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On October 3, 2009, about 1930 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA-32R-300, N8809C, was substantially damaged during a gear-up landing at Columbus County Municipal Airport (CPC), Whiteville, North Carolina. The certificated private pilot and passenger were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the local personal flight that originated at CPC, at 1730, and was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
In a telephone interview, one witness, a certificated airframe and powerplant mechanic, stated that he was working at the airport when he noticed the airplane maneuvering around the airport. Soon after, the pilot contacted the airport manager by cellular telephone and then spoke to the mechanic directly.
According to the mechanic, the pilot reported a complete loss of electrical power, and that he was unable to lower the landing gear as a result. Several attempts to lower the landing gear using the emergency procedures published in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook were also unsuccessful. The mechanic stated that while the telephone connection was weak, he was sure that he and the pilot reviewed the procedure properly, and that the gear would not deploy.
After an estimated 90 minutes of maneuvering and troubleshooting, the pilot announced that he was low on fuel, running out of daylight, and would land the airplane gear-up. The mechanic advised the pilot to land on the pavement, and not in the grass.
According to the mechanic, the airplane was at low altitude over the approach end of the runway when the pilot “chopped the power.” He said, “He chopped the power too high, and didn’t have enough ‘flare speed’ and hit the runway pretty hard.”
In a telephone interview, the pilot provided a similar accounting of events. He said that there were two different procedures for the emergency lowering of the landing gear, neither of which worked. The pilot stated that after he decided to land the airplane gear-up, he entered a left hand traffic pattern, and completed the “gear-up landing procedure” by the checklist.
A review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airman records revealed that pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single engine land. His most recent FAA third class medical certificate was issued in January 2008. The pilot reported 320 total hours of flight experience with 88 total hours in the accident airplane make and model.
According to FAA and maintenance records, the airplane was manufactured in 1976 and had accrued 3,902 total aircraft hours. Its most recent annual inspection was completed in November 20, 2008, at 3,882 total aircraft hours.
At 1934, the weather reported at CPC included clear skies and winds from 190 degrees at 5 knots. The visibility was 10 miles. The temperature was 24 degrees Celsius (C) and the dew point was 19 degrees C.
Examination of the airplane at the scene revealed substantial damage to the firewall, fuselage, and empennage structures. According to the mechanic, during the recovery, the airplane was raised and the landing gear “just came down by itself.”
Detailed examination of the airplane by the mechanic revealed that the air conditioning compressor had seized, the compressor belt had broken, which then fouled the alternator belt. According to the mechanic, once the alternator belt broke, the battery power was exhausted, and the airplane experienced a complete electrical failure
On October 5, 2009, the airplane was examined by an FAA aviation safety inspector, who confirmed the damage as well as the diagnosis of the original malfunction offered by the mechanic. Examination of the landing gear revealed that with electrical power applied, the landing gear would operate as designed. With electrical power removed, the “emergency down valve” which allowed the gear to free-fall into position was "stuck," and would not release the hydraulic pressure to allow the gear to lower. Instead, the pressure was released by opening the hydraulic line, and the gear then lowered as designed. According to the mechanic, "We concluded the valve was stopped up internally and did not release pressure when actuated. We did not remove the valve or have it tested."
According to the Piper Cherokee Six/Lance Service manual, the inspection of the entire landing gear system, with operational checks, should be performed every 100 flight hours. The airplane had accrued only 20 total flight hours during the nearly 10.5 months that had elapsed since the airplane's last annual inspection.