else?

Have you ever missed a checklist item? What else can pilots do to avoid situations just like this? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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