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Those Who Won't, Revisited -- 2002, The Year In Review

There's a saying among pilots of retractable gear airplanes, "there are those who have, and those who will" have gear-up landings. A couple of years ago we discovered that landing-gear-related mishaps account for nearly half of all accidents involving retractable-gear, piston-engine airplanes. Have we learned anything since we last visited this issue two years ago?

There's a saying among pilots of retractable gear airplanes, "there are those who have, and those who will" have gear-up landings. A couple of years ago we discovered that landing-gear-related mishaps account for nearly half of all accidents involving retractable-gear, piston-engine airplanes. Have we learned anything since we last visited this issue two years ago? Has the record improved or worsened? Which makes and models of RG airplanes are more likely to suffer Landing Gear-Related Mishaps (LGRMs)?

A CLOSER LOOK
I've noticed the extremely high rate of LGRM in years past, but 2002 was the first year that I made a complete study of the rates and causes of landing gear-related mishaps.

Inside Information: NTSB 830 accident reporting requirements specifically exclude accidents involving minor or no injuries and damage only to gear doors, flaps, engines, antennae and propellers -- in effect, making LGRMs exempt from accident reporting rules. Hence, most LGRMs do not appear in NTSB reports or the typical aviation safety studies we normally see. That's why the numbers quoted here are significantly higher than what you'll read in most publications. In fact, since there's no specific requirement to report ANY accident to the FAA, the likelihood is that there are even more LGRMs than my survey reflects.

AQUIRING DATA
Every weekday I accessed the FAA's accident reporting site and located all mishap reports involving factory-built, piston engine, retractable gear airplanes (RGs). In each case where a report involved an RG airplane, I recorded the airplane type, and whether the mishap was landing gear related. It sometimes took a little digging -- the FAA site doesn't distinguish between Cessna 172s and 172RGs or Piper PA28s or -28R Arrows, for instance -- so in ambiguous cases a quick check of the FAA's aircraft registration database allowed me to determine if the report involved an RG airplane.

MORE DETAIL
If the report cited an LGRM I broke it down into one of three categories:

  1. gear up landings, the classic "oops, I forgot to lower the gear" incidents;
  2. gear collapses, where the landing gear was down but for some reason did not remain down during the landing or takeoff; and
  3. mechanical causes, where an obvious system failure prevented the gear from extending properly.

Note: Sometimes "mechanical" causes can be inferred from circumstance. That is, sometimes the report states the pilot called ahead with a "gear problem," or he/she obviously circled around trying to troubleshoot the gear, or performed a fly-by asking persons on the ground to check the gear position.

THE RESULTS: there were 874 RG airplane mishap reports on the FAA web site in 2002. 431 of those (49%) were LGRMs. Of those:

  • 48% (208) were gear collapse accidents;
  • 37% (158) were classic "gear up" landings; and
  • 15% (65) had an identified mechanical cause.

Of course, some of the gear collapses or even gear-ups might have had a mechanical contributing factor, but there's nothing in the record in those cases to suggest so.

On the whole, the rates of LGRM appear to be essentially unchanged when compared to earlier years (which I admittedly did not track as closely).

TRENDS -- MAKE AND MODEL
Some airplane makes and models appear to be more prone to LGRMs than others. One commonly cited model is the Beech Bonanza, for most of its production life built with nonstandard placement of the landing gear extension handle (located where the flap control is in most airplanes). In 2002 the Bonanza/Debonair series had a LGRM rate of 43% (52 of 121 total reports cited Bonanza LGRMs). But wait -- the Cessna 210 (with "standard" gear handle placement) had a LGRM rate of 59% (52 of 88 reports), The Piper Comanche airplanes, 52%. The Mooney (many with a BIG gear handle, way up on the top of the instrument panel where it isn't likely to be moved inadvertently) had the same 43% rate as the Beech airplanes. Piper Arrows had a 47% LGRM rate; the Cessna 172RG and 182RG, respectively, experienced LGRM rates of 77% and 59% ... some would argue these rates are so high because Arrows, Cutlasses and Skylane RGs are commonly used as RG training airplanes. At a 31% LGRM rate, the Piper Lance/Saratoga SP had the lowest rate of LGRMs among single-engine RG airplanes.

TWINS
Among twin-engine airplanes, those mostly "nonstandard" Beech Barons suffered a 46% LGRM rate, but the Piper Apache/Aztec (with the same "backward" gear handle placement, and more often used in a training role) was among the lowest of all RG airplanes, at 36%. The Cessna 310/320 (69%), Piper Twin Comanche (56%) and Piper Seneca (55%) had some of the highest LGRM rates of all despite "industry standard" gear handle locations.

BY CAUSE

Gear Up Landings
percentage of total accidents by type, 2002

Type Gear Collapse Rate
Cessna 210 27%
Cessna 172RG 24%
Cessna 182RG 24%
Beech Bonanza 21%
Mooney M20 series 21%
Piper Seneca 21%
Cessna 310/320 14%
Piper Arrow 14%
Beech Baron 13%
Piper Lance/Saratoga 8%
Piper Apache/Aztec 8%

from FAA preliminary reports
©2003 Mastery Flight Training LLC Reprinted by permission

The single-engine airplanes, and especially the "training" types, trend highest on the "gear up" record, but note that the rates don't differ much between makes and models, and that the quintessential training twin, the PA23 Apache/Aztec, has a rate far lower than the rest.

Gear Collapse Rates
percentage of total accidents by type, 2002

Type Gear Collapse Rate
Cessna 310/320 31%
Cessna 172RG 28%
Beech Baron 27%
Piper Arrow 25%
Piper Apache/Aztec 25%
Cessna 182RG 24%
Piper Seneca 24%
Mooney M20 series 22%
Cessna 210 20%
Piper Lance/Saratoga 17%
Beech Bonanza 17%

from FAA preliminary reports
©2003 Mastery Flight Training LLC Reprinted by permission

Many gear collapse accidents result from trying to "clean up" the airplane (i.e., retract flaps) while still in the landing rollout (or during a touch-and-go), and inadvertently pulling up the landing gear instead. This premise is supported by the fact that the more traditional "training"-type RG airplanes are toward the top of this list -- especially the Piper Apache/Aztec, which overall has the second-lowest LGRM rate. Some "gear collapse" mishaps may be related to mechanical failures that were not identified in time to make the FAA preliminary report.

Mechanical Causes Rates
percentage of total accidents by type, 2002

Type Gear Collapse Rate
Cessna 310/320 25%
Cessna 210 11%
Cessna 182RG 10%
Piper Seneca 10%
Piper Arrow 8%
Cessna 172RG 6%
Beech Baron 6%
Piper Lance/Saratoga 5%
Beech Bonanza 4%
Piper Apache/Aztec 4%
Mooney M20 series 1%

from FAA preliminary reports
©2003 Mastery Flight Training LLC Reprinted by permission

This speaks to the relative reliability of hydraulically powered landing gear systems (the Cessna and Piper products) and those using a totally electro-mechanical system (Beech and Mooney). The age of most Cessna landing gear systems is likely a factor as well.

SKEWED DATA
Some airplane types showed higher rates, but mainly because one or two LGRM reports threw off data when there were few mishaps on the whole. The Piper Seminole, for instance, had a 100% rate of LGRMs in 2002 -- but there were only four reported PA44-180 mishaps. In making the tabulated comparisons I did not include data for any makes/models that had less than 24 reported accidents in the study year. I also excluded amateur-built ("homebuilt") RG airplanes, which tend to have a much higher rate of mechanical-cause LGRMs in the initial flight test stage, and that by make and model exist in small enough numbers that their data is wildly skewed by one or two individual mishaps as well.

BOTTOM LINE: What do we learn from the 2002 RG/LGRM record?

  1. No make/model of airplane is immune to landing gear-related mishaps.
  2. Older RG airplanes with hydraulic extension systems need especially good care and upkeep.
  3. Preconceptions about "standard" and "nonstandard" gear handle placement acting as a contributing factor are not supported by the data.
  4. All RG pilots need to continue working to be one of "those who won't" have landing gear-related mishaps.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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