Positive Rate

Instrument takeoffs are a busy time. One of the keys is establishing and maintaining a positive climb rate.


Launching into instrument conditions usually is a busy time, especially for the single pilot. When ceilings are low, the almost-immediate transition from conducting a takeoff visually to flying the airplane on instruments can be very demanding. The airplane is at its heaviest for this flight and at a relatively low airspeed, plus were trying to do many things at once, including navigating, communicating and aviating. Doing it without any reference to the natural horizon means we can be at our busiest for normal, non-emergency operations.

Configuring the airplane for the takeoff and departure is critical on these occasions, and is a matter of individual taste and experience. Of course, the avionics need to be set up correctly and the checklist items performed. Also, appropriate charts and other equipment like flashlights should be readily available and prepared for use.

For me, hand-flying the airplane usually is the order of the day, instead of using the autopilot. I want to get the “feel” of the airplane and what, if anything, its telling me. I also want to know how weather conditions-like gusts-might be affecting it. I wont hesitate to engage the autopilot for a tricky departure procedure, or once Im settled into an unrestricted, on-course climb.

One thing I like to do for an instrument departure is apply some extra nose-up trim. Doing so means I wont need much back pressure on the yoke; instead, I might have to apply some nose-down pressure, to avoid getting too slow or exceeding a normal climb rate. Id rather push than pull.

But the real reason I add some nose-up trim is to help ensure I quickly establish a positive climb rate and avoid any obstacles hidden out there in the mist. To me, theres less risk in needing to apply some nose-down pressure on the yoke than there is needing to pitch up. Too, we often get distracted by a radio call or a misplaced chart. Id rather have the airplane dialed in to climb than descend. Heres one reason why.


On February 5, 2009, at about 1642 Pacific time, a Beech A36 Bonanza collided with terrain following a loss of control near Avalon, Calif., on Catalina Island. The instrument-rated private pilot and his two passengers were killed. The airplane sustained substantial damage to its wings, fuselage and empennage from impact forces and a post-crash fire. The charter flight departed Avalon at about 1639, with Santa Ana, Calif. (SNA), as its intended destination. Instrument conditions prevailed; an IFR flight plan had been filed but was never activated. The airplane departed SNA about 1202, arriving at Avalon about 1225.

The airport manager observed the pilot and passengers return to the airport about 1630. After the pilot performed a preflight inspection, he and the passengers boarded the airplane. The pilot started the engine, and performed a runup in front of the tower. He taxied for takeoff, and made an immediate departure. The airplane lifted off at midfield, climbed straight ahead and entered clouds. The pilot never contacted ATC and was determined overdue later that day. Its wreckage was located the next morning at 1007.


Recorded radar data noted a secondary VFR beacon code at a mode C reported altitude of 1600 feet near the departure end of the runway at 1639:19. Thirty-two seconds later, the target was beyond the runway at 1800 feet. The target made a 90-degree climbing left turn to the southeast. At 1640:42, it turned left, and then back to the southeast 18 seconds later at an altitude of 2300 feet. At 1641:14, it began a 180-degree right turn, and reached a peak altitude of 2400 feet 29 seconds later while tracking to the northwest. Comparing the flight track to a topographical map indicated that, at some points during the maneuvering, the airplane was less than 400 feet agl.

The target began a descending left turn and lost 600 feet in nine seconds, which computed to 4000 fpm. The last target was at 1641:56, at a mode C altitude of 1800 feet. A weather observation taken at Avalon at 1630 included winds from 210 degrees at 16 knots gusting to 26 knots, six miles visibility in mist, a broken cloud layer 200 feet and an overcast layer at 700 feet.

The published IFR departure procedure from Avalon was to climb straight ahead to 2300 feet and proceed on course. The accident site was about 175 degrees at 1.6 nm from the center of the departure airport. Investigators determined the flaps were in the retracted position, all landing gears were extended and the fuel selector valve was in the right tank position. There were no anomalies precluding normal operation.

The pilot owned a company, Skyblue USA, which offered Southern California tour packages, including Catalina Island. All tours were conducted within a 25-mile radius of the departure airport, precluding the need to obtain a Part 135 operating certificate. However, the accident flight was attempting to return to the mainland after one of the passengers contacted the company to request an airplane flight to Catalina Island, which is 31.84 nm from SNA.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots failure to follow the published instrument departure procedures during the climb to cruise, and loss of control in instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilots lack of total experience in instrument meteorological conditions.” Theres little to argue with here.

Indeed, this is a pretty clear case of the pilots failure to establish a positive climb rate, turn on course and proceed toward the destination. Its not clear what was going on in the cockpit, however. The extended landing gear could mean he was trying to stabilize the airplane after losing control. It also could mean he was attempting to return to the departure airport for some reason. Its also not clear how he expected to obtain his IFR clearance; theres no record of an attempt to contact ATC after takeoff.

Instrument takeoffs and departures are a busy time, especially for single-pilot operators. But one of the imperatives is establishing and maintaining a positive climb rate and turning the airplane to an on-course heading. This pilot at least started off in the right direction, but likely got disoriented and things started happening quickly. A little nose-up trim might have helped.


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