Aircraft come in a large variety of types, including helicopters, airplanes, seaplanes, hot-air balloons, and more. Despite their differences, all of them require some sort of landing gear that is built to handle the force of landing, wherever that may be. More than just satisfying your curiosity, knowing the different types can answer several major questions about why certain aircraft require one type of landing gear over others.
The first characteristic to consider when discussing landing gear is whether a vessel uses fixed or retractable components. Simple airplanes that fly at low speeds most often have fixed gear which consists of wheels and struts, so as to roll across the runway. Faster, more complex planes have retractable landing gear, meaning that after takeoff, the landing gear is retracted into the fuselage or wings and out of the airstream. This is important because extended gear creates significant drag caused by the friction of the air flowing over the gear at high speeds. On very light, slow aircraft, the extra weight that comes with retractable gear is more of a detriment than the drag caused by the fixed gear. On these planes, lightweight fairings and wheel parts can be used instead to keep drag to a minimum.
Landing gear must be strong enough to handle the force of landing when the aircraft is fully loaded. In addition to strength, the gear should also be as light as possible to minimize drag. For this reason, landing gear is commonly made from durable, light-weight materials like aluminum, steel, and magnesium. The wheels and tires used in aviation are also equipped with unique braking systems to effectively stop once a plane has landed on the runway. Not all landing gear are configured with wheels, so braking mechanisms are not always necessary, but regardless of their type, there must always be a means of shock absorption.
Helicopters have such high maneuverability and low landing speeds that a set of fixed skids is all that is needed to effectively handle the shock of landing. The same is true of free balloons which fly slowly and land on wooden skids attached to the bottom of the gondola. For aircraft that land on water, their landing gear is equipped with pontoons or floats. These devices create a lot of drag in comparison with other types, but their functionality can be indispensable for certain missions and environments. Even skis can be found on some aircraft for operation on areas covered in snow and ice. Finally, just as frogs can maneuver just as easily in water as on land, there are “amphibious” aircraft that can touch down either on land or on water. The aircraft designed for such use have a bottom half of the fuselage acting as a hull with outriggers on the underside of the wings to aid in water landing and taxi. The main gear is water-proof and retracted into the fuselage until it is needed for landing on the ground or a runway.
Aside from general types of landing gear, there are two basic configurations: conventional gear or tail wheel gear and the tricycle gear. Tail wheel gear was dominant in the early aviation industry and has therefore become known as conventional gear. Alongside two main wheels positioned under most of the weight of the aircraft, the conventional gear aircraft also have a smaller wheel or simply a metal skid located at the back end of the fuselage. This orientation allowed the fuselage to incline, thus giving clearance for the long propellers that prevailed in aviation through WWII. In the time since then, tricycle gear configuration has become the most prevalent design for modern aircraft. In addition to the two main wheels supporting the bulk of the plane, tricycle gear aircraft have a shock absorbing nose wheel at the front of the fuselage.
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