One Step Ahead

Having a plan helps you make split-second decisions

April 1, 2005

Do we continue the takeoff or do we abort, do we land or go around? There are times in aviation when our whole world can change in the blink of an eye. The V 1 decision — to go or not to go — is probably the most famous split-second decision that we have to make, and we do it on every flight. Sure, we may call it something different and the parameters that influence the decision may be different, but for the most part, the decision is fundamentally the same: Do we hit the brakes and try to stop, or do we continue and try to fly?

The key to a successful abort or takeoff decision begins by having a plan in mind in case something goes wrong. Depending on divine intervention does not really count as a plan. A plan means you've decided what your actions are going to be at V 1 in a given situation long before you get there. If you have a problem but no plan, you're burning up valuable time and runway as you try to figure it out. Once you have a plan, quick recognition of the problem, good crew resource management (if there's more than one of you), and an appropriate, timely response are huge contributors to getting back to the ramp safely. Although it seems like training has historically concentrated on engine failure as the biggest reason for an abort, many rejected takeoff accidents have nothing to do with engine problems. Landing gear, airplane configuration, crew coordination, bird strikes, and air traffic control conflicts have been responsible for more accidents than engine problems on takeoff. Why? Because either we didn't have a plan or we didn't execute the plan we had.

Having a plan ahead of time allows us to realize that we may have more options than we think. Many of us are spring loaded to stop if we have a problem, and that's often the best choice. However, there are times when taking the problem in the air improves our chances. First, when we come back we will have the benefit of whatever brilliant plan we've conceived during a moment of inspiration or divine intervention. Second, we will have decided on a configuration, where to land, and be able to take advantage of the full length of the longest runway available to us. Think of it this way: Would you volunteer to land a crippled airplane halfway down the runway on purpose? That's basically what you do when you abort. If it's possible, wouldn't you rather have time to make a plan, find the longest runway around, and have fire equipment ready and waiting to help if it all goes bad? I would.


Of course, you have to have a plan to execute a plan. There are a lot of pilots who don't consider the go/no-go decision until something bad has happened to them. A few years ago a friend named Brian took a Cessna 310 on a shakedown flight after a long annual. Just prior to rotation Brian felt a loss of power, so he aborted. Unfortunately, the runway was fairly short and he was way beyond the V 1 threshold and accelerate-stop distance when he initiated the abort. (Note to self: Runway remaining always should be greater than runway required.)

When FAA officials questioned Brian, they asked him if he had calculated a V 1 speed or accelerate-stop distance that day. He hadn't. He had never had anything bad happen to him and had gotten out of the habit of doing takeoff calculations and briefing takeoff procedures. Some folks call this complacency the "invincibility of aviation inexperience."

Every once in a while I find myself getting a little complacent with respect to the go/no-go decision. I'll realize after a takeoff that as we were hurtling down the runway my head was as empty as my bank account after an annual. And when I feel that happening, I reinforce my mental discipline and remind myself to have a plan for every second I'm on that runway.

Doughnuts are not always good

A plan is great, but to be effective, it has to be executed. We were sitting at the end of the runway, having just briefed our takeoff plan. "If we have an amber caution or master warning prior to 80 knots, we will abort. After 80 knots we will only abort for engine fire or failure, loss of directional control, or thrust reverser deployment. After V 1, we will treat any problem as an airborne emergency." There is an implied trust that if we're faced with a split-second decision, we've already got a plan.

I hit the go button in our Cessna Citation X, and we were through 80 knots in a flash. As we passed 100, I saw an amber caution light out of the corner of my eye. My first officer simply said, "Yellow light." Now, technically, we don't have a "yellow light," so I assumed he meant "Amber Caution," which we do have. Semantics, yes, but when you're type rated in the airplane and have been flying it for a while, semantics are important and expected — especially in an airplane that requires a computer science degree to fly it.

My thought process: "After 80 knots, abort for engine fire, failure, loss of directional control, or thrust reverser deployment." I didn't hear any of those, so we were going — I assumed we had everything under control. About a two-second count after that, it became apparent that we didn't. There was something seriously wrong with the airplane, and directional control was questionable at best. We were veering off to the right and as I expanded my view I could see that the right thrust reverser had deployed. That was bad. It meant we had one engine at max forward thrust and one engine at max reverse thrust. The airplane wanted to do doughnuts in a big way. It had become pretty clear that by continuing we were simply moving the scene of the accident. So I aborted the takeoff and brought the throttles back and the reversers out to get us stopped, all the while correcting back toward the centerline.

Cool, things were looking up. Unfortunately, while the left thrust reverser engages were at full power (both engines were in full reverse), my first officer hit the Thrust Reverser — Emergency Stow button to stow the right thrust reverser. Wow, I thought we had yaw before.... We used the entire runway, and we hadn't seen the centerline in a while. I must admit, I was not completely clued in on what was going on, but I was catching up fast. Unfortunately, it was way too late for that. We ended up on our tail (I didn't even know that was possible) doing doughnuts as we came to a stop.

Our instructor, Stu, normally a jovial guy, was pretty animated. "Just what in the hell were you doing? Do you have a death wish?"

My first officer joined in with, "Yeah, what the hell were you doing?" That was when my first officer suddenly realized that he was the one on trial as Stu responded, "Marc was trying to save us; you were trying to kill us. You briefed the abort procedure and then just ignored it."

The first officer, who is actually a captain with far more seniority than I, said quietly, "I told him what was going on."

"No, you didn't," Stu continued. "When the thrust reverser deploy light came on, you just mumbled something about a 'yellow light.' We don't even have yellow lights. You were past 80 knots, so he did what he was trained to do, abort only for engine fire or failure, thrust reverser deployment, or loss of directional control — so he kept going. Since you didn't give him any information about the TR deployment, he had to wait for the loss of directional control to present itself, which made things a lot harder than they had to be. But that wasn't enough. After he called for the abort, was beginning to recover, and could use his TR, you took it away from him without telling him." Boy, did it get quiet.

Thank God we were in the sim. That changed the ending from an embarrassing news story and unemployment to an entertaining happy-hour story and learning experience. It also reminded us that the most important part of any successful plan is actually executing it. A thrust reverser deployment, while dangerous, is manageable if it is identified and handled properly. If not, well, doughnuts and investigations ensue.

Do we continue to hit the road?

Whether we go around or continue is probably the biggest airborne split-second decision we make. That said, what's more fun in instrument flying than doing an approach to minimums? We were on our way into Oakland, California, with the ILS to Runway 11 at Metropolitan Oakland International Airport already briefed. It was one of those days when the fog seemed like it was everywhere. We were crossing the outer marker inbound as a Southwest Airlines flight landed ahead of us. When queried by Oakland Tower where he broke out, he reported, "300 feet." Pretty impressive since the minimums are 400 feet. Another note to self: If queried about flight visibility or where you broke out, always respond with something greater than minimums. Otherwise, it just makes it waaayyyy too easy for the FAA, takes the sport right out of it. The Southwest flight's report told us we should be prepared for a go-around at minimums and that's what we did — just like we briefed. It's a pretty simple plan: If we see what we need to, we continue; if we don't, we split and make a new plan. For us it meant requesting the ILS to Runway 29, with better minimums and a better outcome.

In and out of the rocks

As more aircraft are equipped with terrain warning systems, we have more split-second decisions out of the takeoff and approach realm. These systems are great, but they are only as good as what we do with the information they provide.

I was sitting in the cockpit jump seat one night going into a place I'm pretty familiar with. Night visuals are the norm there, and the only obstacle to worry about was a huge rock formation just north of the airport. Generally if you just head direct to the airport for your visual — which is basically a tight right base — you'll miss the rocks on your left by a wide berth. However, if you widen out to the left to get the right base you really want, you can get uncomfortably close to the rocks.

With no headset available, I was watching the crew in silence as they got closer and closer to the rocks. I had the rocks in sight, but wasn't convinced that they did. They were not going to hit them, but they were going to come a lot closer than anyone else I'd seen. My suspicions were confirmed when the ground proximity warning system went off because of the rocks, telling the crew to climb. The bad news was the initial lack of situational awareness by the crew. The good news was that when the ground prox went off and the crew was not absolutely sure where they were, they made a split-second decision and escaped, climbing to safety.

The end

No one talks about split-second plans; it's split-second decisions that seem to get all the press. Everyone kind of assumes (and hopes) that we already have a plan. It reminds me of advice I received long ago from a friend while skeet shooting in the desert. "Trust me, if you open your eyes, your chances of hitting the target increase by a factor of 10." It's the same way with split-second decisions. If you have a plan and execute it, your chances of success increase exponentially. A plan can mean the difference between explaining to the FAA how you broke the airplane versus explaining to your friends how you saved it.

Marc K. Henegar, AOPA 1073441, of Bend, Oregon, is a pilot for Alaska Airlines.