This is what happens when a plane's landing gear fails

Last month a Flybe aircraft was forced to land at Belfast International without its front wheel.

The aircraft - a Bombardier Q-400, which took off from Belfast, bound for Inverness - spent two hours in the skies off the Northern Irish coast burning fuel before the crew realised it could not solve the problem with its nose gear and would have to divert to Belfast International to perform a "non-standard" or hard landing.

The plane landed safely, touching down on its rear wheels before its nose struck the tarmac. One person suffered minor injuries, while the aircraft received substantial damage.

Such an incident might sound perilous, but it is surprisingly common - indeed, another Flybe plane was involved in a similar incident a few months ago when its landing gear collapsed on arrival at Amsterdam.

When an aircraft is unable to touch down with its landing gear fully extended it must perform a gear-up or "belly" landing. Such a landing does carry a small risk - there is likely to be damage to the aircraft; it could conceivably catch fire or flip over if it lands too hard. Bad weather or high winds can increase the danger.

However, such landings are normally safe if performed correctly, as numerous case studies show.

A video of a Embraer ERJ landing in the Bahamas last year without its front wheels gives some insight into how the Flybe plane might have landed last week - it touches down with its rear wheels then maintains a horizontal position as it speeds along the runway before the pilot allows the nose to drop onto the tarmac at the last moment. There were no injuries.

In 2011, LOT Polish Airlines Flight 016 made a belly landing - caught in a remarkable video - in Warsaw after its landing gear failed - there were no injuries reported. Similarly, Malév Flight 262 from Budapest to Thessaloniki had to make a gear-up landing on July 4, 2000, but there were no casualties.

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Patrick Smith, a US pilot, examines landing gear issues in his book Cockpit Confidential, with reference to a JetBlue flight which was forced to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles in 2005 when its wheels failed to retract properly after take-off.

 JetBlue flight 292 makes a safe emergency landing with faulty landing gear Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005, at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. The craft circled the region for three hours with its front wheels turned sideways, unable to be retracted into the plane. The pilot landed by balancing on the back wheels, then easing onto the front tires, which shot flames along the runway before tearing off. (AP Photo/Jaime Rector)

The JetBlue flight 292 makes a safe emergency landing with faulty landing gear in 2005, at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. The craft circled the region for three hours with its front wheels turned sideways, unable to be retracted into the plane. The pilot landed by balancing on the back wheels, then easing onto the front tires, which shot flames along the runway before tearing off. Photo: AP

"Although only a minor incident from a technical point of view, the entire affair was caught on live television, engrossing millions of Americans and needlessly scaring the living daylights out of everybody on the plane," he explains.

"Moments after liftoff from Burbank, California, the pilots realised their forward landing gear had not properly retracted and was cocked at 90 degrees. Unable to realign it, they would have to make an emergency landing with the tyres twisted sideways. The pilots and JetBlue's dispatch team agreed to a diversion to Los Angeles, primarily to take advantage of LAX's long runways. But first came the matter of the plane's gross weight, which was several thousand pounds above its maximum allowable heft for touchdown.

"The A320, like other smaller jetliners, does not have a fuel dump capacity. This meant three hours of leisure flying over the Pacific until the poundage was down to the appropriate amount. Those three hours are what allowed this relative nonevent to be catapulted into a full-on spectacle.

"The California news outlets, out and about in search of the usual car chases and traffic accidents, had only to tip their cameras upwards to catch the Airbus as it circled.

"On board, 146 souls readied for what, according to the commentators, could very well be a devastating crash. Those of us who knew better... saw a jetliner preparing for what would be a telegenic but perfectly manageable landing. And that's what we got."

Gear-up landings are surprisingly common, and are not always made due to mechanical error. Occasionally a pilot will simply forget to lower it.

A cursory glance at Boeing's record of 2016 aviation accidents for commercial aircraft shows there were 12 incidents involving collapsed or failed landing gears last year.

Sometimes an incident involves a failure to retract the landing gear, in which case an aircraft might return to its departure airport but land normally.

In July two pilots were suspended from duty after their aircraft, carrying 99 passengers, nearly ran out of fuel because they forgot to retract the landing gear after take-off. The additional drag created by the error caused the plane to burn far more fuel than usual. 

The Telegraph, London

See also: Superjumbo makes incredible swerving landing in strong winds

See also: The world's 10 scariest airports to fly into

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