Retractable Landing Gear - Transition to Complex Airplanes

The primary benefits of being able to retract the landing gear are increased climb performance and higher cruise airspeeds due to the resulting decrease in drag. Retractable landing gear systems may be operated either hydraulically or electrically or may employ a combination of the two systems. Warning indicators are provided in the flightdeck to show the pilot when the wheels are down and locked and when they are up and locked or if they are in intermediate positions. Systems for emergency operation are also provided. The complexity of the retractable landing gear system requires that specific operating procedures be adhered to and that certain operating limitations not be exceeded.

Landing Gear Systems

An electrical landing gear retraction system utilizes an electrically-driven motor for gear operation. The system is basically an electrically-driven jack for raising and lowering the gear. When a switch in the flightdeck is moved to the UP position, the electric motor operates. Through a system of shafts, gears, adapters, an actuator screw, and a torque tube, a force is transmitted to the drag strut linkages. Thus, the gear retracts and locks. Struts are also activated that open and close the gear doors. If the switch is moved to the DOWN position, the motor reverses and the gear moves down and locks. Once activated, the gear motor continues to operate until an up or down limit switch on the motor’s gearbox is tripped.

A hydraulic landing gear retraction system utilizes pressurized hydraulic fluid to actuate linkages to raise and lower the gear. When a switch in the flightdeck is moved to the UP position, hydraulic fluid is directed into the gear up line. The fluid flows through sequenced valves and down locks to the gear actuating cylinders. A similar process occurs during gear extension. The pump that pressurizes the fluid in the system can be either engine driven or electrically powered. If an electrically-powered pump is used to pressurize the fluid, the system is referred to as an electrohydraulic system. The system also incorporates a hydraulic reservoir to contain excess fluid and to provide a means of determining system fluid level.

Regardless of its power source, the hydraulic pump is designed to operate within a specific range. When a sensor detects excessive pressure, a relief valve within the pump opens, and hydraulic pressure is routed back to the reservoir. Another type of relief valve prevents excessive pressure that may result from thermal expansion. Hydraulic pressure is also regulated by limit switches. Each gear has two limits switches—one dedicated to extension and one dedicated to retraction. These switches de-energize the hydraulic pump after the landing gear has completed its gear cycle. In the event of limit switch failure, a backup pressure relief valve activates to relieve excess system pressure.

Controls and Position Indicators

Landing gear position is controlled by a switch on the flightdeck panel. In most airplanes, the gear switch is shaped like a wheel in order to facilitate positive identification and to differentiate it from other flightdeck controls.

Landing gear position indicators vary with different make and model airplanes. However, the most common types of landing gear position indicators utilize a group of lights. One type consists of a group of three green lights, which illuminate when the landing gear is down and locked. [Figure 1] Another type consists of one green light to indicate when the landing gear is down and an amber light to indicate when the gear is up. [Figure 2] Still other systems incorporate a red or amber light to indicate when the gear is in transit or unsafe for landing. [Figure 3] The lights are usually of the “press to test” type, and the bulbs are interchangeable. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Typical landing gear switch with three light indicator

Figure 2. Landing gear handles and single and multiple light indictor

Figure 3. Landing gear safety switch

Other types of landing gear position indicators consist of tab-type indicators with markings “UP” to indicate the gear is up and locked, a display of red and white diagonal stripes to show when the gear is unlocked, or a silhouette of each gear to indicate when it locks in the DOWN position.

Landing Gear Safety Devices

Most airplanes with a retractable landing gear have a gear warning horn that sounds when the airplane is configured for landing and the landing gear is not down and locked. Normally, the horn is linked to the throttle or flap position and/or the airspeed indicator so that when the airplane is below a certain airspeed, configuration, or power setting with the gear retracted, the warning horn sounds.

Accidental retraction of a landing gear may be prevented by such devices as mechanical down locks, safety switches, and ground locks. Mechanical down locks are built-in components of a gear retraction system and are operated automatically by the gear retraction system. To prevent accidental operation of the down locks and inadvertent landing gear retraction while the airplane is on the ground, electrically-operated safety switches are installed.

A landing gear safety switch, sometimes referred to as a squat switch, is usually mounted in a bracket on one the main gear shock struts. [Figure 3] When the strut is compressed by the weight of the airplane, the switch opens the electrical circuit to the motor or mechanism that powers retraction. In this way, if the landing gear switch in the flightdeck is placed in the RETRACT position when weight is on the gear, the gear remains extended, and the warning horn may sound as an alert to the unsafe condition. Once the weight is off the gear, however, such as on takeoff, the safety switch releases and the gear retracts.

Many airplanes are equipped with additional safety devices to prevent collapse of the gear when the airplane is on the ground. These devices are called ground locks. One common type is a pin installed in aligned holes drilled in two or more units of the landing gear support structure. Another type is a spring-loaded clip designed to fit around and hold two or more units of the support structure together. All types of ground locks usually have red streamers permanently attached to them to readily indicate whether or not they are installed. 

Emergency Gear Extension Systems

The emergency extension system lowers the landing gear if the main power system fails. Some airplanes have an emergency release handle in the flightdeck, which is connected through a mechanical linkage to the gear up locks. When the handle is operated, it releases the up locks and allows the gear to free fall or extend under their own weight. [Figure 4]

Figure 4. Typical emergency gear extension systems

On other airplanes, release of the up lock is accomplished using compressed gas, which is directed to up lock release cylinders. In some airplanes, design configurations make emergency extension of the landing gear by gravity and air loads alone impossible or impractical. In these airplanes, provisions are included for forceful gear extension in an emergency. Some installations are designed so that either hydraulic fluid or compressed gas provides the necessary pressure, while others use a manual system, such as a hand crank for emergency gear extension. [Figure 5] Hydraulic pressure for emergency operation of the landing gear may be provided by an auxiliary hand pump, an accumulator, or an electrically-powered hydraulic pump depending on the design of the airplane.

Figure 5. Retractable landing gear inspection checkpoints

Operational Procedures

Preflight


Because of their complexity, retractable landing gear demands a close inspection prior to every flight. The inspection should begin inside the flightdeck. First, make certain that the landing gear selector switch is in the GEAR DOWN position. Then, turn on the battery master switch and ensure that the landing gear position indicators show that the gear is DOWN and locked.

External inspection of the landing gear consists of checking individual system components. [Figure 5] The landing gear, wheel well, and adjacent areas should be clean and free of mud and debris. Dirty switches and valves may cause false safe light indications or interrupt the extension cycle before the landing gear is completely down and locked. The wheel wells should be clear of any obstructions, as foreign objects may damage the gear or interfere with its operation. Bent gear doors may be an indication of possible problems with normal gear operation.

Ensure shock struts are properly inflated and that the pistons are clean. Check main gear and nose gear up lock and down lock mechanisms for general condition. Power sources and retracting mechanisms are checked for general condition, obvious defects, and security of attachment. Check hydraulic lines for signs of chafing and leakage at attach points. Warning system micro switches (squat switches) are checked for cleanliness and security of attachment. Actuating cylinders, sprockets, universal joints, drive gears, linkages, and any other accessible components are checked for condition and obvious defects. The airplane structure to which the landing gear is attached is checked for distortion, cracks, and general condition. All bolts and rivets should be intact and secure.

Takeoff and Climb


Normally, the landing gear is retracted after lift-off when the airplane has reached an altitude where, in the event of an engine failure or other emergency requiring an aborted takeoff, the airplane could no longer be landed on the runway. This procedure, however, may not apply to all situations. Preplan landing gear retraction taking into account the following:
  • Length of the runway
  • Climb gradient
  • Obstacle clearance requirements
  • The characteristics of the terrain beyond the departure end of the runway
  • The climb characteristics of the particular airplane.

For example, in some situations it may be preferable, in the event of an engine failure, to make an off airport forced landing with the gear extended in order to take advantage of the energy absorbing qualities of the terrain. In which case, a delay in retracting the landing gear after takeoff from a short runway may be warranted. In other situations, obstacles in the climb path may warrant a timely gear retraction after takeoff. Also, in some airplanes the initial climb pitch attitude is such that any view of the runway remaining is blocked, making an assessment of the feasibility of touching down on the remaining runway difficult.

Avoid premature landing gear retraction and do not retract the landing gear until a positive rate of climb is indicated on the flight instruments. If the airplane has not attained a positive rate of climb, there is always the chance it may settle back onto the runway with the gear retracted. This is especially so in cases of premature lift-off. Remember that leaning forward to reach the landing gear selector may result in inadvertent forward pressure on the yoke, which causes the airplane to descend.

As the landing gear retracts, airspeed increases and the airplane’s pitch attitude may change. The gear may take several seconds to retract. Gear retraction and locking (and gear extension and locking) is accompanied by sound and feel that are unique to the specific make and model airplane. Become familiar with the sound and feel of normal gear retraction so that any abnormal gear operation can be readily recognized. Abnormal landing gear retraction is most often a clear sign that the gear extension cycle will also be abnormal.

Approach and Landing


The operating loads placed on the landing gear at higher airspeeds may cause structural damage due to the forces of the airstream. Limiting speeds, therefore, are established for gear operation to protect the gear components from becoming overstressed during flight. These speeds may not be found on the airspeed indicator.

They are published in the AFM/POH for the particular airplane and are usually listed on placards in the flightdeck. [Figure 6] The maximum landing extended speed (VLE) is the maximum speed at which the airplane can be flown with the landing gear extended. The maximum landing gear operating speed (VLO) is the maximum speed at which the landing gear may be operated through its cycle.

Figure 6. Placarded gear speeds in the cockpit

The landing gear is extended by placing the gear selector switch in the GEAR DOWN position. As the landing gear extends, the airspeed decreases and the pitch attitude may change. During the several seconds it takes for the gear to extend, be attentive to any abnormal sounds or feel. Confirm that the landing gear has extended and locked by the normal sound and feel of the system operation, as well as by the gear position indicators in the flightdeck. Unless the landing gear has been previously extended to aid in a descent to traffic pattern altitude, the landing gear should be extended by the time the airplane reaches a point on the downwind leg that is opposite the point of intended landing. Establish a standard procedure consisting of a specific position on the downwind leg at which to lower the landing gear. Strict adherence to this procedure aids in avoiding unintentional gear up landings.

Operation of an airplane equipped with a retractable landing gear requires the deliberate, careful, and continued use of an appropriate checklist. When on the downwind leg, make it a habit to complete the before landing checklist for that airplane. This accomplishes two purposes. It ensures that action has been taken to lower the gear and establishes awareness so that the gear down indicators can be rechecked prior to landing.

Unless good operating practices dictate otherwise, the landing roll should be completed and the airplane should be clear of the runway before any levers or switches are operated.

This technique greatly reduces the chance of inadvertently retracting the landing gear while on the ground. Wait until after rollout and clearing the runway to focus attention on the after landing checklist. This practice allows for positive identification of the proper controls.

When transitioning to retractable gear airplanes, it is important to consider some frequent pilot errors. These include pilots that have:
  • Neglected to extend landing gear
  • Inadvertently retracted landing gear
  • Activated gear but failed to check gear position
  • Misused emergency gear system
  • Retracted gear prematurely on takeoff
  • Extended gear too late

These mistakes are not only committed by pilots who have just transitioned to complex aircraft, but also by pilots who have developed a sense of complacency over time. In order to minimize the chances of a landing gear-related mishap:
  • Use an appropriate checklist. (A condensed checklist mounted in view is a reminder for its use and easy reference can be especially helpful.)
  • Be familiar with, and periodically review, the landing gear emergency extension procedures for the particular airplane.
  • Be familiar with the landing gear warning horn and warning light systems for the particular airplane. Use the horn system to cross-check the warning light system when an unsafe condition is noted.
  • Review the procedure for replacing light bulbs in the landing gear warning light displays for the particular airplane, so that you can properly replace a bulb to determine if the bulb(s) in the display is good. Check to see if spare bulbs are available in the airplane spare bulb supply as part of the preflight inspection.
  • Be familiar with and aware of the sounds and feel of a properly operating landing gear system.