Ounce of Prevention Part 6 of 12

Stay Focused

June 1, 2001

Plan the takeoff — and take off according to the plan

My copilot for the flight, Steve O'Neill, set the flaps for takeoff, and I taxied the Cessna 206 Turbo Stationair into position on the runway. "Climbout at V Y [best rate of climb] is 89 knots," he called, reading from the checklist. We were flying the Stationair down to Tulsa with the aft door removed, after the previous days' photo mission. Anxious to see what kind of climb rate that speed would produce, I pushed the throttle forward, and we charged down the pavement into the air. The deck angle launched a collective "Yee-haw!" from the front row — until a whoosh of blue tissue paper flapped its way from behind the seats into the windscreen. "I got it," said O'Neill, reaching for the scrap of paper. "You fly." The once carefully-wrapped baseball cap I'd secured for my grandpa instantly drove home a critical point about takeoffs: While approach and landing arguably take the most skill, takeoffs require focus.

Distractions, and lack of conscientious forethought, strike a powerful blow.

Gusty winds, high density altitude, obstructions, and the possibility of power loss all emphasize the need for careful planning prior to starting the takeoff roll. And once the departure begins, full attention to the effects of these variables is necessary.

Common accident scenarios: Flight planning
  • Failure to adequately compensate for wind conditions during takeoff and climbout.
  • Takeoff in wind conditions beyond the pilot's or airplane's capabilities.
  • Engine failure or loss of power after takeoff.
  • Failure to maintain adequate airspeed during takeoff and climbout, resulting in a departure stall.
  • Attempting takeoff with too strong a tailwind component.
  • Failure to compensate for high-density-altitude conditions, or attempting takeoff in density-altitude conditions beyond the airplane's capabilities.
  • Improper configuration of the aircraft for weight and flight conditions.
Safety strategies
  • Plan every takeoff, taking into consideration aircraft loading, field length, and atmospheric conditions.
  • Pay close attention to airspeed in high-density-altitude situations.
  • Practice takeoffs in gusty and/or crosswind conditions with an instructor if your skills are rusty.
  • Build a safety margin into your rotation speed during gusty conditions.
  • Be cognizant of obstructions in the departure area.
  • Brief a plan of action for coping with a loss of power during the takeoff roll and immediately after liftoff.

Takeoffs and landings form the highest-risk phases of flight. As reported in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 1999 Nall Report, nearly 24 percent of all general aviation accidents in which the pilot was deemed responsible occurred in the takeoff and departure phase of flight. The takeoff phase was also the scene for 12 percent of fatal accidents.

Howling winds

Why do some pilots feel apprehension when the voice on the AWOS (automated weather observation system) announces that the wind is more than 15 knots? Those who learned to fly in Kansas typically suffer no such inner turmoil, and therein lies the key — we fear the unknown. Get to know your airplane in windy conditions, but attain this knowledge in small increments.

A Maule M7 contacted trees during takeoff from a strip in Alaska at the onset of a business flight to the pilot's hunting lodge. Winds and downdrafts were considered strong and gusty at the time of departure, and the pilot admitted that he waited for a lull in the action to attempt the takeoff. The airplane lifted off about 400 feet down the strip and crabbed almost 90 degrees to offset the crosswind from the right. The left wing contacted the trees, where the plane settled "on the edge of stalling," according to an accident report. The automated weather observation from a field four miles to the west recorded winds from the northeast at 13 knots, gusting to 25 knots.

During takeoffs in gusty conditions, expect the airplane to lift off earlier in the takeoff roll because of a sudden increase in the headwind component. In a tricycle-gear airplane, you can offset this somewhat with forward pressure on the yoke, holding the airplane on the ground until a faster-than-normal rotation speed is attained. With a faster airspeed, your margin above stall speed is greater, and the settling effects of the headwind shearing to a crosswind or tailwind are diminished.

When dealing with crosswinds, check to ensure that the amount of crosswind doesn't exceed your limitations, or those of the airplane. On a wet or slippery runway, an excessive crosswind could cause the airplane to slide into the runway lights during takeoff.

Another note on wind

A more unfortunate wind than a crosswind is a tailwind, and it requires a careful assessment of the airport conditions. Many airports have a designated calm-wind runway, which is preferred — for reasons of noise abatement or fewer obstructions in the departure area — under wind situations up to a few knots of tailwind. Using the calm-wind runway during these times requires a recall of your airplane's performance with a tailwind component. A trip through the pilot operating handbook (POH) reveals that most airplanes suffer a greatly extended takeoff roll with only a few knots of wind on the tail. Remember that your climbout will be shallower as well. This reduced angle may prompt the unwary to pull back on the yoke and coax out a departure stall.

Soft-field practice

Departures from soft fields warrant specific training. And soft-field techniques come in handy not only on grass strips, but also on snowy, rough, or otherwise more hazardous runway surfaces — any time when the need to get the wheels off the ground ASAP exceeds the immediate need to clear obstacles. A lack of good technique can result in a departure stall, too, with the airplane settling back onto the runway if the pilot pulls the airplane out of ground effect before enough speed is acquired.

Density-altitude hazards

One of the reasons I had been looking forward to the best-rate climbout in the Stationair was to perform the operation close to sea level. The high deck angle afforded by the thick air can feel like a rocket launch to a pilot accustomed to operations at high-altitude airports.

At higher elevations, the true airspeed at which an airplane acquires enough lift to leave the ground increases, while the indicated airspeed remains the same. This greater true airspeed translates to a lower deck angle after rotation and during climbout, and accident reports bear out the demise of lowland pilots who fail to properly adjust their attitude for the environmental conditions. When heat and humidity are added to the equation, the deck angle is shallowed further, making high-density-altitude operations hazardous if not conducted with, again, careful planning.

Meadow Lake Airport, just outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, sits at 6,874 feet msl. On the August day of the accident, the temperature was 81 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a density altitude of 9,747 feet. The pilot departed on Runway 33 in a Piper Cherokee 180, with the winds initially observed to be 10 knots from the northwest, but noted later to be "variable and shifting" by several pilots at the time of the accident, as well as an FAA inspector initially on the scene. After lifting off at the proper airspeed of 80 mph, during climbout the airspeed "suddenly dropped to 60 mph," according to the pilot. He maneuvered the airplane below power lines in an attempt to gain airspeed, but the airplane impacted terrain soon afterward. The airplane flight manual listed no performance data for takeoffs at density altitudes above 7,000 feet, and this omission, contributing to the pilot's loss of control in a stall/mush, was listed as a factor in the NTSB report.

When high-density-altitude conditions are present, the pilot needs to calculate how much these conditions will affect the takeoff and departure. If the information isn't there — as was the case in the preceding accident — waiting for cooler conditions is advised. Plan for operations early in the day, or later in the evening — but before sunset, if rising terrain is a concern. And be aware that your sight picture looks quite different if you're used to flying from airports at lower elevations. Trust the airspeed indicator and stick to the recommended speeds listed in the POH.

A roaring takeoff — to silence

During the Bonanza/Baron Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP), a subsidiary of the American Bonanza Society (see " Wings of Experience," page 138), instructors put pilots through a series of simulated engine failures during the takeoff roll — and the initial climbout. When the simulation is performed during takeoff from a long runway, pilots find that their airplanes can be landed straight ahead on the remaining runway (or at the very least, in the clear overrun area) in many instances — even after the airplane is well off the ground. At the BPPP clinic, these maneuvers are demonstrated first by experienced instructors, and it's best to proceed with similar caution should a pilot wish to "try this at home."

But practice makes a written emergency checklist come to life in ways that reading it a hundred times could never accomplish. During multiengine training, engine failures during the takeoff roll are also repeated many times, and each before-takeoff check ends with a briefing that recalls the procedures for engine failures before V MC (minimum control airspeed) and after. This quick pause should not be reserved solely for those flying around with two engines to lose. Besides, the situation is certainly no less grave in a single than in a twin. So before taxiing out onto the runway, review what to do in the event the engine fails during the takeoff roll, immediately after liftoff, and after the airplane has attained several hundred feet. When flying with other pilots, take a moment to state what each pilot should do in the event of a takeoff emergency. Typically, the pilot at the controls should fly the airplane, and the other should handle radio communication or help troubleshoot the problem, unless the pilot not flying is substantially more comfortable maneuvering the airplane.

Having a plan is critical. At your local airport, the next time you fly, take a moment during climbout to note various locations where you could put the air.lane should a complete power loss occur. Add these to your before-takeoff briefing.

Fly the plan

Preflight planning doesn't end once the pilot gets into the airplane; each moment before the airplane breaks ground is "preflight," and should be considered carefully. If you maintain focus on the takeoff, chances improve that the rest of the flight will be a safe one.


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.