My father was a mechanic for a major airline. One day he was a passenger on one of the company’s Boeing 767s on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. As the heavy Boeing lifted off into a low overcast at O’Hare, the right engine failed. My father later told me he could hear the change in noise and feel the deck angle, but said the crew artfully handled the failure and engine shutdown, and most passengers probably didn’t notice anything unusual had happened.
Like most airlines, the flight’s crew was trained to specific rules for emergencies, including the weather conditions required for a single-engine landing that did not include a fire or other immediate threat to safety. The rules varied with the experience and currency of the flight deck crew. In the case of this 767, the nearest airport meeting the runway length, weather and crew minima was Las Vegas, Nev. So that’s where the crew went: They secured the engine, climbed to an altitude that permitted cruise on one engine with fuel reserves to make it to Las Vegas, flew the trip and arrived otherwise uneventfully in clear night skies.
For that 767 crew, the hard decisions had already been made. All that was left to them was to deal with the emergency—the type of stuff we tend to train well at all levels of aviation, from personal flying to airlines—and follow reasoned, pre-planned decisions. Decision-making, of course, is the kind of thing we don’t train nearly as well, and is usually the cause of crashes after a well-handled initial response to a systems failure.
With the Boeing flight nearing its top of descent for Las Vegas—the point at which it would begin to descend from cruise altitude—its crew would have been extremely tempted to try to “complete the mission” and continue on to the original destination. After all, Los Angeles is tantalizingly close to Las Vegas when staring down from FL300.
Passengers, baggage and freight would be where they were supposed to be, albeit a little behind schedule, and the crew would be in position for its next planned activity. No one would need connecting flights, hotels or other transportation. The airplane would be at a company maintenance base, not a fairly small station where mechanics and parts would have to be flown in (my father was asked to don a pair of coveralls and make an initial inspection of the failed engine before maintenance crews could arrive after the airplane landed).
But continuing to LAX would entail fitting into a busy stream of traffic, descending into good but night instrument conditions and extended time en route that was not absolutely necessary to get the passengers back on the ground. Continuing to Los Angeles would have started adding risk factors instead of taking them away. Landing at Las Vegas was the right thing to do.
How could the pilots have known everything they needed to know after dealing with the engine failure? Airlines are required to use formal dispatch procedures. Everything that the crew needed to know—including engine-out weather minima and the nearest company-suitable airport—was developed by a team of professional, FAA-certificated flight dispatchers. When the Boeing crew needed it, all they had to do was contact the company’s dispatch department by radio.
Most Aviation Safety readers are not airline pilots—if they are, they also fly outside their professional employment for personal reasons—so FAR Part 121 doesn’t apply to their flight operations or restrict the conditions under which they can dispatch. And flying a third of the way across the continent on one of two engines is a little absurd, even in air carrier equipment. Yet having a takeoff alternate clearly in mind before you take off removes the hard decision-making from the picture if you experience a problem shortly after takeoff.
A friend and aviation safety business associate of mine flew to Wichita this week for a meeting. He phoned ahead to tell me he would be a few hours late—the airport in Wisconsin where he is based was fogged in, and there were no airports “within 50 miles” with weather above arrival minimums. When the fog cleared and he completed the trip to Wichita he was apologetic for being late, but I merely commended him on his discipline for waiting until conditions had improved before he launched.
“The Pratt & Whitney guys take great pride in the very low chance of an engine failure with their turboprops,” he said of the TBM700 he was flying. But it doesn’t always have to be an engine issue that leads to a takeoff diversion.
The baggage door on your airplane pops open just after takeoff. Departing for a high-powered business meeting, you remember you left your briefcase containing your presentation on the FBO counter. Unforecast freezing rain begins to build ice on the wings and tail as soon as you lift into the clouds. Any of these might require a quick return to the ground.
The only phase of flight that is higher workload than approach and landing is takeoff and initial climb. Trying to turn a high-workload climb into a rapid yet safe approach might, if you haven’t already made some of the decisions, be more than you are able to manage. The NTSB record is strewn with accounts of sometimes minor abnormalities shortly after takeoff that escalate into fatal crashes.
The Simplest Plan
The simplest plan is usually to return to the airport from which you departed. This will almost certainly be the first option popping into your mind when you’re faced with the need to abort your climb and get back on the ground. Immediately returning to the pavement behind you is not without its hazards, however.
You may need first to continue your climb straight ahead until reaching an altitude where it is safe to maneuver and then turn back into the traffic pattern or toward the approach’s initial fix. It will be far easier to execute such a decision if you have already decided what to do before you find yourself in the abnormal or emergency situation.
But you might actually find that your best alternative is to land somewhere other than the airport from which you launched. This is especially true if, for example, your departure airport lacks a published approach or you’re departing in weather below minimums for the facility—which effectively are the same things. In such instances, the decision to take off in the first place is one you should make with full awareness of the consequences if something goes wrong early in the flight.
For example, for several years I flew Beech Barons out of what I considered a marginal runway—3300 feet long and sloping, relatively short for heavily loaded Barons—at a non-towered airport in eastern Tennessee. Adding to the many considerations was the airport was ringed by rising terrain on three sides. Almost any reason to abort, from an open cabin door or window to a full-blown engine failure, would have been easier to handle by climbing to a safe altitude, then flying the ILS approach into Chattanooga, less than 20 miles away.
There, I had a precision approach, a control tower to track my progress and a crash rescue service for a worst-case scenario. It was a far better alternate than going out to intercept the non-precision approach course back into my home airport, with no one to help me if things went badly and greater margins—specifically, longer runways—if I needed them.
Using Chattanooga as my takeoff alternate airport had the added advantage of permitting me to make safe departures when the local weather conditions were below arrival minimums. Although it’s not a regulatory requirement for Part 91 operations, it’s commonly accepted as good practice to avoid departing an airport in instrument meteorological conditions if the airport you’re departing has weather below the approach minimums required for a return.
In most cases, this is a very good idea. But in my eastern Tennessee example, terrain on the missed approach path kept the arrival minima high. This permitted departing straight out through the one gap in the hills at a safe altitude below the clouds, following the instrument procedure’s final approach course outbound.
And nearby Chattanooga, with much lower minima and at several hundred feet lower elevation, frequently provided a much-above-minimums options very close by when the home airport was below its approach minimums. It is a risk management value judgment, but one I frequently took—and I believe, safely so.
Putting It All Together
Face it: Bad things can happen when we least expect them. When they catch us flat-footed, our immediate plans are ruined and we need to know, quickly, what to do, where to go and how to get there. This is especially true if we’re departing in poor weather, which will complicate what might otherwise be a ho-hum experience.
Identifying and preparing for a takeoff alternate is a standard operating procedure (SOP) that will make you a much safer instrument pilot. Before even starting the engine(s), decide if you’ll return to the departure airport if a door pops open or if some problem solvable only by landing rears up. If not, where will you go? Got that facility’s weather? Loaded the approach plate into your EFB? Got the comm and nav frequencies ready in standby or the number-two radio?
Essentially, SOPs are decisions for high-workload, high-stress normal, abnormal and emergency procedures you make with the luxury of time while under low-stress, low-workload conditions. A SOP, however, is only good if you use it. Make it a regular habit—a standard operating procedure in the literal sense of the words—to prepare for a takeoff alternate before every IFR departure.
Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.