Compared to landing, taking off is relatively simple. Our instructor lets us make the first takeoff of our very first flying lesson—or at least makes us think we made the takeoff. If everything goes right, it’s easy. But how do you know everything is going right? And how do you know what to do in the scant seconds available if something is going wrong?
As an instructor, I don’t find many general aviation pilots who consciously brief themselves for takeoff. I doubt most flight instructors teach the concept. Yet the only way you’ll swiftly and correctly make the right decisions and do the right thing if things go wrong on takeoff is to have “right” at the top of your mind. Generations of commercial and military pilots have learned that the best way to prepare for takeoff—both normal and emergency situations—is to brief the takeoff procedure just before taking the runway for departure.
The Takeoff Roll
You’re lined up for takeoff. It’s a warm autumn day; winds are light and the skies are blue, with a few puffs of high cumulus hinting of the coming change in seasons. A long stretch of trim, green grass slopes slightly downward away from you between freshly harvested fields as the propeller ticks over at the beginning of the turf runway. Your before-takeoff checks are complete and you’re ready for your VFR flight. What more do you need to consider to make a safe takeoff before pushing the throttle to the stop?
The sidebar on the opposite page highlights three factors pilots should consider on every takeoff. We’ll call them the Three ‘A’s. For example, it’s a widely accepted rule of thumb that the aircraft’s acceleration should be sufficient so that the airplane achieves 70 percent of its liftoff speed by the time it has passed 50 percent of the expected takeoff distance. To use this rule of thumb, you need to know your liftoff speed and have some idea of how much runway will be required for this takeoff.
With all factors considered, visualize the point at which the aircraft should lift off under current conditions, then pick a spot on the runway halfway to the liftoff point. It could be a sign or a taxiway intersection, or a specific centerline stripe Then compute 70 percent of the liftoff speed. If you haven’t achieved the target speed by the target location, abort and then figure out what you need to do—offload passengers, bags or both—to execute a successful takeoff within appropriate margins.
If the circumstances of the abort or its outcome require, evacuate the aircraft occupants after the aircraft comes to a stop. Brief your passengers on the evacuation procedure—in many aircraft the number and location of doors will dictate the order in which occupants must exit. Tell passengers how you want them to exit, and where you want them to go after they get out (“Stay behind the wing and move well away from the aircraft,” etc.).
The type of takeoff you will make (normal, short-field, soft-field) will help determine the airspeed and attitude targets for initial climb. Brief your initial pitch attitude and airspeed targets.
But initial climb also is a point at which any problems can rear their ugly heads: Now that some air is flowing past the airframe, any unsecured access or cabin doors can manifest themselves, and fuel can begin siphoning out of loose caps. If you’re departing a long runway, one with adequate length to land—or at least one without any sudden-stop obstacles—consider reducing power to idle and landing. Whether or not adequate runway exists for such an abort also is a determination you should make before applying takeoff power. Presuming there are no such anomalies, configure the airplane for the climb, turn as necessary and carry on. But if there is an anomaly, you need to assess it and react accordingly.
For example, if any anomaly not immediately affecting controllability or power presents itself, I will plan to continue climbing straight ahead to at least 1000 feet agl before attempting to address it. If a controllability issue occurs, I will attempt to lower the nose slightly for more control authority, and if possible climb to at least 1000 feet agl before attempting to address the issue.
If a partial power loss occurs, I will lower the nose to maintain airspeed. If I am still able to climb, I will climb straight ahead to at least 1000 feel agl before turning to land. Remember that even a shallow turn will reduce the vertical lift component in favor of the horizontal, reducing your overall rate of climb by an amount determined by the bank angle. Maintain a wings-level attitude to your target altitude.
With a more severe power reduction eliminating the ability to climb, treat such a partial-power loss as a total engine failure. Two keys to surviving an engine failure on takeoff shouldn’t come as a revelation: You must maintain control and already have in mind a location or direction for your engine-out landing.
Maintaining control means ensuring there’s enough airspeed to avoid a stall but at the same time touching down wings level at the slowest safe speed. The speed at which you want to touch down is not the published best glide value but the one for landing without power, or a similarly named minimum sink rate speed from the POH/AFM. As explored in a recent article in this magazine (“Takeoff Engine Failures,” Aviation, Safety, June 2014), you’ll probably need a healthy push on the pitch control to prevent bleeding off what airspeed you have and losing control.
Knowing where to go is just as important as establishing and maintain the proper airspeed. Do you land straight ahead, or are there better options within a safe, shallow-banked turn—say, 30-45 degrees of heading change—away from your takeoff heading? Knowing beforehand where you’ll go in the event of an engine failure on takeoff is a key point I hear very few pilots voice until prompted.
Below at least 1000 feet agl, the best option usually is to land straight ahead, “with shallow turns to avoid school buses and orphanages” as my first flight instructor quipped before every takeoff. With a little altitude your options improve; although you probably can’t make it back to the runway from less than 1200 feet or so agl, a value based on my experience presenting the turnback option in simulator training.
You may be able to make a 45-degree turn to avoid houses and land in a field, or a 90-degree turn to land on the beach when taking off from a runway perpendicular to a shore. From 800 feet agl or so you might even be able to turn 120 to 180 degrees, back to a taxiway or parallel/crossing runway, or at least get back to airport property if you can’t get make it to your departure runway. Regardless of where you’ll go, you’ll need to make a snap decision under stress when the time comes…a task made far easier by deciding before you’re stressed, and briefed just before takeoff.
Where will you go? If you’re familiar with the airport you probably have a good idea. If you’re just passing through, try to take a look off the departure end of the runways as you’re coming in to land. Call up the airport on your tablet computer or smartphone, and look at the Google Earth image of the airport for clues about where you’d land if an engine quits right after takeoff.
Presuming all the big parts are still flying in close formation and there’s no issue with the power available after takeoff, now what? Where are you going, how high are you climbing and with what facility, if any, do you need to communicate? These questions actually should be answered before taking the active runway, and they set the tone for your entire takeoff and initial climb.
Some of the answers depend on the weather and clearance, if any, the flight’s mission, terrain and airspace. I’ve waited to present them here, however, because the foregoing items are generic no matter the mission. This portion of your takeoff briefing includes the type of departure (VFR or IFR) and, as assigned or if you’re heading off on a cross-country, your initial altitude and heading.
Okay, that sounds like a lot to consider before a takeoff. If everything goes right, it seems like too much. But if anything goes wrong, a little problem or a big one, it’s vital that you know what you need to do beforehand. For our grass-strip takeoff on that idyllic autumn day, the briefing can be as simple as: something like the following:
“This will be a VFR departure for a local area flight. I should lift off at 50 knots about abeam the big fence post on the left. That means I should be indicating about 35 knots as I pass the last hangar on the right. If the airspeed is not at least 35 knots as I pass the hangar, I’ll reduce throttle to idle, hold back pressure and apply braking to come to a stop. If necessary I’ll evacuate my passenger, who knows to stay behind the wing and we’ll meet at the last hangar.
“After takeoff, I’ll hold VX, 60 KIAS, until clear of obstacles. If anything goes wrong once we’re off the ground, I’ll continue flying to pattern altitude before turning. If I have partial power loss or trouble controlling the airplane, I’ll lower the nose to pick up more speed and climb. If I cannot climb, or have a total power failure, I’ll turn slightly to the left to land on the golf course off the end of the runway while extending flaps and slowing to 55 KIAS, the published airspeed for landing without power.”
You might say it all aloud in a structured briefing—which I recommend—but, regardless, you definitely have to think about everything in this briefing to safely manage even an LSA grass-strip takeoff.
You know what? The same briefing for taking off in an LSA or training airplane also applies to a Bonanza or a Mooney, or even a TBM900 or Pilatus PC-12 making a VFR departure. It’s the operation that determines the takeoff briefing’s extent and detail. One exception to this “rule” involves multi-engine airplanes.
As you might expect, the differences in briefing for departure in a multi-engine airplane all relate to what happens in the event of an engine failing during or immediately after takeoff. Your takeoff briefing’s abort section should include pulling both throttles or power levers to idle. Meanwhile, add to your anomalies section, “If an engine loses power, I will lower the nose to maintain blue line (VYSE) airspeed and use rudder to maintain heading. I will identify the failed engine, verify my identification and feather the correct propeller, or shut down the correct jet engine, by following the emergency checklist.” Except for those differences, the VFR or IFR departure briefing items apply.
You’ll probably never need to respond to an anomaly during or immediately after takeoff. If you ever do, however, you’ll be glad you reviewed these decisions beforehand.
The Three A’s Of Takeoffs
Many factors can affect a takeoff’s outcome, but these three should be considered each and every time before taxiing onto the runway:
Acceleration during takeoff is the result of combining factors like power development, aircraft configuration and runway condition. Completing your before takeoff checklist should put the aircraft in the proper configuration and set the power controls so you’ll get takeoff power when you apply full throttle. Your preflight planning should remind you what you must do to obtain takeoff power (for example, set the mixture for high density altitude, with engines requiring manual leaning), the impact runway slope and condition will have on takeoff performance, and the distance needed to get off the runway and/or clear any obstacles.
As the main text relates, a widely used rule of thumb is to attain 70 percent of the needed airspeed by the time you use up 50 percent of the expected ground roll. What will you do if you don’t reach your target before the runway’s midpoint? What comes next should be an automatic reaction: Reduce throttle to idle and apply back pressure on the controls for aerodynamic braking and prevent wheelbarrowing (putting too much weight on the nosewheel) or nose-over (and in tailwheel designs, for tailwheel contact). Apply maximum braking without locking up the wheels and skidding the tires. Maintain directional control throughout.
What if a door pops open during takeoff, or the alternator out light starts to flash, or you see fuel streaming from behind an “I thought I’d closed that tight” fuel cap? Many accidents occur because a minor issue distracted the pilot in a busy phase of flight. Maintain control, fly the airplane and return for a normal landing, if possible, or divert to a nearby airport to address the problem.
The Three A’s Of Takeoffs
Many factors can affect a takeoff’s outcome, but these three should be considered each and every time before taxiing onto the runway:AccelerationAcceleration during takeoff is the result of combining factors like power development, aircraft configuration and runway condition. Completing your before takeoff checklist should put the aircraft in the proper configuration and set the power controls so you’ll get takeoff power when you apply full throttle. Your preflight planning should remind you what you must do to obtain takeoff power (for example, set the mixture for high density altitude, with engines requiring manual leaning), the impact runway slope and condition will have on takeoff performance, and the distance needed to get off the runway and/or clear any obstacles.AbortAs the main text relates, a widely used rule of thumb is to attain 70 percent of the needed airspeed by the time you use up 50 percent of the expected ground roll. What will you do if you don’t reach your target before the runway’s midpoint? What comes next should be an automatic reaction: Reduce throttle to idle and apply back pressure on the controls for aerodynamic braking and prevent wheelbarrowing (putting too much weight on the nosewheel) or nose-over (and in tailwheel designs, for tailwheel contact). Apply maximum braking without locking up the wheels and skidding the tires. Maintain directional control throughout. AnomaliesWhat if a door pops open during takeoff, or the alternator out light starts to flash, or you see fuel streaming from behind an “I thought I’d closed that tight” fuel cap? Many accidents occur because a minor issue distracted the pilot in a busy phase of flight. Maintain control, fly the airplane and return for a normal landing, if possible, or divert to a nearby airport to address the problem.