Airplane Flight Control Malfunction/Failure

Total Flap Failure

The inability to extend the wing flaps necessitates a no-flap approach and landing. In light airplanes, a no-flap approach and landing is not particularly difficult or dangerous. However, there are certain factors that must be considered in the execution of this maneuver. A no-flap landing requires substantially more runway than normal. The increase in required landing distance could be as much as 50 percent.

When flying in the traffic pattern with the wing flaps retracted, the airplane must be flown in a relatively nose-high attitude to maintain altitude, as compared to flight with flaps extended. Losing altitude can be more of a problem without the benefit of the drag normally provided by flaps. A wider, longer traffic pattern may be required in order to avoid the necessity of diving to lose altitude and consequently building up excessive airspeed.

On final approach, a nose-high attitude can make it difficult to see the runway. This situation, if not anticipated, can result in serious errors in judgment of height and distance. Approaching the runway in a relatively nose-high attitude can also cause the perception that the airplane is close to a stall. This may cause the pilot to lower the nose abruptly and risk touching down on the nosewheel.

With the flaps retracted and the power reduced for landing, the airplane is slightly less stable in the pitch and roll axes. Without flaps, the airplane tends to float considerably during roundout. The pilot should avoid the temptation to force the airplane onto the runway at an excessively, high speed. Neither should the pilot flare excessively because without flaps, this might cause the tail to strike the runway.

Asymmetric (Split) Flap

An asymmetric “split” flap situation is one in which one flap deploys or retracts while the other remains in position. The problem is indicated by a pronounced roll toward the wing with the least flap deflection when wing flaps are extended/retracted.

The roll encountered in a split flap situation is countered with opposite aileron. The yaw caused by the additional drag created by the extended flap requires substantial opposite rudder resulting in a cross-control condition. Almost full aileron may be required to maintain a wings-level attitude, especially at the reduced airspeed necessary for approach and landing. The pilot should not attempt to land with a crosswind from the side of the deployed flap because the additional roll control required to counteract the crosswind may not be available.

The approach to landing with a split flap condition should be flown at a higher than normal airspeed. The pilot should not risk an asymmetric stall and subsequent loss of control by flaring excessively. Rather, the airplane should be flown onto the runway so that the touchdown occurs at an airspeed consistent with a safe margin above flaps-up stall speed.

Loss of Elevator Control

In many airplanes, the elevator is controlled by two cables: a “down” cable and an “up” cable. Normally, a break or disconnect in only one of these cables does not result in a total loss of elevator control. In most airplanes, a failed cable results in a partial loss of pitch control. In the failure of the “up” elevator cable (the “down” elevator being intact and functional), the control yoke moves aft easily but produces no response. Forward yoke movement, however, beyond the neutral position produces a nosedown attitude. Conversely, a failure of the “down” elevator cable, forward movement of the control yoke produces no effect. The pilot, however, has partial control of pitch attitude with aft movement.

When experiencing a loss of up-elevator control, the pilot can retain pitch control by:
  • Applying considerable nose-up trim
  • Pushing the control yoke forward to attain and maintain desired attitude
  • Increasing forward pressure to lower the nose and relaxing forward pressure to raise the nose
  • Releasing forward pressure to flare for landing

When experiencing a loss of down-elevator control, the pilot can retain pitch control by:
  • Applying considerable nosedown trim
  • Pulling the control yoke aft to attain and maintain attitude
  • Releasing back pressure to lower the nose and increasing back pressure to raise the nose
  • Increasing back pressure to flare for landing

Trim mechanisms can be useful in the event of an in-flight primary control failure. For example, if the linkage between the cabin and the elevator fails in flight, leaving the elevator free to weathervane in the wind, the trim tab can be used to raise or lower the elevator within limits. The trim tabs are not as effective as normal linkage control in conditions such as low airspeed, but they do have some positive effect—usually enough to bring about a safe landing.

If an elevator becomes jammed, resulting in a total loss of elevator control movement, various combinations of power and flap extension offer a limited amount of pitch control. A successful landing under these conditions, however, is problematical.

Landing Gear Malfunction

Once the pilot has confirmed that the landing gear has in fact malfunctioned and that one or more gear legs refuses to respond to the conventional or alternate methods of gear extension contained in the AFM/POH, there are several methods that may be useful in attempting to force the gear down. One method is to dive the airplane (in smooth air only) to VNE speed (red line on the airspeed indicator) and (within the limits of safety) execute a rapid pull up. In normal category airplanes, this procedure creates a 3.8G load on the structure, in effect making the landing gear weigh 3.8 times normal. In some cases, this may force the landing gear into the down and locked position. This procedure requires a fine control touch and good feel for the airplane. Careful consideration should be given to the fact that if the pull up is too abrupt, it may result in an accelerated stall, possible loss of control, and cause excessive structural stress to be imposed on the aircraft.

The design maneuvering speed (VA) is a structural design airspeed used in determining the strength requirements for the airplane and its control surfaces. The structural design requirements do not cover multiple control inputs in one axis or control inputs in more than one axis at a time at any speed, even below VA. Combined control inputs cause additional bending and twisting forces. Any airspeed above the maneuvering speed provides a positive life capability that may cause structural damage if excessive G forces are exerted on the aircraft. VA is based on the actual gross weight of the airplane and the wing’s response to a 50 foot per second wind gust or movement of the elevator. The combination of turbulence and high G loading induces even greater stress on the aircraft. Because wind gusts are not symmetrical, the total additional stress that is added to the aircraft due to turbulence is difficult to determine. Each element of the airframe and each flight control component have their own design structural load limit. Maneuvering speed is primarily determined for the wings; the elevator may be structurally damaged below this speed.

An alternative method that has proven useful in dislodging stuck landing gear (in some cases) is to induce rapid yawing. After stabilizing below VA, the pilot should alternately and aggressively apply rudder in one direction and then the other in rapid sequence. However, be advised that operating at or below maneuvering speed does not provide structural protection against multiple full control inputs in one axis or full control inputs in more than one axis at the same time. The resulting yawing action may cause the landing gear to fall into place. The pilot must be aware that moving the rudder from stop to stop is not a load limit certification requirement for normal category airplanes. Only aircraft designed for certain high G load flight maneuvers must have a vertical fin and rudder capable to withstand abrupt pedal control application to the limits in both directions.

If all efforts to extend the landing gear have failed and a gear-up landing is inevitable, the pilot should select an airport with crash and rescue facilities. The pilot should not hesitate to request that emergency equipment is standing by.

When selecting a landing surface, the pilot should consider that a smooth, hard-surface runway usually causes less damage than rough, unimproved grass strips. A hard surface does, however, create sparks that can ignite fuel. If the airport is so equipped, the pilot can request that the runway surface be foamed. The pilot should consider burning off excess fuel. This reduces landing speed and fire potential.

If the landing gear malfunction is limited to one main landing gear leg, the pilot should consume as much fuel from that side of the airplane as practicable, thereby reducing the weight of the wing on that side. The reduced weight makes it possible to delay the unsupported wing from contacting the surface during the landing roll until the last possible moment. Reduced impact speeds result in less damage.

If only one landing gear leg fails to extend, the pilot has the option of landing on the available gear legs or landing with all the gear legs retracted. Landing on only one main gear usually causes the airplane to veer strongly in the direction of the faulty gear leg after touchdown. If the landing runway is narrow and/or ditches and obstacles line the runway edge, maximum directional control after touchdown is a necessity. In this situation, a landing with all three gear retracted may be the safest course of action.

If the pilot elects to land with one main gear retracted (and the other main gear and nose gear down and locked), the landing should be made in a nose-high attitude with the wings level. As airspeed decays, the pilot should apply whatever aileron control is necessary to keep the unsupported wing airborne as long as possible. [Figure 1] Once the wing contacts the surface, the pilot can anticipate a strong yaw in that direction. The pilot must be prepared to use full opposite rudder and aggressive braking to maintain some degree of directional control.

Figure 1. Landing with one main gear retracted

When landing with a retracted nosewheel (and the main gear extended and locked), the pilot should hold the nose off the ground until almost full up-elevator has been applied. [Figure 2] The pilot should then release back pressure in such a manner that the nose settles slowly to the surface. Applying and holding full up-elevator results in the nose abruptly dropping to the surface as airspeed decays, possibly resulting in burrowing and/or additional damage. Brake pressure should not be applied during the landing roll unless absolutely necessary to avoid a collision with obstacles.

Figure 2. Landing with nosewheel retracted

If the landing must be made with only the nose gear extended, the initial contact should be made on the aft fuselage structure with a nose-high attitude. This procedure helps prevent porpoising and/or wheelbarrowing. The pilot should then allow the nosewheel to gradually touchdown, using nosewheel steering as necessary for directional control.