During my 12-year flying career, I’ve had one engine failure. I was lucky. It happened during a takeoff in my Cessna 170, and thankfully the engine quit immediately after I applied full power on the runway. I was able to use what forward momentum I had achieved to roll onto the hard surface area between the runway and the taxiway. The experience made my heart beat a little quicker, but I never felt in danger.
While an engine failure immediately after takeoff is rare, it does happen. You may never have to experience this daunting event, but if you ever do you’ll be much more relaxed and in a better position to have a happy ending to the day if you’re prepared. A clear plan of action prior to rolling out on the runway can go a long way. It may even become the difference between life and death. This plan of action is worth verbalizing prior to every takeoff, whether you’re flying by yourself, with another pilot or with passengers.
Since the procedures and considerations will be very different depending on the airplane you’re flying, I’m not going to attempt to give any detailed instructions on what the briefing may sound like. But here are some pointers for what you should take into consideration.
If you’re flying with another pilot, be very clear about who will act as pilot in command in case of an emergency. The designated PIC could actually be the pilot in the right seat. For example, in the case of a training flight, it generally makes sense to assign the instructor as the emergency pilot in command. It may also make sense to designate the pilot with the most experience in the airplane as the PIC. The other pilot or passenger should be ready to read the emergency checklist and assist in any possible way.
An engine failure while still on the ground is most likely straightforward. The procedure is simply to stop straight ahead or off the side of the runway, if it can be done safely. But should the engine fail once you’re in the air, the procedures are much more ambiguous. Is there enough runway left to land? And, if not, where should you go? Make sure that you are very familiar with the area beyond the departure end of the runway. There may be a field, road or golf course that can serve as an excellent emergency landing site. Knowing where to go will greatly reduce the inevitable stress in the cockpit.
Without a plan, it may be tempting to turn back toward the runway. But unless you have gained at least 1,000 feet of altitude, it is best to put the airplane down more or less straight ahead. A successful 180-degree turn to the runway in case of an engine failure, even with a few hundred feet of altitude, is highly improbable.
If you’re above 1,000 feet, there may be time to attempt to restart the airplane. But it is most likely best to concentrate on getting the airplane down on the ground, unless you have a lot of altitude to play with. Your first focus needs to be to fly the airplane.
You may want to sit down with an instructor to create a detailed plan of action for an engine failure during the takeoff phase that makes sense for the type of airplane you fly regularly. The briefing should include intentions for engine failure procedures while over the runway, below 1,000 feet and above 1,000 feet. The discussion could also include the possible landing sites around the airports where you fly regularly. Get in the habit of verbalizing the plan before every takeoff. You’ll be happy you did if your engine starts to cough.