I was downwind to base, getting checked out in a light twin, when my instructor asked me if I’d done my GUMPS check yet.
Most of my flying has been in large transport aircraft, so, no, I hadn’t. I’d forgotten. I fumbled my way through GUMPS, three times, before I remembered that the “U” is to remind me to check the gear, not the, uh, the, uh…Crap. What is it again? Gas, UNDERCARRIAGE, mixture, props, switches.
I’m probably alone on this, but that’s why I hate GUMPS. Not the concept because that concept is great.
The last place you want to be is turning base to final approach on an empty gas tank with your gear up, underpowered, hanging on a windmilling prop and blind to others in the area. So GUMPS is good, except that it’s a forced acronym. So that makes it bad, for me.
GUMPS was devised to get aviators to initiate a smooth, cockpit flow for the purpose of confirming that the aircraft is in its proper landing configuration. Except my flow gets interrupted when I get to the “U.”
Does anybody ever use the word “undercarriage” in normal speech? Never. When was the last time you heard a pilot say, “I’m stoked. I just got my complex endorsement. Now I can fly retractable undercarriage planes anytime I want”?
Not once. Or after takeoff: “Positive rate, undercarriage up.” Nope.
At the highest workload moment of every flight, I’m supposed to recall a word I never use and associate it with “check landing gear status.” My brain refuses to accept that undercarriage is a valid substitute for gear.
“Undercarriage” is as jolting to me as when I hear the medical examiner on a TV show say “GSW” instead of “gunshot wound.” Try it yourself. It’s much harder to say “GSW” aloud than it is to just say “gunshot wound.” That’s because the words are only three syllables, while the letters are spoken in four.
Both are forced and unnatural. When I’m forced to use GUMPS, I don’t flow in the cockpit. I stall.
The inability to square one’s beliefs with one’s actions creates a condition called cognitive dissonance. It’s a condition that causes measurable mental stress and verifiable physical impairment.
Being in a state of cognitive dissonance takes a person out of the moment. It slows or destroys reaction time.
One pilot who submitted a report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System experienced his own cognitive dissonance when he knowingly violated sterile cockpit procedures to appease an authority figure, his flight instructor.
“I was given a straight-in approach for the runway. My instructor started telling me to fill out my logbook rather than watch what was happening in the cockpit. I forgot to do my GUMPS.”
According to the pilot, he knew trying to complete his logbook while flying was a horrible idea. But he also knew it was his fault the instructor would be late for the next appointment. Plus he needed that same instructor to sign off on his BFR.
Being charged with conflicting tasks put him “behind the airplane.” He forgot his GUMPS entirely, which contributed to his gear-up landing.
Nobody would deny this pilot displayed incompetent decision making in that moment, including the pilot himself. But why did he do it?
The answer may be found in medical research. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists investigated the neural basis of cognitive dissonance. They proved it actually suppresses activity in the brain’s anterior insula. This region of the brain is critical to performing audio-visual integration tasks. It controls perception, motor control, self-awareness and logic functions.
In other words, cognitive dissonance delays our reaction time, reduces our motor skills and decreases our ability to interpret what we’re seeing and hearing. Put simply, it makes us slower and dumber.
But unlike impairment from alcohol, narcotics or lack of sleep, a person in a state of cognitive dissonance is unaware they are impaired.
A Cessna 210 pilot landed gear up after doing a GUMPS check. He had just completed a three-hour night flight. He had cruised at high altitude but had been using an oxygen bottle most of the flight. The oxygen use gave the pilot confidence that he had full mental clarity. On the approach, ATC requested that the pilot keep his speed at 145 knots all the way down final to help ATC sequence traffic.
The pilot wrote: “I cannot lower the gear in my plane above 140 knots. Since I was requested to keep my airspeed at 145 knots, I delayed putting the gear down and unfortunately did not replay the normal GUMPS landing sequence in my mind as I was slowing the plane down just prior to touchdown.”
The pilot concluded that he firmly believed the incident would have been avoided had the approach been routine.
He also wondered, in his report, “In the heat of the moment, how do you remember something that does not cross your mind?”
That single question suggests the pilot was unable to adapt to a non-routine request due to cognitive dissonance. He believed his normal approach and gear down speed had to be below 140 knots, yet he also believed he should comply with ATC’s 145-knot request. Those conflicting thoughts could have created cognitive dissonance, which diminished his ability to maintain situational awareness. The end result was a gear-up landing.
In his conclusion, he wrote, “You cannot always anticipate what your mental acuity will be when you arrive at your destination. My concern is, how do you train in a way that allows you to perform when you are at your worst mentally?”
Another C-210 pilot had a similar experience. “I was returning from a short trip with two passengers. I entered a left downwind for Runway X at ZZZ. I then proceeded to go through my landing GUMPS ritual. I pulled back on the throttle, put my prop full forward and mixture rich, and gave it a notch of flaps. Somehow, I missed the undercarriage. When I called base, I noticed my speed was higher than normal, so I trimmed up and reduced my throttle. As I was turning final, I saw that I was higher than normal so I throttled back. I heard a bonging in my ear but associated that with an Outer Marker and proceeded on to the runway. Why I didn’t do my normal check of the gear is beyond me.”
The Outer Marker of an ILS approach is normally situated approximately five nautical miles from a runway. If you were inside of base on final approach and heard a noise in your ear that you “associated with an Outer Marker,” wouldn’t that cause you some confusion, too?
The pilot believed he was on a normal approach, just high and fast. When the gear warning horn sounded, he believed it was an Outer Marker beacon. Unable to square the two beliefs, he lost situational awareness, failed to address the alarm and landed gear up.
Unlike the pilot of the C-210 in the earlier report, this pilot offered a viable solution. He concluded: “The corrective action would have been to utilize a written checklist.”
In another NASA report, a pilot wrote, “A friend let me fly his Super Cub on floats. This was the third time I had flown his plane. The cockpit was different than my Super Cub. I reviewed the cockpit again, finding everything I needed to start the airplane. There was no checklist. I took off, did a couple of touch and goes on different lakes, and headed back home.”
When the pilot was on long final, he pulled the power back.
“I was about 800 feet and the engine started to sputter, so I gave it a little power, but it continued. So I looked at the lake, glanced inside the cockpit, my left hand searching for something while I kept looking at the lake.”
He realized he wasn’t going to make the lake, so he angled right and landed in a nearby swamp, avoiding trees between him and the lake.
His “left hand searching for something….” The pilot knew he was in a Super Cub, one similar to his own. But the sputtering motor and the slight differences between the two Super Cubs created a mental conflict.
The physical manifestation of that became a disconnect between his searching muscle memory and his brain’s memory. Only afterward, when he surveyed the cockpit, did he realize his hand had been searching for the fuel selector switch.
“The fuel selector switch was on the left tank. Looked at left tank fuel gauge. Showed empty. Right fuel tank was full.”
That pilot acknowledged that he wasn’t proud of himself that day.
Cognitive dissonance can do that to a pilot. It can happen at any time, in any flight regime, at any attitude, kind of like a stall.
The next time you feel your brain stall in the cockpit, go to the checklist. It’s the best way to combat cognitive dissonance.