Make up your mind--quickly

July 1, 1994

Most emergency or abnormal situations do not call for lightning-fast reflexes. In such cases, there is usually time to troubleshoot and decide how to handle the problem. One phase of flight does, however, require quick decision making and incisively correct action. It's an operation that appears deceptively simple, and many pilots rush through without preparing for what could be the worst experience of a lifetime.

Takeoffs are one of the highest risk phases of flight and one in which time is definitely not on our side. Altitude, that great source of comfort and maneuvering room, is also in short supply. Looking at the accident record, it's evident our takeoff decision-making skills during the takeoff phase could stand a periodic brush-up.

Mind-set is frequently to blame. Fail to consider that a problem might occur and you have severely hampered your ability to respond quickly. Time is precious. At 60 knots, a typical liftoff speed for light aircraft, we are covering the length of a football field every three seconds. Climbing at 80 knots, the forward movement exceeds two football fields in less than five seconds.

The airlines and corporate jet operators constantly practice rejected takeoffs in simulators. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, they used to do it in the aircraft, and the losses from practice sessions gone wrong far exceeded those of actual malfunctions. Why so much trouble? The planned reaction wasn't honed. In a time-critical situation, we have to sift through the various choices quickly and then put the correct plan into action.

Start with a well-documented airline example such as Air Florida's ill-fated Palm 90 flight out of Washington National. Due to some ice on the wings and engine anti-ice not being activated, the Boeing 737 didn't perform on takeoff as the crew expected. On the takeoff roll, the first officer voiced concern about the airplanes sub-par performance, but the captain persisted. Rather than reject the takeoff or advance the power, they staggered into the air only to crash into the Potomac River.

Three other airliners came to grief when the flaps or trim wasn't set properly for takeoff, and the crews delayed until a crash was inevitable. Why? The planned reaction wasn't there. The crew was convinced, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that the flight was going to go as it always had. These professional crews were trained to reject simulated takeoffs, but they failed to respond properly in an actual emergency. In the real world, they had made thousands of takeoffs without a hitch, and perhaps a sense of complacency prevailed. However, for every failure by professional crews that we read about, there are many more rejected takeoffs handled in superb fashion. Training works, provided you remember to carry the lessons learned in a simulator or training flight into the next routine takeoff.

Some of the best pilots I've flown with are downright suspicious of everything until they've achieved a comfortable maneuvering altitude. A healthy respect for the potential for trouble combined with practiced, quick response in the event of a problem are the keys to a successful outcome in an emergency. Examples of problems not handled well are legion:

A Piper Arrow, departing from a long runway, experienced an engine fire. Rather than reject the takeoff and stop on the remaining runway, the pilot called the tower to report the difficulty. He flew the aircraft around the pattern, stalled on the base-to-final turn, and crashed on the runway. The first choice of stopping would have been the easiest, quickest, and safest way to react. Things became far more complicated once airborne, and some basic airmanship issues came into play. Quick thinking and analysis were needed here.

A Cessna 421 suffered a sudden engine failure just after liftoff. While the pilot was attempting to gain control, the aircraft crashed half a mile from the end of the runway. The landing gear was still down, and the propeller on the dead engine was unfeathered.

Although the preceding examples involved mechanical problems, the vast majority of takeoff problems are caused by poor preflight inspections. It's worthwhile to remember that hurrying on preflight may create an untenable situation on takeoff.

In a situation similar to Palm 90, a Grumman American Traveler attempted takeoff on a 2,400-foot runway. A quarter-inch to a half-inch of slush covered the runway, and although the pilot had brushed snow from the wings, a small amount remained. At a rotation speed of 65 knots, the pilot felt that the airplane was not going to climb and rejected the takeoff. It was a good decision but a little late in coming; the Traveler was damaged in the slide off the end of the runway.

A Baron was lost when it rolled inverted shortly after liftoff. The control gust lock was still in place.

On takeoff, a Cessna 150 pilot heard some banging on the left wing. He elected to continue but, after climbing to 100 feet, changed his mind and attempted a 180-degree turn into an open field. Insufficient altitude remained to avert a crash. The retaining chain on the left fuel cap, which was not secured, allowed the cap to bang against the top of the wing.

In each case, the pilot probably expected a normal departure without reviewing the alternatives. It's easy to be self-righteous, but think of your mind-set when you line up on the runway. You're ready to fly, and the aircraft always obliges — until the first time it doesn't. Usually there is some warning of a problem about to occur, but sometimes it happens instantaneously.

At a recent ground school I visited, we talked about rejected takeoffs, and only one student out of 10 had been shown what to do. Flight instructors should integrate "takeoff rejection awareness" into all training and biennial flight reviews. Consider giving yourself a quick briefing to plan your responses just in case the aircraft doesn't cooperate. If there's another pilot in the right seat, discuss the options and the pertinent speeds. Then if the unthinkable happens, you'll have thought about it and have a plan.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.