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No Flaps, No Problem

Flaps are a pretty standard device on airplanes, and one that many pilots take for granted. Whether we have manual flaps actuated by a lever on the floor, or fancy electric driven flaps that move at the touch of a switch, flaps can and do fail in flight.

Flaps are a pretty standard device on airplanes, and one that many pilots take for granted. Whether we have manual flaps actuated by a lever on the floor, or fancy electric driven flaps that move at the touch of a switch, flaps can and do fail in flight.

One of the most benign flap failures is for the flaps to stick up in flight. There are a variety of reasons why the flaps could fail, ranging from broken wires and cables, disabled limit switches, and even a broken selector switch or lever. Since flap failures can occur, you would think that most pilots know how to handle them. Unfortunately, since flap failures are so rare, many pilots don't even think about them. Depending on their instructor, some new students taught to lower flaps progressively through base and final don't even know airplanes can land without flaps. Regardless, lack of attention or experience with the problem of stuck flaps can cause problems for the pilot when that unexpected failure happens.

THE SETUP: You are on the final leg of a long cross-country flight, and are ready to get down on the ground. The plane is down to your VFR reserves, and the airport is in sight. The tower instructs you to enter a left downwind into runway 36, and you start your descent. As you adjust your trim to get into allowable flap speed for extension, the airplane slows down as you expect, and you reach over and hit the switch.

NOTHING HAPPENS. You check the circuit breaker, and it is not tripped. The flaps are still up, and the confident whir of the motor is not present. The position indication confirms that the flaps aren't moving. You are now in a No-Flap landing situation. You've also spent a lot of time looking around the cockpit in the airspace you are most likely to have a midair.

Remember what flaps do. They allow the aircraft to fly a steeper approach without increasing airspeed. The aircraft will fly (and land) just fine without the flaps, but there are some differences you need to keep track of:

  • Make sure the flap switch is back in the UP position to get them out of play. The last thing you need is for the flaps to deploy on short final and really mess you up!
  • No flaps means your approach speeds need to be faster, to assure you don't stall at low altitude.
  • Remember, your speed and the way you fly in the traffic pattern is critical -- consult your pilot's manual, but maintain a good margin over the stall speed.
  • Fly a normal, but faster, pattern. A faster pattern will, in practice, translate to longer pattern legs. Downwind will be longer and wider to fit a longer base leg.
  • Warning: If you try to fly a faster pattern without increasing the size of the legs, you'll be making steeper turns ... and that's not good.

  • Since you will be landing at a higher speed, you will need more runway, or will need to get on the brakes fast and stay on them to make a safe landing.

THE BOTTOM LINE: In flying, anything can and will happen. It is a fact of life -- even if you maintain your airplane to the best standards using only factory trained shops, eventually you will run into an unexpected failure. If you aren't prepared, flap failure can be a real doozy. Fly the plane faster, expect higher pitch angles when you're over the runway and you will find that your no-flap situation is really a no-problem situation!

See also:
A Bad Split, concerning what to do if only one flap extends and Jeff Pardo's overview Flap Failure -- It Happens.

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