Landing gear usually includes wheels equipped with shock absorbers for solid ground, but some aircraft are equipped with skis for snow or floats for water, and/or skids or pontoons (helicopters).
Wheeled undercarriages normally come in two types: conventional or "taildragger" undercarriage, where there are two main wheels towards the front of the aircraft and a single, much smaller, wheel or skid at the rear; or tricycle undercarriage where there are two main wheels (or wheel assemblies) under the wings and a third smaller wheel in the nose. The taildragger arrangement was common during the early propeller era, as it allows more room for propeller clearance. Most modern aircraft have tricycle undercarriages. Taildraggers are considered harder to land and take off (because the arrangement is unstable, that is, a small deviation from straight-line travel is naturally amplified by the greater drag of the mainwheel which has moved farther away from the plane's center of gravity due to the deviation), and usually require special pilot training. Sometimes a small tail wheel or skid is added to aircraft with tricycle undercarriage, in case of tail strikes during take-off. The Concorde, for instance, had a retractable tail "bumper" wheel, as delta winged aircraft need a high angle when taking off. The Boeing 727 also had a retractable tail bumper. Some aircraft with retractable conventional landing gear have a fixed tailwheel, which generate minimal drag (since most of the airflow past the tailwheel has been blanketed by the fuselage) and even improve yaw stability in some cases.
To decrease drag in flight some undercarriages retract into the wings and/or fuselage with wheels flush against the surface or concealed behind doors; this is called retractable gear.
If the wheels rest protruding and partially exposed to the air stream after being retracted, the system is called semi-retractable.
Most retraction systems are hydraulically-operated, though some are electrically-operated or even manually-operated. This ads weight and complexity to the design. In retractable gear systems, the compartment where the wheels are stowed are called wheel wells, which may also diminish valuable cargo or fuel space.
A design for retractable landing gear was first seen in 1876 in plans for an amphibious monoplane designed by Frenchmen Alphonse Pénaud and Paul Gauchot. Aircraft with at least partially retractable landing gear did not appear until 1917, and it was not until the late 1920s and early 1930s that such aircraft became common. By then, aircraft performance was improved to the point where the aerodynamic advantage of a retractable undercarriage justified the added complexity, weight and interior space penalties. An alternate method of reducing the aerodynamic penalty imposed by fixed undercarriage is to attach aerodynamic fairings (often called "spats" or "pants") on the undercarriage, with only the bottoms of the wheels exposed.
Pilots confirming that their landing gear is down and locked refer to "three green" or "three in the green.", a reference to electrical indicator lights from the nosewheel and the two main gears. Amber lights indicate the gears are in the up-locked position; red lights indicates that the landing gear is in transit (neither down and locked nor fully retracted).
Multiple redundancies are usually provided to prevent a single failure from failing the entire landing gear extension process. Whether electrically or hydraulically operated, the landing gear can usually be powered from multiple sources. In case the power system fails, an emergency extension system is always available. This may take the form of a manually-operated crank or pump, or a mechanical free-fall mechanism which disengages the uplocks and allows the landing gear to fall due to gravity. Some high-performance aircraft may even feature a pressurized-nitrogen back-up system.
|Tire Arrangements of large aircraft|
|Main landing gear on an Antonov An-225|
|An Airbus A340-600, which has an undercarriage on the fuselage belly in addition to the wings|
As aircraft grow larger, they employ more wheels to cope with the increasing weights. The earliest "giant" aircraft ever placed in quantity production, the Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI German World War I long-range bomber of 1916, used a total of eighteen wheels for its undercarriage, split between two wheels on its nose gear struts, and a total of sixteen wheels on its main gear units under each tandem engine nacelle, to support its loaded weight of almost 12 metric tons. The Airbus A340-500/-600 has an additional four-wheel undercarriage bogie on the fuselage centreline, much like the twin-wheel unit in the same general location, used on later DC-10 and MD-11 airliners. The Boeing 747 has five sets of wheels: a nose-wheel assembly and four sets of four-wheel bogies. A set is located under each wing, and two inner sets are located in the fuselage, a little rearward of the outer bogies, adding up to a total of eighteen wheels and tires. The Airbus A380 also has a four-wheel bogie under each wing with two sets of six-wheel bogies under the fuselage. The enormous Ukrainian Antonov An-225 jet cargo aircraft has one of the largest, if not the largest, number of individual wheel/tire assemblies in its landing gear design - with a total of four wheels on the twin-strut nose gear units, and a total of 28 main gear wheel/tire units, adding up to a total of 32 wheels and tires.
Unusual types of gear
|Hawker Harrier GR7 (ZG472). The two mainwheels are in line astern under the fuselage, with a smaller wheel on each wing|
Rarely, planes use wheels only for take off and drop them afterwards, to gain the improved streamlining without the complexity, weight and space requirements of a retraction mechanism, with such jettisonable wheels sometimes mounted onto axles that were part of a separate "dolly" (for main wheels only) or "trolley" (for a three wheel set with a nosewheel) chassis. In this case, landing is achieved on skids or similar simple devices. Historical examples include the "dolly"-using Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant troop glider, and the first eight "trolley"-using prototypes of the Arado Ar 234 jet reconnaissance bomber. The main disadvantage to using the takeoff dolly/trolley and landing skid(s) system on German World War II aircraft, was that aircraft would likely be scattered all over a military airfield after they had landed from a mission, and would be unable to taxi to an appropriately hidden "dispersal" location on their own, which could easily leave them vulnerable to being shot up by attacking Allied fighters. A related contemporary example are the wingtip support wheels ("Pogos") on the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which fall away after take-off and drop to earth; the aircraft then relies on titanium skids on the wingtips for landing.
Some main gear struts on World War II aircraft, in order to allow a single-leg main gear to more efficiently store the wheel within either the wing or an engine nacelle, rotated the single gear strut through a 90º angle during the retraction sequence to allow the main wheel to rest "flat" above the lower end of the main gear strut, or flush within the wing, when fully retracted. Examples are the Curtiss P-40, Vought F4U Corsair, Grumman F6F Hellcat, Messerschmitt Me 210 and Junkers Ju 88. The Aero Commander family of twin-engined business aircraft also shares this feature on the main gears, which retract aft into the ends of the engine nacelles. The rearward-retracting nosewheel strut on the Heinkel He 219 and the forward-retracting nose gear strut on the later Cessna Skymaster similarly rotated 90 degrees as they retracted.
On most World War II single-engined fighter aircraft with sideways retracting main gear, the main gear that retracted into the wings was meant to be raked forward, towards, the aircraft's nose in the "down" position for better ground handling, with a retracted position that placed the main wheels at some angle "behind" the main gear's attachment point to the airframe - this led to a complex geometry for setting up the angles for the retraction mechanism's axis of rotation, with some aircraft, like the P-47 Thunderbolt, even mandating that the main gear struts lengthen as they were extended down fron the wings to assure proper ground clearance for its large four bladed propeller. One exception to the need for this complexity in many WW II fighter aircraft was Japan's famous Zero fighter, whose main gear stayed at a perpendicular angle to the centreline of the aircraft when extended, as seen from the side.
An unusual undercarriage configuration is found on the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, which has two mainwheels in line astern under the fuselage (called a bicycle or tandem layout) and a smaller wheel near the tip of each wing. On second generation Harriers, the wing is extended past the outrigger wheels to allow greater wing-mounted munition loads to be carried.
A multiple tandem layout was used on some military jet aircraft during the 1950s such as the Lockheed U-2, Myasishchev M-4, Yakovlev Yak-25, Yak-28 and the B-47 Stratojet because it allows room for a large internal bay between the main wheels. A variation of the multi tandem layout is also used on the B-52 Stratofortress which has four main wheel bogies (two forward and two aft) underneath the fuselage and a small outrigger wheel supporting each wing-tip. The B-52's landing gear is also unique in that all four pairs of main wheels can be steered. This allows the landing gear to line up with the runway and thus makes crosswind landings easier (using a technique called crab landing). The challenge of designing a tandem-gear layout is that the aircraft has to sit (on the ground) at the optimum flight angle for landing - when the plane is nearly in a stalled attitude just before touchdown, both fore and aft wheels must be ready to contact the runway. Otherwise there will be a vicious jolt as the higher wheel falls to the runway at the stall.
One very early undercarriage arrangement that passively allowed for castoring during crosswind landings, unlike the "active" arrangement on the B-52, was pioneered on the Bleriot VIII design of 1908. It was later used in the much more famous Blériot XI Channel-crossing aircraft of 1909 and also copied in the earliest examples of the Etrich Taube. In this arrangement the main landing gear's shock absorption was taken up by a vertically-sliding bungee cord-sprung upper member. The vertical post along which the upper member slid to take landing shocks also had its lower end as the rotation point for the forward end of the main wheel's suspension fork, allowing the main gear to pivot on moderate crosswind landings.
|Two mechanics replacing a tire on a P-3C Orion|
There are several types of steering. Taildragger aircraft may be steered by rudder alone (depending upon the prop wash produced by the aircraft to turn it) with a freely-pivoting tail wheel, or by a steering linkage with the tail wheel, or by differential braking (the use of independent brakes on opposite sides of the aircraft to turn the aircraft by slowing one side more sharply than the other). Aircraft with tricycle landing gear usually have a steering linkage with the nose wheel (especially in large aircraft), but some allow the nose wheel to pivot freely and use differential braking and/or the rudder to steer the aircraft.
Some aircraft require that the pilot steer by using rudder pedals; others allow steering with the yoke or control stick. Some allow both. Still others have a separate control, called a tiller, used for steering on the ground exclusively.
When an aircraft is steered on the ground exclusively using the rudder, turning the plane requires that a substantial airflow be moving past the rudder, which can be generated either by the forward motion of the aircraft or by thrust provided by the engines. Rudder steering requires considerable practice to use effectively. Although it requires air movement, it has the advantage of being independent of the landing gear, which makes it useful for aircraft equipped with fixed floats or skis.
Some aircraft link the yoke, control stick, or rudder directly to the wheel used for steering. Manipulating these controls turns the steering wheel (the nose wheel for tricycle landing gear, and the tail wheel for taildraggers). The connection may be a firm one in which any movement of the controls turns the steering wheel (and vice versa), or it may be a soft one in which a spring-like mechanism twists the steering wheel but does not force it to turn. The former provides positive steering but makes it easier to skid the steering wheel; the latter provides softer steering (making it easy to overcontrol) but reduces the probability of skidding. Aircraft with retractable gear may disable the steering mechanism wholly or partially when the gear is retracted.
|Wing and fuselage undercarriages on a Boeing 747-400, shortly before landing|
Differential braking depends on asymmetric application of the brakes on the main gear wheels to turn the aircraft. For this, the aircraft must be equipped with separate controls for the right and left brakes (usually on the rudder pedals). The nose or tail wheel usually is not equipped with brakes. Differential braking requires considerable skill. In aircraft with several methods of steering that include differential braking, differential braking may be avoided because of the wear it puts on the braking mechanisms. Differential braking has the advantage of being largely independent of any movement or skidding of the nose or tail wheel.
A tiller in an aircraft is a small wheel or lever, sometimes accessible to one pilot and sometimes duplicated for both pilots, that controls the steering of the aircraft while it is on the ground. The tiller may be designed to work in combination with other controls such as the rudder or yoke. In large airliners, for example, the tiller is often used as the sole means of steering during taxi, and then the rudder is used to steer during take-off and landing, so that both aerodynamic control surfaces and the landing gear can be controlled simultaneously when the aircraft is moving at aerodynamic rates of speed.
Landing gear and accidents
|JetBlue Airways Flight 292, an Airbus A320, making an emergency landing on runway 25L at LAX in 2005 after the front landing gear malfunctioned|
Malfunctions or human errors (or a combination of these) related to retractable landing gear have been the cause of numerous accidents and incidents throughout aviation history. Distraction and preoccupation during the landing sequence played a prominent role in the approximately 100 gear-up landing incidents that occurred each year in the United States between 1998 and 2003. A gear-up landing incident, also known as a belly landing, is an accident that may result from the pilot simply forgetting, or failing, to lower the landing gear before landing or a mechanical malfunction that does not allow the landing gear to be lowered. Although rarely fatal, a gear-up landing is very expensive, as it causes massive airframe damage. For propeller driven aircraft it almost always requires a complete rebuild of engines because the propellers strike the ground and suffer a sudden stoppage if they are running during the impact. Many aircraft between the wars - at the time when retractable gear was becoming commonplace - were deliberately designed to allow the bottom of the wheels to protrude below the fuselage even when retracted to reduce the damage caused if the pilot forgot to extend the landing gear or in case the plane was shot down and forced to crash-land. Examples include the Avro Anson and the Douglas DC-3. The modern-day Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II carries on this legacy: it is similarly designed in an effort to avoid (further) damage during a gear-up landing, a possible consequence of battle damage.
Some aircraft have a stiffened fuselage bottom or added firm structures, designed to minimise structural damage in a wheels-up landing. When the Cessna Skymaster was converted for a military spotting role (the O-2 Skymaster), fiberglass railings were added to the length of the fuselage; they were adequate to support the aircraft without damage if it was landed on a grassy surface.
On September 21, 2005, JetBlue Airways Flight 292 successfully landed with its nose gear turned 90 degrees sideways, resulting in a shower of sparks and flame after touchdown. This type of incident is very uncommon as the nose oleo struts are designed with centering cams to hold the nosewheels straight until they are compressed by the weight of the aircraft.
Automatic extension systems
The Piper Arrow was originally fitted with a system that automatically extended the landing gear when certain power and flap settings were selected. The manufacturer issued an Airworthiness Directive for owners to disable this system. Pilots were found to be relying on this system to extend the gear in routine flight operations, rather than just as an emergency backup. If the gear failed to extend then the manufacturer was exposed to liability for the resulting gear-up landing. There were also concerns over unintentional gear extension incidents where pilots placed the aircraft in "bad-weather" (low-power setting, flaps down) configuration and inadvertently activated the gear extension system.
Emergency extension systems
In the event of a failure of the aircraft's landing gear extension mechanism a back-up is provided. This may be an alternate hydraulic system, a hand-crank, compressed air (nitrogen), pyrotechnic or free-fall system.
A free-fall or gravity drop system uses gravity to deploy the landing gear into the down and locked position. To accomplish this the pilot activates a switch or mechanical handle in the cockpit, which releases the up-lock. Gravity then pulls the landing gear down and deploys it. Once in position the landing gear is mechanically locked and safe to use and land on.