From Bad To Worse

How to turn a routine gear-up landing into a destroyed airplane and two fatalities.


The old saying about gear-up landings-“There are those who have and those who will”-applies to all of us flying retractables. Perhaps a fatalistic outlook, its also an admonition to perform those pre-landing checklists at least once each flight. Beyond that, the saying also admits few, if any, have died or were even seriously injured in a gear-up landing.

Depending on the circumstances of such misfortune, the airplane might be only minimally damaged. While few of us fly DC-3s, that airplane and others like it are quite capable of landing without the gear extended, likely damaging only the props. Check the engines, hang new props, jack the airplane and its good to go.

While no one should make the mistake of thinking Im saying a gear-up landing is beneficial, we know a few people who took the “opportunity” of such events to ensure their repaired airplanes came out of the shop better than ever.

The bottom line is that a gear-up landing is not the end of the world, even though you might think otherwise. What might be the end of your world, instead, is trying to salvage a gear-up landing when its already too late. In such situations, its often best to close the throttle(s), turn off the switches and accept your fate.


On August 22, 2005, at about 1030 Eastern time, a Piper PA-32R-301 Saratoga was destroyed during impact with trees and terrain, and subsequent postcrash fire, following an aborted landing at the Brandywine Airport (N99), West Chester, Penn. The Private pilot and passenger were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed. The flight departed North Central State Airport (SFZ), Pawtucket, R.I, at about 0815.

A witness heard the pilot report via radio when he entered the airport area and make position reports in the traffic pattern. The witness saw the airplane about 100 yards from the threshold of Runway 27, with the flaps fully extended but the landing gear retracted. He warned the pilot, via radio, that the airplanes landing gear was not extended.

As the witness ran toward the runway, he saw the airplanes flaps drag on the runway pavement. Shortly thereafter, he heard engine power increase; the airplanes nose pitched down and the propeller contacted the runway. The airplane climbed, banked left, struck trees located about 500 feet before the departure end of the runway and continued to climb.

A second witness heard an unusual sound and looked up to see the airplane in a steep turn, at an altitude of “less than double [the] height of trees.” The airplanes landing gear was extended. Its speed slowed and its pitch angle increased. He heard the engine “maintaining the sound of full power,” while the airplane turned to the east. The airplane continued to slow, and the pitch angle continued to increase, as the wings leveled. The airplane then descended out of his view. Moments later he heard the sounds of impact.


The airplane came to rest in a wooded area adjacent to a reservoir about mile south of the airport. The initial impact point was a large tree, about 50 feet above the terrain elevation. The wreckage path was about 150 feet long.

The left main landing gear was out of its well and lying with the wheel toward the trailing edge of the wing. The landing gear attachment points and actuator were destroyed by fire but the down lock hook was found in the locked position. The right main landing gear was in the down and locked position.

The nose landing gear was folded into its well. The nose landing gear actuator had separated at both attachment ends. The actuator was found in the extended position, and the actuator rod was bent 90 degrees. Further examination revealed that the nose landing gear down locking mechanism was impact damaged.

The flap actuator jackscrew displayed two threads and the flap torque tube brackets measured six inches from the left and right boltholes to the bottom of the fuselage. These measurements are consistent with a 40-degree flap setting. Both flaps were separated from their respective wing attachment points, and the left flap exhibited fire damage. The inboard trailing edge portion of both flaps, and the bottom of the cabin entry step exhibited longitudinal scratching and gouging.

All three propeller blades were curled and gouged at the blade tips, consistent with ground contact. The engine was largely intact, though damaged by fire. The mixture control arm was near the full rich position and the throttle was near the full open position.

Examination of the runway revealed uniformly spaced, parallel pavement abrasions, about eight inches in length. The markings began about 870 feet beyond the runway threshold and continued for about 150 feet along the centerline of the runway.

At the time of the accident, the pilots medical certificate was expired.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilots improper decision to abort the landing after the airplane contacted the runway. A factor in the accident was the pilots failure to ensure the landing gear was extended during the landing.”

The NTSBs finding seems accurate and reasonable, but doesnt explore reasons the pilot tried to execute a go-around after both the flaps and the propeller had contacted the runway.

On one level, its easy to see a suddenly panicked pilot, trying to save the airplane after scraping the flaps by initiating a go-around. Whether pilot input or the moment transmitted to the airframe caused the nose to pitch down, we may never know. Once the prop blades scraped pavement, its likely the flights outcome was set: The first witness reported seeing the engine and prop “shaking” after the airplane climbed away from the runway.

The obvious and better choice would have been to close the throttle and accept the damage sustained in the ensuing gear-up landing. Its likely the pilot and passenger would have walked away; the insurance company would have been better off, too.

Perhaps the pilot thought, somehow, he could “make it all better” by going around after scraping the prop. Its more likely, however, that prop damage and the sudden stress imposed on the engine meant he was developing significantly less than full power. Once the prop became damaged, the throttle was advanced, the go-around initiated and there was no chance to set down on the remaining runway, the flights outcome was all but sealed.


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