The Three Stages of Takeoffs

Facing problems immediately after taking off

September 1, 2005

A takeoff is a takeoff is a takeoff, right? Well, sort of. You add full throttle, roll down the runway, get some speed, and if all goes well, you go flying.

What if all doesn't go well? The practical test standards (PTS) for all powered aircraft require that the applicant demonstrate proficiency in dealing with a power failure. For the private pilot, almost all emphasis is placed on losing an engine at some altitude, then safely maneuvering the airplane to a suitable landing site, preferably an airport.

But the PTS does not put a whole lot of emphasis on dealing with power losses on takeoff. It does happen, and it can be unnecessarily catastrophic. Engine failures on takeoff often occur because of undetected water in the fuel, inadequate quantities of fuel in the (selected) fuel tank, fouled spark plugs or improper leaning, or a mechanical failure. Regardless of the cause, the outcome is bad luck and there is precious little time to plot a course of action.

Maryland's Bay Bridge Airport where I learned to fly and eventually taught as a full-time instructor is located on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and the primary runway has you taking off over the water. Almost every new student — myself included — would ask what would happen if an engine quit over the water. A well-thought-out plan of action was necessary, but the same philosophy should be used on every takeoff from every runway at every airport. What follows is what I call the three phases of every takeoff.

Phase one

The worst time to lose an engine and panic is in the time from liftoff to about 500 feet above ground level (agl). It's going to take a few seconds for the reality of an engine failure to set in and for you to respond. The most important thing you can do is lower the nose and establish your best-glide speed. If you don't, airspeed will decay and you could stall.

Prior to takeoff, you should have some idea of where you are going to land if you lose the engine at such a low altitude. Turning back to the airport is out of the question. My belief is that you should assume you will lose almost 100 feet from the time you lose the engine and fully comprehend its loss and react, and you should not plan on turning more than 45 degrees from the initial takeoff heading. If you turn much more than that you will accelerate your descent and risk over-banking and stalling. If you plan ahead, you will already know what the options are for landing sites in front of you and to both sides. Take into account the possibility that you may not have time or may not be able to extend the flaps.

In the case of Bay Bridge Airport, my plan below 500 feet was to avoid hitting a boat (not easy in the busy summer boating season). At the same time we would try to put the airplane in the water tail-first to avoid having the airplane flip over when the nosewheel impacted, and land as close to a boat as possible so someone would be able to pull us out of the water.

The important thing to remember, and to commit yourself to, is that losing an engine at such a low altitude affords little to no time for trouble-shooting. You'll have enough time to check the setting of the mixture, turn on a fuel pump, or turn on the carburetor heat. It's more important at this stage to concentrate on landing and living to tell the tale.

Phase two

From about 500 to 1,000 feet agl, phase two of your takeoff, more options become available. You still won't have enough altitude to guarantee a return to the airport, and you really shouldn't try. You do, however, have options for other landing sites. It might be possible to reach a road, or in the case of Bay Bridge, we could have landed close to the pylons of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is only a few hundred yards from the airport. In the winter, with ice in the water, it's critical to minimize exposure to the elements, and a couple of those pylons are miniature islands for the birds. Taking off away from the water we had the option of landing on a closed private strip, but it was a runway and in an emergency, it was an option. An empty farm field was also available in the winter months.

The fuzzy part of losing the engine at this altitude is taking the time to troubleshoot. If you lose the engine at, say, 700 feet, you might have time to rush through a rudimentary restart procedure, but you need to minimize the time you are going to spend trying to save the airplane. At some point, it becomes a lost cause, and you don't want to see a salvageable bad situation deteriorate to a severe one. You need to decide ahead of time what the course of action will be, commit it to memory, stick to it if you need it, and avoid the Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Phase three

Phase three of your takeoff starts once you reach about 1,000 feet. Once you are above 1,000 feet agl, you probably have enough time to safely execute a 180-degree turn and return to the airport. The biggest problem here is twofold: departing airplanes that don't see you or know you are coming back (and coming back the wrong way, to boot), and landing downwind with a strong tailwind. You should have some idea of what your landing distance is going to be with the winds you are experiencing. Remember, if you decide to return to the airport, you've entered the realm of a glider, as a go-around is not an option. You have one shot to make the landing, and that's it. For this reason alone, you should still have a point of landing in mind in the event you decide returning to the airport is not viable after all.

If you do decide to return to the field, the question now becomes how much time and energy do you expend on a restart? Again, you've got time to do a flow pattern across the panel to check the obvious culprits such as the fuel selector position, fuel pump, carb heat, and mags. You have time to do this one time. If the engine does not come back to life, put it out of your mind and concentrate on the landing: Open the door(s), quickly tell your passengers what is happening, and make a radio call. From then on, block out everything else and fly the airplane.

Ironically, the closer you are to the ground when an engine fails, the easier some things are. Like retirement investment options, the more that are available, the harder it is to sift through the available information and options to decide on a course of action. But, even though an engine loss on takeoff is not likely, the proximity to the ground requires that you have a plan. Some airports, like Bay Bridge, really require that you be prepared, be it for water or terrain.

At Bay Bridge, that philosophy paid off for a pilot several years ago. Taking off, over the water in a twin, with his family on board, an emergency developed. He knew he wasn't going to be able to continue to fly, and as the problem developed right after rotation, returning was not an option. He did the right thing: He made a controlled descent to the water, flying the airplane all the way to the landing. After the accident, the airplane could be seen from the bridge and the shore, its rudder sticking out of the water, the fuselage almost perfectly in line with the extended centerline of the runway.

Nobody died.

Take the time to formulate your plan, brief yourself and your passengers, and if you should be forced to use it, then stick to it.


Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair.