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The Amphibious Conundrum: Gear Down For a Water Landing by Mike Vivion


Staff member
Northwest Arkansas
The Amphibious Conundrum: Gear Down For a Water Landing

Michael T. Vivion, Copyright 2014

The number of amphibious aircraft in the United States has increased significantly since my introduction to amphibious seaplanes 36 years ago. There are many reasons for the increase in the number of amphibious seaplanes in service, including certification of amphibious floats for a greater variety of airplanes, lack of on-the-water fuel facilities for straight float airplanes, the convenience of being able to hangar the airplane, and others. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that today, the percentage of seaplanes equipped with amphibious landing gear is much higher than it was a couple of decades ago.

With this proliferation of amphibious aircraft has come an increase in the number of accidents caused by landing on water with the landing gear extended. Unfortunately, this type of accident, unlike most other types of landing accidents, results in a significant fatality rate. The combination of disorientation caused by rapid deceleration and the violent inversion of the airplane, and the cabin filling with water all add to the challenges of egress and contribute significantly to the hazards of this type accident.
When pilots complain about the FAA regulations, I point out to them that in many cases, the insurance industry, not the FAA, is the true regulator of our flying activities. As amphibian accidents increase, insurance rates increase, and some insurers will cease offering insurance for amphibious aircraft.

A number of years ago, the Lake amphibian community experienced this phenomenon when one insurer after another announced they would no longer insure Lake aircraft. Armand Rivard, the owner of Lake Aircraft at the time, worked with the insurance industry to develop an "approved" Lake training program. If a Lake owner completed that training successfully, the Lake insurance program would be available to them. No approved training--no insurance. Similar cases can be found in other aircraft types, another example being the Bonanza. I should point out that the issues which brought about the insurance "crisis" with Lake aircraft were not primarily gear down water landings, but, like the gear down in water accidents we see in amphibians, these accidents were a result of human factors.

With the increase in occurrence of gear down in water landings, I suspect that sooner or later, it is going to become difficult or impossible to acquire insurance on an amphibious aircraft.
So, what can we do to improve our odds of avoiding a landing in water with the gear down? You'll notice tha t I didn't suggest that we can totally eliminate this possibility..... this problem is purely a human factors issue. It's not mechanical, it's not weather related. We don't need the NTSB or the FAA to tell us why these accidents happen. They happen because pilots are humans and humans make mistakes. A gear down in the water accident caused by mechanical failure is almost unheard of. Even if the gear is extended due to a mechanical issue, it remains to the pilot to detect that situation and land on dry land, again, human factors.

But, just as the Lake pilot community improved its safety record, amphibian pilots can, with training and discipline, significantly improve the odds of avoiding a gear down in the water accident. In fact, I suggest that it is possible to drive the incidence of this type accident to very near zero. Here are some thoughts on how we can better prepare ourselves as pilots to avoid this type of accident:

  1. A review of many of the gear down in water accidents involve pilot distraction as a common factor in many if not most of these accidents. A proud grandfather takes his young granddaughter for her first airplane ride in his amphibious float equipped airplane. They depart from a hard surface runway, and transition to a nearby lake. The pilot, excited to have the opportunity to introduce this little girl to the joys of flying, provides a continual verbal narrative as the flight progresses. At seven or eight minutes into the flight, as he touches down on the lake, the airplane violently flips over onto its back. Fortunately, in this case, the pilot was able to assist his passenger out of the aircraft and, while the airplane was damaged, both occupants were unhurt.

Managing distractions in any aircraft while landing is important, but in an amphibian, a sterile cockpit during approach and landing is absolutely essential. Passengers are often excited to experience a water landing, and conversation over the intercom can be distracting, as can questions of the pilot. Use of the “pilot isolate” function found on most modern intercoms will help to separate essential communications from non-essential, potential distractions.

The pilot should include in the pre-flight passenger safety briefing (you DO perform a preflight passenger safety briefing, right?) a strong admonition to passengers to avoid distracting the pilot during landings and takeoffs, and then he or she should strictly enforce that discipline. One of the reasons the airline industry has such a good accident record is the “sterile cockpit rule”, applied industry wide. As seaplane pilots, we would be wise to adopt a similar procedure of our own. Obviously, the airline rule (which prohibits non-essential cockpit conversation while below 10,000 feet) would be impractical as a direct application in seaplanes, but to apply a sterile cockpit rule to any operation within a mile or two of an intended landing seems reasonable.

2. Use a checklist. I know…we all use checklists regularly, right? Frankly, I don’t care if you use a written checklist, printed on a piece of card stock, or you use a mental checklist. The key is to USE a checklist, in whatever form, routinely and precisely. I use a general before landing checklist prior to getting into the landing pattern. But, at the point I enter the pattern, the checklist goes in a side pocket, and the remainder of the checklist items are done from memory….there aren’t that many, after all. Frankly, trying to read a checklist while flying an airplane, and looking for traffic and obstructions may well be the very distraction that leads to an accident.

3. Gear warning devices are simply tools. By themselves, they cannot and will not prevent a pilot from landing with the gear down in water. All the lights, horns and vocal warnings in the world will not guarantee that a pilot will not make this mistake. Pilot discipline is absolutely essential to operating an amphibian safely. Green lights, blue lights, horns, and voice annunciators can all help us, but at the point where we rely on these devices to ensure a safe operation, we are doomed to fail. Use these tools as they were intended to be used: as an adjunct to help you verify gear position. But, recognize that it is OUR responsibility as PIC to ensure the gear is in the proper position prior to landing.

Pilots operating amphibious seaplanes must develop strong discipline around the landing zone. Choose a point by which the landing gear must be retracted and checked. Then check the gear again. And again. I was taught to ALWAYS retract the gear immediately after takeoff, regardless of runway length. On approach to land, I was taught to check the gear three times during an amphibious landing: On downwind prior to coming abeam the touchdown point, on base leg, and on final. I was also taught to do the same checks (only with the gear in the down position, of course) during approaches to land at a runway. But, what about straight in approaches to land on the water? Perhaps that’s a practice you should consider avoiding in amphibians. I’m not going to suggest to you that I never land a seaplane out of a straight in approach. But consider the advantages of flying a standard traffic pattern: It gives us time to make those important pre-landing checks. It gives us an opportunity to examine the landing area for obstructions. But, most of all, it slows things down, and if we can avoid rushing the landing approach, we’re less likely to make a serious error. A straight in approach tends to rush things. It also takes us out of our “routine” that we are so accustomed to around an airport. And, that routine can help to save the day.

4. Install a set of convex mirrors somewhere out on the wings of the airplane to permit a visual inspection of the landing gear position. I’ve mounted them on a bracket attached to an inspection cover. Mechanical gear indicators and indicator lights can and do fail. These failures don’t happen often, but it only takes once to ruin your day. And, yes, I have experienced such failures. Mirrors have no moving parts.

Developing the routine of visually inspecting the gear position in the mirrors prior to every landing helps to improve pilot discipline. Having the habit of looking out the window and visually inspecting the gear position is a little different than seeing a pair of blue lights or hearing a voice annunciator, and it hopefully will prompt a thought process that might avoid a tragedy. This practice forces you to think about the gear position. And, mirrors are cheap.

5. Attend an emergency underwater egress training program. If you fly any seaplane, attending one of these programs is a great idea. If you fly an amphibian, it is even more important. You don’t have to attend one of the full out programs with a large dedicated simulator, such as the offshore oil industry uses, although those are great courses. When I lived in Alaska, the US Coast Guard put on underwater egress training at the request of pilots groups, using a simple simulator that the District had built. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association partnered with Minnesota DNR to present an underwater egress program during the MN SPA’s annual safety seminar. If you can’t find such a program, search the advertisements in Water Flying for egress programs. I assure you that such a program will give you a much better chance of surviving a water upset, and give you a very different perspective on how disorienting underwater egress can be.

6. Wear an inflatable life preserver. It pains me to even have to include that admonition, because I sincerely hope that every seaplane pilot today fits his passengers and himself with a floatation device. If you don’t, buy one for every seat in your airplane, and learn how they inflate. Change the inflation cartridge and verify that each device will inflate and hold air at least once a season.

7. Involve your passengers in the process by making them a part of your landing routine. Again, this requires some effort on your part to “train” them, but simply requesting that your passengers inspect the landing gear and report position can help. Again, this needs to be done succinctly to avoid unnecessary chatter, but in fact, involving your passenger in the pre-landing checks can help to prevent irrelevant chatter on the intercom. Simply explain to your passenger what position the gear should be in for water and land, and show them what to look for. A second set of eyes can be helpful.

8. I’ve left one of the most essential steps till last, and that is training. My introduction to operating amphibians was conducted by a crusty old bush pilot named Tom Belleau, whose tens of thousands of hours in various amphibious aircraft qualified him for this task. We departed an airport and flew to an area where there was an airstrip right next to a large water body. We then spent the next few hours (no, I am not exaggerating) cycling between the strip and the water, landing after landing, until the check airman was confident that I could remain focused on the most important task in this process-managing the landing gear position. We would land on the strip, then fly another pattern for the strip, then do a straight out departure and straight in landing on the water, then back to the strip, always changing the routine, ad nauseum. Tom was a very active participant in the process, with loud interruptions at the worst time, questions thrown at me, harassment during approaches, and fiddling with switches in the cockpit….all aimed at seeing if he could distract me from the job at hand. Working the airplane in this hostile cockpit environment was thoroughly exhausting, which of course was also part of Belleau’s strategy. Fatigue can contribute to skipping a checklist item. At the end of this flight, Belleau said to me “You seem to be a little paranoid of this airplane, and that is a good thing-never allow yourself to get complacent while flying an amphibian”. And, I never have.

I know-you’re thinking “I’m supposed to pay some jerk to yell at me incessantly while I’m trying to learn the nuances of an unfamiliar airplane?” And, pay for the privilege? Not necessarily, but get a thorough checkout in the amphibian you’ll be flying, learn its systems well, and insist on getting a real workout in the landing pattern, including balked landings, and most of all a mix of water and runway landings. If you don’t have a place to do that close to home, find somewhere you can readily switch back and forth from land to water then get with an experienced amphibian instructor and spend some quality time testing your focus.

Learn how your particular gear system works, so that if you ever do experience a mechanical failure, you’ll have a better shot at dealing with it safely.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this whole gear down in the water business is not rocket science.

In my opinion, pilot discipline is the key to operating an amphibian safely. There are lots of distractions out there that can interrupt that pilot discipline, and again, we’re all human, so it can happen to the best of us. But, if we stay focused, limit distractions when near a landing site, and triple check the actual position of the gear, thoughtfully, we can eliminate these types of accidents. All those lights and voices on the intercom are great tools, but in my opinion, nothing replaces a thinking pilot and a set of mirrors.

Be disciplined, avoid distractions and admit that it could happen to you. Those are the building blocks to a safe amphibious experience.

* This article first appeared in Water Flying Magazine
I fly right seat in Amphib Caravans working in and out of East River and Long Island Sound. Company policy is gear in proper landing config five miles out, no matter what. At the five-to-go mark you set/check the gear handle in whichever gear position you are landing for...Water or land. It nicely removes the action from the busy time in terminal/airport environment and/or in the scouting your LZ in the river or out in the bays. Works! Then we do like MTV says and check on each leg of the pattern, if there is any. There is always a short final no matter what to check it at.
A proud grandfather takes his young granddaughter for her first airplane ride in his amphibious float equipped airplane. They depart from a hard surface runway, and transition to a nearby lake. The pilot, excited to have the opportunity to introduce this little girl to the joys of flying, provides a continual verbal narrative as the flight progresses. At seven or eight minutes into the flight, as he touches down on the lake, the airplane violently flips over onto its back

To me this is a key point. I've seen this when people get excited with the very best of intentions- like walking into a running prop or forgetting the to bring the amphib wheels up - or gear down. Similarly, when there are cameras around, caution is easily thrown to the wind and bad things happen. I've seen this when working with movie or TV shoots, and had to force myself to "cool my jets" and pay strict attention. Another classic and sometimes fatal situation is where there are pretty ladies around and the guys get to showing off. I've had to be "Mr. Grouchy" in more than one situation to keep things going in a straight line. I am extremely happy to hear that gramps and the girl were OK. MV has this exactly right.
Mike, what an asset you are to our community. Truly.

Now, get started on that book of yours, would you?! It will be a really good one.

"I know-you’re thinking 'I’m supposed to pay some jerk to yell at me incessantly while I’m trying to learn the nuances of an unfamiliar airplane?' And, pay for the privilege?'"

I bought a mint Taylorcraft BC12D in the late 50s and inveigled the Hamilton Flying Club in Ontario to teach me to fly it. After a few hours of instruction, the club owner asked me how it was going. When I said wonderfully, he said he was ready to let him go because of customers complaining he was yelling at them.

I told him he could yell at me as much as he wanted if he's making me a better pilot---and I know he did. I found out later that his instruction was a bit peculiar: steep turns at 200 feet, applying power for forced landing practise when wheels skimming the grass, and full spins with loop at the end.

When the CFI asked me to do an incipient spin on final check-out, I said I didn't know what he meant. Well, do whatever he trained you about spins, he said. He seemed pleased with the result. I left out the loop.