How to Minimize Risk During Takeoff

An in-depth look at the accidents that result from loss of power on departure.

When I began learning to fly a few decades ago, I really thought takeoffs were one of the easiest parts of the training. First, I’d line up the old orange Champ on the Runway 22 centerline at Willard Airport (KCMI) in Champaign County, Illinois, and run the throttle all the way up and release those pesky heel brakes. All that remained was to keep the 90 mighty horses under the cowling headed straight down the runway for 20 seconds or so until, whoosh, I was airborne. Emergencies and loss of control during takeoff—never heard of them. I must have met the standard at the time because my instructor OK’d my performance.

New-pilot education has improved significantly, following big pushes from the FAA and instructor organizations such as the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators and the National Association of Flight Instructors—as well as private companies creating content that asks and answers the tough questions that begin with “What if…?” Today, the airman certification standards say a new pilot’s takeoff planning should focus on “satisfactory knowledge, risk management and skills associated with a normal takeoff, climb operations and rejected-takeoff procedures,” as well as how they vary with changes to the environment. Effective training includes telling pilots the truth about the potential dangers waiting for the unprepared on takeoff, such as what to do if the engine quits when you’re 500 feet in the air. Do you land straight ahead, turn back to the airport, or plant it on that side street just off the end of the runway? Any successful return demands maintaining control of the airplane all the way back to the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported that approximately 26 percent of fatalities in 2018 occurred during takeoff, enough to warrant serious attention, according to the 30th Nall Report from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute—which also showed a negligible change in total takeoff accidents to 111 from the 113 noted in the 2017 report, along with a slight uptick in fatalities from 21 to 23. The report tied four of those fatal accidents to loss of control, 14 to stalls and three to configuration issues, such as having the flaps set improperly.

For too many years, instructors spoke of engine failure as the powerplant sputtering out completely, but it turns out that’s not the major concern. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau says in its article “Avoidable Accidents No. 3,” “During and after takeoff, a partial power loss is three times more likely in today’s light single-engine aircraft than a complete engine failure.” Mike Busch, founder and CEO of Savvy Aviation, a maintenance company for owner-flown aircraft says: “It’s a lot more common to lose power in one cylinder than to lose all engine power. When you lose power in one cylinder—either because a head separates or a fuel injector clogs up—the engine continues to run and produce power. But it runs very rough, and it’s very scary.”

The FAA says approximately 90 percent of all NTSB reportable engine failures are actually the result of fuel exhaustion or starvation. If pilots manage and monitor their fuel flow, the chances of an engine failure are extraordinarily low. The monitoring begins before takeoff with a thorough review of the before-takeoff checklist. The reality is, if engine manifold pressure dropped 4 inches just a few seconds after takeoff power was set in a Bonanza, most pilots wouldn’t have realized anything had even occurred. What else are they missing?

Intellectually curious pilots have probably noticed how few airline or bizjet crews become accident statistics during takeoff. One reason is that they’re better trained, often in full-motion simulators capable of re-creating life-threatening scenarios for practice. The pilots are also usually more experienced. The aircraft they normally operate are mostly powered by more-reliable turbine engines. An important note when we look at how the pros train is to take a commonsense look at takeoff briefings that cover some of those “what ifs,” to which many GA pilots give little thought.

The PIC of a transport-category jet often begins the takeoff brief while the aircraft is still sitting at the gate, to be sure the other pilot understands the next move from a “here’s what I’m planning to do if…” perspective. Saying it all aloud confirms a few of the potential moves ahead and simplifies what the nonflying pilot can expect during takeoff should a problem pop up. The pros understand that trying to think clearly when an emergency strikes at 300 feet agl is always tough, but again, that’s why they train constantly. In a GA airplane, an engine issue at that altitude probably gives the pilot at most 30 seconds until impact—and far less if they’re completely startled by the situation.

Here’s one example: The pilot of the Beech Sierra recalled that the airplane began to sink shortly after takeoff. He retracted the flaps at 200 feet and began a turn back toward the runway as the aircraft began to vibrate and lose power. The pilot leveled the wings just before the aircraft first struck the roof of a nearby factory building, then fell to the ground, hitting five parked cars. The post-accident fire consumed most of the aircraft. The pilot was seriously injured, and the one passenger on board died. The NTSB determined that a mechanical issue caused the power failure but focused on the pilot’s decision to turn around at an altitude insufficient to complete the turn, as well as his failure to maintain control of the aircraft.

Person using a tablet device.
Effective takeoff planning demands more than simply calculating the required runway length and consideration for the prevailing winds. Stokkete/Shutterstock

Training, Training and More Training

While the ACS outlines the areas of pilot responsibility during takeoff, the devil really lies in the details of the training the pilot receives. An instructor can only teach topics they themselves understand. A new CFI probably knows little about how a professional crew plans their takeoffs, so the instructor might not give the topic much thought beyond how they were trained.

A step in the right educational direction for everyone occurred in 2018, when the FAA updated Advisory Circular 61-83J, “Nationally Scheduled, FAA-Approved, Industry-Conducted Flight-Instructor Refresher Course,” to reflect the topics that should be covered about loss of power at takeoff during a CFI’s recurrent training course. Instructors are now required to spend time discussing pilot decision-making following a loss of power. Should the pilot land on the remaining runway, if there is any, or simply accept that the airplane’s going down straight ahead?

The new AC adds a new topic to the mix: Can (and should) the pilot safely conduct a 180-degree turn and try to put the airplane back down on the runway safely? Under certain conditions, the pilot and airplane might make it back without harm, but flight-instructor refresher clinics still reinforce the notion that, most of the time, the best move following a loss of power during takeoff is to land straight ahead. The reason is simple: Too many pilots lose control of the airplane trying to execute a steep turn after takeoff, especially if they’ve never tried it before the engine coughs.

Thinking about how or where to put down an airplane following a loss of power does not come naturally. Thomas Turner, executive director of the American Bonanza Society’s Air Safety Foundation, explains why. “The checklists in the pilot’s operating handbook essentially address the airplane’s hardware,” he says. For example: Do the mags check OK? Does fuel flow seem normal? “What we’re trying to do is look at the software [human] side of flying, especially for pilots who are technically current.”

Turner has been teaching a new thought-jogging acronym, “TENE,” to call attention to the facts beyond the printed checklist that pilots should check before takeoff. “The T represents ‘threats,’” Turner says. “Perhaps the pilot is facing a slushy runway today—or very gusty winds or perhaps a low IFR ceiling.” It’s about how to prepare for events that will affect the takeoff. “The first E is for ‘expectations.’ How many actual feet of runway will I use for takeoff under the current conditions? If I advance the throttle, how many inches of manifold pressure, or what rpm and fuel flow, should I expect?”

Turner says he’s frequently surprised by how little some pilots know of the engine parameters or runway distances to expect on takeoff. Turner reminds pilots of the basic takeoff rule of thumb before they begin their roll: “The airplane should achieve 70 percent of its liftoff speed by 50 percent of the ground-roll distance.”

Next up, “the N is for ‘normal’ and covers the standard topics for departures—which way to turn if it’s a VFR pattern or a SID that mentions climbing to 500 feet before making any turns or proceeding straight out. If the climb’s at VX, what is that speed in knots?” Finally, there’s the second E for “emergencies.” Turner impresses upon the pilots he trains the importance of knowing just how quickly the airspeed will drop after a power loss if the pilot doesn’t immediately pitch down the nose to maintain flying speed. This kind of failure often ends in a loss of control.

All of these reminders are one more reason that pilots should demand challenging instructors during any refresher training—especially because a standard check ride demands performance to only a set of minimum standards. So, what are any pilot’s chances of success if a takeoff emergency someday demands more than minimal skills? The best instructors safely deliver content and practice on multiple options during takeoff.

If the 180-degree turn has never before crossed your mind, realize that success is just as much about skill as it is about knowledge of how the manufacturer claims the aircraft should perform. The best way to understand an airplane’s capabilities is to conduct some airplane-specific research at a safe altitude and track the data. Better to learn what your airplane is capable of ahead of time than to wait until the engine quits. Overall, the good safety news is that thousands of pilots have begun questioning their training providers because they’ve become hungry for better answers to the tough questions. That’s why training programs offered by experienced in-type instructors at the American Bonanza Society, the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, and other type-specific groups have found such wide acceptance.

During a September 2020 EAA webinar, “So You Think You Can Make a 180 Back on Takeoff?,” a panel of experts dug deeply into the thinking behind what it might take to successfully complete a turn back after a loss of power, even though the maneuver is not used all that often. The group emphasized the FAA’s perspective that landing straight ahead is usually best, but still, the panel spoke frankly about the idea of another option. A pair of the panel’s participants, software developer and pilot Rick Marshall and former astronaut Charlie Precourt—now a member of the EAA’s board of directors—highlighted a potential app for pre-takeoff advisory that Marshall began working on last year aimed at answering the big question: “Is my aircraft capable of making a 180 back after a power failure today, and if so, how would I successfully perform the maneuver?”

Marshall’s efforts first emerged from simple curiosity. He thought, “Would there be value to a magic preflight planning tool that could tell a pilot if, under the current weather and runway conditions, their airplane could make it back to the runway.” He calls his not-ready-for-prime-time app Takeoff Advisor. Another benefit to knowing how well a particular airplane performed on a turn back is that pilots could know which ones did not do so well, reinforcing the idea to never even attempt such a risky maneuver.

Marshall and Precourt explained the only way to know for certain how an airplane might perform is to gather actual data—again, at a safe altitude. Marshall began recording his Cherokee’s climb performance under a variety of density altitudes and weights using ForeFlight connected to a Stratus ADS-B receiver. He later downloaded the data and superimposed it on maps from Google Earth. He confirmed that headwinds alter the results quite a bit, because as the aircraft turns downwind, groundspeed increases significantly. The data also prepares the pilot for another option—landing straight ahead—because that same headwind would translate into a much slower groundspeed and hopefully milder injuries to everyone aboard.

Marshall’s research included questions such as, “Will I lose more altitude in a 45-degree bank than a 30-degree bank?” The answer is yes. But Marshall also learned that, in his PA-28, the aircraft is actually turning for a shorter period of time than with a 30-degree bank, so the overall results were about the same. The 30-degree bank lowers the overall risk of the maneuver because of the increase to the stall speed during the turn at the higher angle of bank. Marshall is still hard at work on Takeoff Advisor and added, “Every CFI I’ve ever [shown] my idea to asks me if I’ve ever practiced dead-stick landings,” meaning it’s one thing to know mathematically this process will work, but it’s still important to have a Plan B at takeoff. Precourt said, “The only way to deal with the potential for panic [during a takeoff emergency] is to train, train, train.”

A variety of issues can clog a pilot’s brain when an engine loses power during takeoff. Some pilots become paralyzed when they realize they have just seconds to solve the problem. The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook says that while “fear during a takeoff emergency is understandable, uncontrolled fear can lead to a disaster. The success of an emergency landing is as much a matter of the mind as of skills. Survival records favor pilots who maintain their composure and know how to apply the general concepts and procedures they’ve learned through the years. An unconscious desire to delay the dreaded moment may lead to a failure to lower the nose to maintain flying speed, delay in the selection of the most suitable landing area within reach, or indecision in general. Desperate attempts to correct whatever went wrong at the expense of airplane control fall into the same category.”

Some topics are easier to consider before takeoff, such as the dreaded fear of wrecking the airplane following a bad decision. The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge says, “The desire to save the airplane, regardless of the risks involved, may be influenced by two other factors: the pilot’s financial stake in the airplane and the certainty that an undamaged airplane implies no bodily harm.” The pilot’s only job after a loss of power is to put the aircraft down on the ground safely enough so that everyone on board can walk away. Airplanes are insured for a reason. Broken airplanes can usually be repaired. People aren’t so easily fixed.

One important caveat to takeoff-emergency decisions—growing larger every year—is, what about aircraft equipped with ballistic parachutes such as the Cirrus or Texas Aircraft Colt? Both aircraft offer additional options the PIC should be thinking about long before they push in the throttle. Like most other instructors, Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilots teach pilots to land straight ahead if a loss of power occurs at less than 600 feet agl. Above that altitude, in general, CSIPs train pilots to pull the chute and not attempt a 180-degree turn back to the runway, unless a lot of altitude exists. The Texas Colt instructors tell their pilots the parachute option really isn’t viable below 1,000 feet agl.

Cyrus Javadi, Cirrus pilot and COPA member from Oregon, says: “If you pull the chute [in a Cirrus], you probably live. The insurance company gets a broken plane. You eventually get a new ride. I can see why someone might hesitate if they didn’t have a chute and they knew they couldn’t land straight ahead, but I can’t understand why someone would risk their life to save a plastic traveling machine that is insured. Just pull the chute.”

In a 1994 training session at the US Naval Academy, David F. Rogers, who earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, offered pilots hope—but it might have sounded like a challenge to some. “Although the turn-back maneuver is a high-performance edge of the envelope maneuver, there is good evidence that a well-trained pilot is capable of successfully performing it.” However, “a pilot should not attempt to turn back to the airfield unless the procedure has been practiced at a safe altitude and the minimum turn-back altitude for the combination of their ability and skill is known.” In other words, if you’ve never practiced, don’t even consider a 180-degree turn back to the runway in your takeoff plan. Land straight ahead, and you’re much more likely to walk away from the wreck with just a few cuts and bruises. The key is to know about your options before takeoff.

Avoiding Takeoff Emergencies

As that famous Swiss-cheese model reminds us, it’s often a host of small issues that go unnoticed that lead to a full-blown crisis in the cockpit. Before you push in that throttle, here are a few tips to ensure that your takeoffs lead to smooth flights.

• Don’t simply read the before-takeoff checklist; make sure you’ve accomplished the required tasks.

• Recheck that the tank chosen for takeoff contains sufficient fuel.

• Check that the backup fuel pump is on if the aircraft requires it for takeoff.

• Recheck that takeoff flaps are properly set.

• How many inches of manifold pressure and/or what rpm should the engine deliver during the takeoff roll?

• Don’t accept an intersection departure that leaves valuable runway behind you.

• Note the distance (in feet) of your upcoming ground roll.

• Highlight the intersection where the aircraft should break ground.

• If you’re not airborne by the highlighted spot, do you have enough remaining runway to stop?

• Have you surveyed the area off the departure end of the runway for potential landing spots?

• If you’ve never practiced making a 180-degree turn back after a loss of power, don’t make today the day to try one.

• If you’re forced into an off-airport landing, your job is to protect the people on board—the airplane’s insured.

This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine


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