A casual peruse of this July’s preliminary accident reports shows that bad things happen on takeoff, although percentage-wise it’s a small number. A partial listing: A Comanche lost power shortly after takeoff—two fatalities; a PT-17, ditto but no injury—suspicion of carburetor ice; and a Piper Archer in high density altitude with four people on board climbed to about 100 feet, stopped there, and stalled—serious injury to all on board.
The Air Safety Institute’s 24th Joseph T. Nall Report identifies that, in the pilot-related category, takeoffs rank as a high risk area and are far more likely to produce fatalities than landings. It’s a perfect set up for complacency to settle in because very few of us have ever suffered a mishap or failure on takeoff. Continental, Lycoming, Rotax, Pratt & Whitney, et al. perform remarkably well when properly maintained and fed.
It’s hard to get into the mindset that this is a high risk area of flight and one with few options. To use a financial metaphor: The airspeed/altitude bank is low on deposits and we may be called upon to make a large withdrawal with little warning. Sadly, there is no overdraft protection. Overspending needs to stop before it gets started. (Wonder if we could get our elected representatives to start thinking that way?)
If you’ll recall, Harrison Ford went off airport this spring after an engine failure in an antique aircraft that had been restored.
In multiengine flying a lot of energy is devoted to single-engine operations perhaps because the odds double of having an engine failure in a twin. Or perhaps it’s because piston twins don’t fly especially well on one engine. This isn’t to resurrect the old twin vs. single debate, but just to get us thinking about the takeoff no matter how many engines are on the aircraft.
Sometimes the powerplant telegraphs that it’s got indigestion, but wishful thinking prevails and the attempt to take off is made anyway. Hesitation, a poor mag check, backfires, fuel surging, low oil pressure, weird temperature indications, and sluggish acceleration are all reasons to rethink whether you really want to challenge gravity when the primary means to do so isn’t up to the task.
Having just completed a simulator session earlier this month, I was reminded that in training we are primed for everything to go wrong and generally on our best spring-loaded behavior to respond instantly. But in the real world that often isn’t how it happens. In practice, if the first effort is botched there’s always a do-over. Not so in most real-life takeoffs.
Once in a great while something just flat breaks with no premonition—but that’s rare. In my simulator scenario, the engine-driven fuel pump was rendered inop and the auxiliary fuel pump needed to be put in service immediately. Got it…on the do-over, and I’m thinking about it now!
Sudden vibrations and grinding/banging noises indicate bad mechanical things that a boost pump isn’t likely to fix. Good preventive maintenance will usually preclude such, but sometimes it’s just going to be a bad day. Work with it.
Pitch attitude needs to change from climb to glide quickly. Takeoff climb angle of attack (AOA) is just about perfect for a stall with the power off. Always, always: Landing under some semblance of control is better than lawn-darting into Mother Earth. That’s a mantra for every takeoff. Bob Hoover’s immutable wisdom comes to mind, “Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”
Overloading, density altitude, and improper configuration (flaps, fuel selector, etc.), and the occasional control lock foolishness are all opportunities for a very short flight. Leaving the planet is a big deal despite the fact we’re privileged to do it much more so than many other residents. Let’s give it the respect and preparation, mental and physical, that it deserves!
Any good takeoff stories to share? I’ll go first: One evening, while instructing, I had a Cessna 150 develop carb ice at full power in the summer time—a high dew point was present. Never had a slight power loss on takeoff before, so I tried carb heat. It worked!
Safe pilots are always learning, and the Air Safety Institute’s goal is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely—like this Takeoffs and Landings Safety Spotlight. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.