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When I was in the air wing in the '70s, I had the unpleasant opportunity of pulling wheel watch. The unfortunate individual sat in a small shack (maybe 3 x 6 ft.) with a pair of high-powered binoculars ensuring that each and every aircraft on final had their gears down. If not, there were two flare guns pointed at opposite right angles to the runway that had to be fired to warn the pilot off. I know I had to use them on more than one occasion. I think it was a thirty-day hitch. It seems like such a primitive way to ensure the gears were down, and I wonder if it's still being used today?

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    $\begingroup$ Just out of curiosity, do you remember what the criteria was for firing the flares? $\endgroup$ – Terry Oct 31 '18 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Terry, simply the inability to see the gears. In the smog of the Los Angeles area in midsummer, it was sometimes difficult to see, so I waved off some planes simply because I couldn't tell if they were down or not. $\endgroup$ – BillDOe Oct 31 '18 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Wheels up landings must be a common problem in the military. ATC always clears military aircraft to land adding, "confirm wheels down." $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 31 '18 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Civilian ATC used to say check gear down but stopped some years ago. When I was flying RJs the gear warning horn was a steady double freq tone that sounds exactly like the old TV test pattern sound of long ago. I always thought it was perfect for blending into the background in a high stress situation where the gear was omitted. Fortunately, if that happens the "Too low, gear" GPWS announcement comes farther down to save your butt.. hopefully. $\endgroup$ – John K Oct 31 '18 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ My favorite time was on wheel watch. I got to put a flare into the T-28's prop with a solo student pilot (1965). $\endgroup$ – Mike Brass Nov 1 '18 at 7:18
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No

They do not continue this practice anymore. This is likely because landing gear are more reliable now than they were in the 70's. There is also the practice of Air Traffic Control prompting military pilots to check their gear is down, by verbally adding "Check Gear Down" to their landing clearance.

Source: Checked in with some of the Air Force / Air National Guard pilots in the office. They're not aware of any such practice and decided it must have been before their time. Oldest pilot started in the 90's, so that leaves you with a 20 year gap where they abolished the practice.

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    $\begingroup$ I regularly fly at a dual-use field and I don't know how many times I got told "check gear down" while I was in a 172 before I decided that it was habit, not the controller mocking my tiny little GA plane. $\endgroup$ – Erin Anne Nov 1 '18 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinAnne I think the reply to that, "roger, gear down & welded" has been used a few times to remind the controller that his query is really only appropriate for retractable-gear aircraft. Believe that this distinction was/is in their regs, although of course you're right that habit patterns are hard to overcome at times. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Nov 1 '18 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne That's pretty much a microquestion, but to answer it simply: Military aircraft are expensive (90,000,000 USD each for some). In the pursuit of not destroying a 90M USD aircraft, they add the extra two seconds per flight to confirm gear are down. It's a simple fix to a problem that only needs to happen once to be devastating. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne When working in "never fail" environments, you want to design systems so that all observed failures are at least one (or more) safety step away from disaster. If 99.99999% of the time people don't need to be reminded, that means 0.00001% of the time they do. At 100 million per failure, that is a average cost of 100$ for failing to remind someone to check landing gear down. So you say "check gear down" every time, even though over a career of 100 flights/day, 200 days/year, 40 years you won't typically have even one time it matters. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Nov 1 '18 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman Ha - you need to meet more pilots. After a mission that lasts half a day, I'm surprised they remember to land at the right base... and sometimes they don't even land at the right base either! They are all still human. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 18:00
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In the early 1990s the Navy used to deploy instructor and student pilots to perform wheels watch at outlying fields that were NOT tower controlled, and where student solo pilots would practice landings during primary flight training in the T-34C. Without an instructor or tower this practice made sense. I cannot speak to whether or not it is on-going.

Once complete with primary training, any landing practice at non-tower controlled outlying fields would be done with a carrier Landing Signals Officer on station. The LSO would note trends, grade all landings and also function as a wheels watch, although wheels watch wasn't the primary purpose.

During 20 years spanning the mid 1980s to early 2000s I was never aware of any wheels watch at a tower controlled military airfield, but that's not to say it didn't happen somewhere.

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    $\begingroup$ "but that's not to say it didn't happen somewhere." I would think otherwise, as a pilot would no doubt be told what to do if he saw two flares go off at the end of the runway - meaning he would know that there is the potential for wheel watchers. If a pilot was never instructed about this scenario, it would almost certainly mean that wheel watchers were not in effect. Cool stuff about the LSO though! And makes sense that they would have someone watching for student pilots. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ This was MCAS El Toro, which at the time was the headquarters for the 3rd Marin Air Wing. I was with H&HS repairing TACANs and transponders. We most definitely had a tower. $\endgroup$ – BillDOe Nov 1 '18 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ Good point @Matt. "What does it mean if you see two flares?" was never considered or briefed in all my time after leaving the training environment. In fact I don't even specifically remember discussing flares in training. The time I stood wheels watch with my instructor I'm pretty sure we had a hand held radio, although there may have been a flare gun in the kit as back up. It was a long time ago now! $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Nov 2 '18 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall "red pyrotechnics" is still listed in civilian Canadian pilot training material as an indication not to land at a military field (or it was last time I saw them...). Which isn't to say that they still use them. $\endgroup$ – mbrig Nov 2 '18 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall - I'd imagine, that even without a briefing, human instinct would kick in if you saw flares going off across the runway. At minimum you'd radio in to find out what's going on, if not initiate a go around automatically. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Nov 7 '18 at 18:07
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I remember the AF still had the runway supervisory unit (RSU) when I was still on active duty in the '89-'92 time frame. I wasn't an AF pilot, but I was a private pilot flying with the Aero Club at the time. I'm pretty sure the RSU wasn't staffed full time. It may have been limited to periods of high op tempo when the consequences of a gear up landing would be more severe. I don't remember seeing an RSU in the years since then.

Edit: I was reminded that the field got a new control tower shortly after I left. I believe the RSU was removed at that time as it was no longer needed. The new tower provided much better visibility to that runway end than the old tower.

We did have the 'check gear down' calls from the tower in those days. I think the RSU became redundant to the ATC call/Pilot confirmation. For a/c with 2 crew, you had a backup check on board. Most of the fighters by that time had the landing lights on the gear, so in addition to the ATC call, the tower could just look for the landing lights.

As for the reason for the calls, it's not just about the potential loss of the a/c. In a combat environment, the runway is a critical asset. A gear up landing would render the runway unusable for a time preventing other a/c from landing or taking off. That can seriously impact the mission. Similarly, the Navy has been known to push an a/c overboard to clear the deck of a carrier.

The second factor is the culture. In the civil world ATC has their job and pilots have theirs. They don't want to cross that boundary. In the military, everyone is part of the team and they work together to help ensure mission success.

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    $\begingroup$ "A gear up landing would render the runway unusable for a time preventing other a/c from landing or taking off" - not necessarily. A few years back I was watching a joint European airforces exercise at a UK airbase. Somebody had a problem (not a wheels-up landing) which blocked the only runway. Big deal - the next few groups to depart just did formation takeoffs from one of the taxiways until the tow truck had removed the blockage! $\endgroup$ – alephzero Nov 1 '18 at 12:01
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As a current student naval aviator, I can tell you that Wheels Watch (who is a student assisting the Runway Duty Officer) is something that is still alive and well for the Navy Outlying Fields that we train at in addition to home field (North Whiting KNSE), which has a controlling tower.

To speak to the operational necessity of this safety measure, T-6B's still manage to have gear up landings at OLFs, so when you have an excess of warm bodies to throw at a problem you are inclined to keep using them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice info. MCAS El Toro wasn't exactly an outlying field, and the reference to "wheel watch" meant sitting in that small hut ensuring each and every plane making a landing had their gears down. $\endgroup$ – BillDOe Nov 7 '18 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation, thanks for your contribution, and thank you very much for your service! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Nov 7 '18 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Last time I was in the RDO shack (when solos were flying) was at NAS Corpus Christi about 15 years ago. Thanks for the update. I guess some things don't change. Fly safe. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 8 '18 at 3:19

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