Brilliant or Not So Much?

April 15, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

Car helping extend Arrow gear

Pilots are occasionally faced with a decision that looks brilliant if it works and stupid if it fails. In this fascinating and descriptive narrative, join us as we Monday-morning-quarterback some tough decisions.

The following edited narrative came from a NASA ASRS report invol­ving a commercial student, a CFI, and a Cessna Cardinal with a recalcitrant left main gear:

“… We raised the gear and lowered it again, but the left main again failed to fully extend, remaining about half way down… Fearing that the left gear wasn’t getting hydraulic pressure, I checked the hydraulic reservoir. It was full… ran the Manual Gear Extension Checklist again and pumped the gear down using the manual override handle… Left gear remained in its half-down [position].

I went into the back seat of the aircraft to get a better look… The tire was wet all over…most likely from hydraulic fluid spraying out from a broken line each time the hydraulic pump was actuated.

The next checklist was the “Gear Up Landing”. I wanted to exhaust all other possible solutions…before considering the possibility of an intentional gear up landing. The only other idea I could think of was a textbook example…that involved opening up the door, reaching outside the aircraft, and pulling the gear up. We contacted [XXX] Tower to alert them of our situation and have them call our mechanics to see if they could provide any other ideas that we had not thought of. 

After troubleshooting (with the mechanics), the only idea they could come up with was the textbook example mentioned above… Not wanting to risk injury to people on the ground…we headed back out over the ocean.

My student and I switched seats. I had him fly the aircraft and I settled in to the left seat. He slowed the aircraft to 60 KTS at 4,000 FT, allowing plenty of altitude to recover if we entered an inadvertent stall…I fastened my seat belt, opened the door, turned around, put my feet and legs outside, and stretched. They wouldn’t reach… tried to reach the gear with my arm… opened the door, turned around to reach, but couldn’t.

I realized that any forward facing solution was not going to work. I turned around backwards, fashioned a makeshift harness to hold me in, lowered and reclined the seat to its full aft and down position, opened the door, reached out again, and was able to reach the gear this time. But I didn’t have the strength to pull it all the way into its locked position with one arm. So next I reached out with both hands, grabbed the gear, and then pulled it forward. I heard and felt a ‘click’. My student confirmed that we had a ‘green’ down and locked light. 

Upon inspection by Maintenance, it was discovered that the pivot axle had sheared–most likely a manufacturing defect during the forging process.”

It’s easy to second guess someone in this situation, but this CFI is far braver (and more flexible) that I would have been. Changing seats in a single engine aircraft is sporty, and hanging out a door with the wind trying to blast it shut and hoping like heck that the seat belt buckle doesn’t unlatch is above and beyond the call in my book. I like Cardinal RGs as much as anyone, but there isn’t an aircraft built that is worth the risk of life in my view.

Another landing gear incident led to a major tragedy some years back. A Piper Aerostar carrying Senator John Heinz had a gear malfunction and collided with a helicopter whose pilot was attempting to verify the gear situation.

This incident with the Cardinal worked, but the risk-reward equation is not balanced in my view. What do you think?


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jeff DeMelo

    Ummmmmm … that picture is not a Cardinal. Come on AOPA, you’re better than that!

  • Chris Blazie

    Jeff, the PIper pictured above is a separate example of (perhaps) taking things too far. I’m sure AOPA wouldn’t mistake a Cherokee for a high-wing Cessna.

  • Bob Knill

    Hi Jeff, thanks for keeping us honest. We couldn’t find a willing Cardinal owner who would let us demonstrate the event as it was reported in the ASRS report, so we had to improvise. Since the Cardinal was over water (not a car) when it occurred, and the airplane had the problem with the left main (not right as the image depicts), we were hoping that the discrepancies between the image and events would lend itself to the understanding that the image is just symbolic of some of the risks pilots take that can be questionable. Or maybe the image is for a prototype low-wing Cardinal that never made into production due to landing gear issues…or not. Thanks for chiming in, though.

  • John Kiger

    Bruce, I’m with you on this. There is no reason to attempt such stunt. Yes, it’s good to see a good outcome. Hopefully this success doesn’t bolster additional actions out of the norm.

  • Denslow Burhans

    I will never work that hard or put my life at risk to save the insurance company money.

  • Ann Walko

    Neither the Cardinal nor the Arrow situation pictured (I’m familiar with the details of that event) are examples of brilliant thinking. I’m sorry, but that’s why I pay for insurance each year. However, it was not going to be a claim on the Arrow owner’s policy on that one, but the guy tugging the gear out of the wheel well.

  • Benjamin Bookman

    Personally I don’t mind doing things a little bit on the risky side as long as I’m not risking someone else’s life along with mine. A good thrill can be a lot of fun, and if I resolve a problem in the process that just makes it all the better. I would have been inclined to do the same as the instructor. But it’s a matter of personality. I enjoy high risk activities that don’t risk the lives of others on a frequent basis so adding another personal risk to the equation would not be a big deal.

  • Nicola


    It is a risky situation no matter what.

    In my opinion, you should try all options you can, before landing with a malfunctioning gear, and risk a disaster on the ground.

    In this case it proved that it is better to try fix the issue if you can than it would be to land without landing gear, and accept other risks on landing on the plane belly.

  • James Macklin

    Most aircraft owners carry in motion hull coverage. The record was clear, the gear malfunctioned and the checklist was followed. Further attempts at finding a solution were recorded on the various monitoring stations.

    A gear up landing with all gear up is not particularly dangerous, even with one main partially extended loss of life or even injury is unlikely.

    Switching seats in a Cessna means that both pilots were not secured in their seat secured with seat belts. First FAR violation.
    Placing another in danger in a reckless manner is a Part 91 violation.

    If the student was actually a Student there is likely a violation on the CFI in that case.

    All Cardinals are old airplanes. Land gear up, at minimum speed, on a hard surface runway aligned with the wind. Do not shut the engine down before touchdown, a go around might be required due to a wind shift or other event.

    Get the insurance company to buy a new engine, prop, belly skins and a landing gear overhaul.

  • Joerg Polonius

    Uuhhh, there could be some FAR violations….not that.

    Ever wonder why we are having trouble attracting fresh blood? I suggest it’s this kind of slavish devotion to regulation and bureaucratic robotism that has beaten the joy of life out of our chosen hobby a long time ago. Please give the young CFI a chance, he might be our next Sully…of course if you insist on follow all the rules all the time he most likely will become an accountant, much safer and more lucrative to boot.

    You know, come to think of it, it would have been much safer if they had avoided going flying in the first place…

  • Chris

    The Cardinal RG is one of a select few aircraft that pilots have successfully performed such tasks. The main gear legs are within easy reach of a tow bar or golf club. So, while some may consider this type of manual extension crazy, I don’t. Generally, it does not require a pilot to hang outside the aircraft, and those big doors shield the pilot from the wind while performing such a task.

    There have been many Cardinal RG gear up landings. Most end without incident. However, there is a risk of fire, due to the gravity fed, fuel header tanks located at the lower fuselage skin. With this in mind, once the gear has failed, the pilot faces some risk. It’s simply a choice between them.

  • http://none Spencer Payne

    Mr Polonius is, in my humble and imperiled opinion correct to a T. Our country was build by adventurous, clever and sure footed (and handed!) folk. Bust a reg, save a life. I race autos and am quite good at it and although it requires a certain degree of “risk”, it is not as dangerous as one might think. I mention this because the incident in question simply does not seem to be as risky as auto racing and if the individual is in reasonably good physical condition certainly doable without undue risk. So to you naysayers and obdedient citizens I say, “Get a life and enjoy it. Test your limits so that you would be able to replicate what this amazing instructor has done in the event that occasion should arise in your life.” Good on ya’ Mr Instructor!

  • Louie McGinnis

    I agree 100% with Mr. Pelonius and Mr. Payne. Pilot’s choice; land gear up or if you want to give it a try, do what the instructor did. He has a brain and can obviously use it. Who would you rather be placed in peril with, someone who can think no further than “the book” or someone who can take on a problem? I choose this instructor; every time. If I every find myself going down in flames, you will not find me sticking out of a tree with a copy of the regs on my lap; rather it will be with every possible option exhausted and a smile on my face with the satisfaction that there was nothing else left to try.

  • Ken Towl

    As a 13-year Cardinal RG owner, I’d have landed gear up for a simple reason that this bold pilot appears to have missed. Both 177RG main gear legs are operated through a single planetary gear driven by one actuator. (Numerous Cardinal gear-ups were traced to a faulty rod end on that actuator, long since replaced).

    A failure of one leg to extend implies a major mechanical failure, not a simple hydraulic problem, so I’d have little confidence that the gear would hold on landing. A Cardinal gear-up landing on pavement is not a high-risk procedure, especially compared to departing the aircraft without a chute.

  • Michael Martin

    I suppose I might have considered the risky option when I was in my 30’s, but in my 50’s I can only sit here and imagine my last thoughts as I fell out of the aircraft…

    1. I’m such an idiot.
    2. I hope my wife forgives me for killing myself in such a stupid way.
    3. Did I tell that student about “plan C” in case I fell out?

  • Ray

    When I was a young instructor right out of college I probably would have had the same frame of mind. It’s common for young instructors to think that an accident is a kiss of death for both their CFI job and any possibility of an airline or corporate job later. So younger instructors make more mistakes. I did my fair share of questionable things even though I had the best intentions. It’s all part of maturing as a pilot.

    Hopefully next time he puts the gear selector up and bellies it in. It’ll teach the student a far better lesson. Now the student will always take unnecessary risks.

  • Tom

    This is a great story with good comments. As an old pilot and retired aviation manager, I looked at the situation from more than one angle. As a young pilot, I would have probably tried as the CFI did. As an old pilot with an organizational perspective, I would have bellied the greasy beast in. We can fix the aircraft but we cannot replace the people.

  • Mani

    I’m with the CFI – consult with MX and tower and then execute the best of the worst solutions for you. I’d take a shot at it over the belly in – I think its the less risky and deadly option – forget whether it saves the plane – its about attempting to save your lives. Besides, their speed is probably the same as being on a motorcycle on the highway – its not like they were hammering along at 150kts.
    Without a doubt you also brief the student that if you get sucked out, he works with tower and MX to get the plane on the ground. If its a retract, then the “student” might very well be a commercial student – not a newly soloed VFR guy. That weighs in the decision too….

  • Per Anderas

    When an emergency arises in the air, ownership of the airplane is immediately tranfered to the insurance company. Any attempt to save them money is foolish. Did this CFI know the flight characteristics of the airplane at slow speed, door open and feet hanging out? A stall/spin could have easily occured with a student at the controls. In my mind this spells DISASTER! The CFI risked two lives for no good reason!

  • R P Joe Smith

    If I understand the facts correctly, the intrepid CFI secured himself by the seat belt or some combination including same (“secured myself with a makeshift harness”) before attempting his maneuver, so he couldn’t fall out. He also eliminated risk to anyone not on board by getting over unoccupied territory. Finally, the student already had at least a private pilot rating (he was a “commercial student”), so it seems safe to assume he’d have little difficulty, with a 4000 foot cushion, recovering from a stall, or for that matter, maintaining straight and level slow flight. So, what’s the real risk?

  • Some Youngman

    I own a ’74 Cardinal RG, and I am very familiar with its mechanical systems. I would not hesitate to perform the same procedure if my sector gear broke. Some of the people replying probably don’t change the oil on their car, much less their airplanes. They may not have a mechanical inclination, or understand how that system works. I have had in flight electrical failure, vacuum failure in IMC, gear failure both up and down, and engine failure. Wanna fly with me? :) The major difference I have observed in pilots is some are cool under pressure, and maintain the ability to problem solve, and others do not possess this ability.

  • Ronnie Gravitt

    I found it amusing that a lot of the nay sayers had to throw in that the CFI had the student fly the airplane. Since they failed to comprehend that the “student” was training for his Commercial certificate and certainly competent to fly the airplane I would suggest that they not try this themselves.

    With that said I most likely wouldn’t have tried fixing the gear unless it was my airplane and it was insured for less money than it was worth :) Some of the above comments talk about risk taking and I agree with them that risk taking is part of life and I’ve taken plenty, but the older I get the less I take. But I would never fault this guy for doing this.

  • Chris Rodrigues

    Bruce, I have replied to your blog on several occasions and you know how much I like to bust your chops. But you’re absolutely right in this case. As a very experienced skydiver, I have more than the average experience in flight manipulating aircraft doors which open to the front against the slipstream and/or crawling around on the outside of airplanes (wearing a parachute). In my opinion the maneuver described in this blog constitutes a dumb stunt. I’m sure that the CFI in question thought it was a good idea at the time. But in retrospect (and with the benefit of practical experience), so many things can go wrong, especially the hazard you postulated in the blog, to wit: the hastily-conceived, makeshift harness failing in an unplanned manner, followed by an unanticipated exit from the aircraft by the CFI. Now we have the CFI dead following his first skydive and the student having to deal with the gear up landing on his own. In retrospect, not very smart.

  • Jim

    Depends on whether or not the pilot owns the airplane. Just kidding. In reality, the way the FAA works, had this pilot not elected to risk his own life, he would have ended up with an “incident” on his flying record, if not an “accident”. These things never go away and are, among other things, always used to trim the huge number of job applicants down to a more manageable number of pilots who will be interviewed for a potential job. In the aviation world, there is no such thing as a “no fault” accident which has zero chance of impacting the career of a professional pilot. Would I have done the same thing? Damn straight I would. Every day and twice on Sunday!

  • Col Dean Winslow

    Would have just landed it gear up– no hesitation!

  • COL C

    I’m surprised by some of the staunch comments…”dumb stunt” and others… This is nothing more than one more situation requiring risk management. A component of that risk assessment includes the confidence in the abilities of the CFI to accomplish the task at hand. I’ve personally executed many tasks that were just as risky but with solid thought and slow sure actions all were accomplished successfully. Another assumption by most is that the belly landing would be “successful” and only damage the aircraft. One can expect that odds are in favor of that but anyone who has flown more than a few years knows that there are never any guarantees… to include the insurance company paying up! I’ve got a good friend who lost 30k out of pocket on a gear up of a Cardinal who could add a lot. Money should not be much of a factor in whether or not to attempt this but personal conditioning is critical. As an experience paratrooper, skydiver, and Army pilot who routinely flew with up to 6 men… outside the aircraft… I might be a little more willing to understand the physical elements. Obviously not the solution for most… but if that were all we ever attempted… we’d all still be flying Wright Flyers!

  • Terry Witt

    I’ll have to go with Col C on this. In the tight confines of the Cardinal, I think the commercial student, if physically fit, could certaining provide backup securiity for the CFI with his free arm. Bottom line is there’s really no way for any of us to accurately access the risk because we’re not in the plane and we don’t know the student or the pilot. I sure would have liked to cruise by in my Cirrus while this was happening though…now that’s something you don’t see every day!

  • Kevin Huff

    If you read the Cardinal owners site they often carry a golf club in the plane at all time for just such a problem if the gear leg fails to extend someone reaches out with the club and pulls the leg down…NOW to answer the question yes I would try every thing I could to get the leg down expecially with a copilot aboard…If I had the fuel I would try until it was gone before I would ruin any airplane with a belly landing …LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST

  • Sid Lotz

    I’m an advocate of the “Whatever Works” philosophy & commend them for their success. However, in this case it might have been safer to retract the gear & belly land on grass after shutting the engine down on final. Then after the insurance company totals the airplane, use the payoff to buy a fixed gear acft to replace it.

  • Craig Cameron

    I have many differing thoughts of this incident… Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, any landing ON WHEELS is even better! There are too many different personalities and experience levels to say we should all handle a situation the same. I, for one, am a skydiver and have spent a lot of time on the outside or in the open door of an airplane, that situation would not have bothered me and would have seemed reasonable if I could have done it ‘safely’. I have a friend who was a glider pilot before he became a powered pilot (with lots more hours without an engine than with) and he would probably not have had a second thought of gliding the plane in on its belly, engine off. All situations are easy to arm-chair quarterback, this CFI did all he could think of, and was comfortable doing, to have a safe landing – BRAVO!

  • E. Lindgren

    Last July my dad had a hydraulic line break cause failure of the gear to fully retract. All attempts to lock the gear down failed. After exhausting all attempts he made a perfect gear up landing. Minimal damage to the aircraft and no injuries. Insurance paid for all repairs including the hydraulic line.

    The following day a friend also had a hydraulic failure in another Cardinal. He was able to get the gear down and locked at the last minute. No insurance claim because no accident. It was financially devastating. And he was forced to sell the plane to pay for the repairs.

    As others said we pay lots of money each year in insurance. Let it work for you. The thrill of climbing outside a flying airplane to save the day is great, good out come or not. Think about what happens after your safe on the ground.

  • M. Bond

    To those citing regulation violations: read 91.3 (b)…the PIC can deviate from any regulation to any extent necessary to deal with an in-flight emergency. Any pilot who refused to take this action solely because it violated a reg should not be in the sky to begin with.

    To those citing the risk of fixing the gear in flight: If you could guarantee my safety during a gear up landing, I may be inclined to stay in my seat and find an airport with a good fire department. However, since I know you can’t, I’m going to try to fix it first. I have a friend who’s nose gear collapsed on landing. The fuel line ruptured and started a fire. By the time the plane stopped, he unstrapped from his 5-point and got to the ground, flames were everywhere.

    There’s risk in everything we do and every time we fly. I think the CFI and “student” did a great job managing that risk…as a result they walked away and saved the plane at the same time.

  • Steve P

    I was working line crew when a similar situation occurred with a 182RG. The instructor tried the tow bar method without success. We had multiple maintenance personnel and the flight school director (29-year Navy test pilot) on-hand giving advice and options over the radio, but in the end, everyone acknowledged that the decision ultimately had to be made in the cockpit and people are more important that things. The instructor and student spent a couple of hours flying nearby, working on the problem and burning down the fuel on-board. Eventually, the instructor made a gear-up landing on the concrete runway with the FD standing by. Some folks recommended removing the headsets prior to landing to avoid entanglement with the wires (quick egress in case of fire), but the instructor elected to keep them on in case they provided any cushioning from potential head injury, depending how the landing went. It was after dark by the time they landed and there were a lot of sparks from the belly sliding down the runway. The pilot’s last radio transmission was “cancel multiple touch-n-goes.” :) We went out there as soon as we were cleared to, jacked the plane up, lowered the gear successfully by hand, and towed the plane back to the hangar. The engine was off for the landing, but the propeller was still windmilling when they landed. Consequently, both the prop and engine were ruined, along with the belly skin and some belly-mounted antennas. But both occupants emerged without a scratch and there was no fire. The rest was for the insurance to resolve. The instructor in the 182RG could not safely reach the gear with the tow bar and/or could not get it to move forward from what he felt was a safe position. Anyway, I guess all that to say “all’s well that ends well.” The PIC in the cockpit gets the final say and they live (or die) by the consequences. Second-guessing a successful outcome is pointless.

  • David Skoglund

    Many years ago the flight school I was attending had a Cardinal that the main gear would not extend. The joint between the actuator and the gear had sheared. They landed on the belly with minimal damage.
    When the shop was working on it I noticed that it appeared they could have pulled the gear into position from inside the airplane had they removed the panels that I saw removed. It would have required knowledge of that and the tools on-board to do it. I recall thinking that if it ever happened to me I would at least attempt to access the mechanism from inside and pry it down with the tow bar.

  • Geff McCarthy

    All above are reasonable comments. I wonder about the solution in the picture: Fly along the runway at final approach speed, around 70KIAS for most aircraft, and have a car with open top attempt to help lower the recalcitrant gear.
    The U2 does just this with every landing: A car runs alongside and holds up the wing (I think).
    There is of course, risk to both pilot and driver, but plenty of fuel to practice the approach before the actual attempt.

  • Geff McCarthy

    Another thought:
    More than 1 transport device has been lost, with passenger deaths, from troubleshooting whilst traveling:
    Lockheed Tristar over FL
    Southern Railway Crescent, all 3 in cab looking at a circuit breaker. Sad.
    It seems to me that this crew managed the risk well. Here is the USAF directive:
    Maintain aircraft control
    Analyze the situation
    Land as the situation dictates.