The Human Factor: Teaching the Big Push

Preparing pilots for an engine failure after takeoff.

Human Factor Big Push

Human Factor Big Push

Recently I received notification of an event I couldn’t pass up — a “General Aviation Accident Reduction and Mitigation Symposium,” sponsored by the Arizona Pilot’s Association (APA) and the Arizona Safety Advisory Group (ASAG), which links many of the aviation groups in Arizona in the quest to reduce accidents, and especially fatal accidents, in the state. The FAA Arizona FAASTeam representative would also participate.

The message stated that the speakers would address the fatal accidents that occurred in Arizona in 2012, and those present would then “work toward strategies and tactics to reduce the accident rate in 2013.” Questions and comments were solicited during and after each section, and the attendees were challenged to come up with specific actions that could reduce the number of accidents in the future.

While this led to some interesting discussions, ultimately people were frustrated by the realization that very few of the pilots who really needed to attend a safety seminar would ever show up unless mandated by an FAA safety counselor, and, in any case, there was no way the group could reach more than a tiny percentage of the approximately 26,000 pilots in Arizona through seminars, workshops and symposiums.

Even if we could reach a significant number of pilots, most of the accidents were caused by the same human factors that have been taking lives and destroying airplanes since the Wright brothers first rose from the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk in December 1903. I did come up with two possible strategies. In several cases, there were open fields the pilot could have landed on without causing much, if any, damage. Instead, the pilots crashed trying to make it to a runway.

I have been fortunate to have quite a bit of experience taking off from and landing on unpaved surfaces. My first flight was in a Piper J-3 Cub from a grass field, and I spent several years towing and flying gliders from grass runways.

It occurred to me that most modern pilots have probably never landed on a grass or dirt runway. Having not had that experience, they may not realize that airplanes can land with little or no damage on a relatively smooth field. It is hard enough to decide to land somewhere other than a paved runway, but it is an even harder decision if it is something you have never done before. I thought that, along with my recent suggestion that all student pilots would benefit from a few hours in a basic airplane like a Cub, it would also be beneficial if pilots had an opportunity to experience landing on an unpaved surface at least once during their training.

However, on further reflection I realized neither suggestion is practical. There probably aren’t enough instructors with the necessary experience in simple conventional-gear airplanes, and in any case, many insurance policies only cover landings on paved runways at certified public airports. So while it would certainly be nice if all pilots got to fly a basic, no-frills airplane and land on an unpaved surface, in reality that is not going to happen.

A more practical suggestion addressed the many fatal accidents that result from a pilot trying to turn back to the airport after an engine failure shortly after takeoff. Any pilot who experiences an engine failure after takeoff is faced with a critical situation requiring an instantaneous response that he has had no training for. I would guess that, by now, most pilots are familiar with what I discussed in my December 2010 column ("Big Push, Improbable Turn"), in which I emphasized the odds against successfully making it back to the runway after an engine failure below 1,000 feet. However, the sirens, whose tempting call to continue an unstable approach I wrote about in the March and April 2013 issues of Flying, also lure pilots into trying to turn back to the runway they just departed from that seems so tantalizingly close. The typical result is a stall/spin at low altitude, which is almost always fatal.

The first challenge the pilot faces after the engine failure is that he has probably never experienced a sudden loss of power while in a climb attitude. Power is almost always reduced while level or descending, so any pitch change required is minor. Thus, the pilot experiencing an engine failure after takeoff would have no idea how quickly and forcefully he has to push forward on the controls to maintain his airspeed. Coupled with the natural tendency to pull back when close to the ground, this can quickly lead to a stall just as the pilot is initiating the turn back to the runway.

A pilot who forcefully reduces his pitch attitude immediately faces a second serious challenge. In training he has been taught to make smooth turns with a maximum of 30-degree bank angle, and that it is especially important to keep the bank angle shallow at slow speeds just above stall. The simple fact is that an airplane starting a 30-degree banked turn with no power at 500 feet agl will likely hit the ground before completing a course reversal. This is because a 180-degree turn will take 30 seconds, and even at a conservative descent rate of 1,000 feet per minute, you would hit the ground in 30 seconds. So another reason a big push is necessary is that you are preparing for a steep turn of 45-degree bank at just above stall speed to get the airplane turned around as quickly as possible. With the increased bank angle, the descent rate will be even greater until you complete the turn.

A pilot who does not stall and actually completes a course reversal now faces his third challenge. If he was high enough that he could hold a 30-degree bank throughout the turn, depending on the wind direction and velocity, he is now approximately a half-mile to one side of the runway heading downwind, so his groundspeed is greater. He has to continue his turn for another 30 degrees and then glide for up to a minute more to actually make it back to the runway. If he used a 45-degree bank, the turn would only take about 15 seconds, so he would be much closer to the runway and would only have to turn about 10 degrees further and glide a much shorter distance back to the runway. A pilot who manages to meet all these challenges — pushing hard, banking steeply and gliding back to the runway — is now faced with a downwind landing with possible opposing traffic taking off toward him. Pull that one off, and you have become one of the few fortunate pilots to survive turning back to the runway after an engine failure on takeoff.

To emphasize the difficulty of turning back to the runway, while giving pilots a fighting chance to accomplish the maneuver if they have sufficient altitude, I propose that instructors have pilots practice the maneuver at a safe altitude during initial training and biennial flight review. (See “Practicing a Turnaround” below.)

This is actually a very good maneuver for practicing energy management and airplane control at minimum speed and maximum bank. It should be obvious from the results that a turn back in calm winds at an altitude below 1,000 feet in a high-lift airplane is a low-probability maneuver. For high-performance airplanes, 1,500 feet is usually the minimum altitude.

After impressing the student with the difficulty of completing the turn back successfully, this would be a great time to emphasize the importance of preflight planning and a self or crew briefing about what to do at various altitudes in the event of an engine failure after takeoff.

An engine failure on takeoff will always be a difficult situation to deal with, but with education and practice, we can certainly increase the odds of a successful resolution and reduce the fatal-accident rate. It would take the FAA years to make this an official change, so it would be up to instructors and flight schools to implement this on their own.

Practicing a Turnaround

1. Climb to 3,000 feet agl over a road or other straight line. (Don't even consider doing this maneuver right after takeoff or at a lower altitude!)

2. Establish a normal climb to the altitude you wish to use for demonstration (3,800 feet for a failure at 800 feet agl).

3. Note your position over the road.

4. Reduce the power to idle. (Don't forget carb heat if needed.)

5. Wait two seconds in order to simulate the time required to realize what has happened.

6. Push the wheel forward to maintain the best glide speed.

7. Roll into a 45-degree banked turn into any crosswind.

8. Turn 190 degrees while just above stall (with stall warning barely on).

9. Roll out and line up with the road.

10. Note your position and altitude relative to the starting point.