Technique

Push — Again

August 1, 2007

More thoughts on engine failures after takeoff

The response made me feel much better: You get it, or at least you got it after reading about it in these pages.

What's this to "get"? The response — the push — you need to condition yourself to make if you experience an engine failure immediately after takeoff in a light airplane.

But you came back to me with so many other ideas and techniques for improving the outcome of this situation by practicing certain maneuvers, understanding the correct procedures and what happens during the emergency, and inoculating yourself against the wrong reaction — the reaction that could get you and your passengers killed.

So I'd like to share all these ideas with everyone. Because the better our collective situational awareness on this topic, the safer we'll fly.

A quick review

For those just joining us in the discussion, here's the scenario and some key concepts. In the November 2006 Pilot article, " Technique: Push," we discussed the proper actions you should take if you encounter a powerplant failure or power loss immediately after takeoff.

During your climbout, you have relatively low airspeed. So you must preserve that airspeed after a power loss by reducing the wings' angle of attack. Failing to do so — or even hesitating with the control wheel frozen in your hands — can and will eventually lead to a stall and loss of control. Regardless of the altitude you have to work with, loss of control is the biggest danger you face — if you must land off airport, doing so under control greatly increases your chances of survival.

What you may not realize is how deeply you need to pitch the nose down in order to maintain airspeed and arrest the sink rate. Depending on the airplane you fly, this can be up to 10 degrees below the horizon — and perhaps you were maintaining 5 to 10 degrees nose up to achieve V X or V Y during the climbout.

You'll also need to adjust the rudder pressure you had been holding to offset turning tendencies in the airplane produced by the high-power and high-angle-of-attack condition in the climb. If you don't adjust rudder pressure after you lose power, the airplane enters uncoordinated flight, which can lead to a stall and then spin if left uncorrected.

Tales from the field

Brian Spear, AOPA 5086108, from Florida, wrote to us following the article — like so many members did — to share his experiences. "Having successfully encountered a recent engine failure, I want to emphasize a point made in your article about sight picture. Prior to the engine failure, I had recently transitioned to a Helio Super Courier. During my initial training I learned to rely solely on sight picture and not the airspeed indicator for takeoff and landings. When the engine violently shuddered at 400 feet and quit, it was a natural reaction for me to push forward and regain the two-thirds-ground, one-third-sky sight picture recommended for a normal landing. I also had the benefit of having about 4,000 feet remaining of the 6,000-foot runway. Now that I'm flying other aircraft I make sure to know the proper sight picture for best glide and landing."

Spear's point on sight picture is well taken. In order to respond appropriately and immediately to the engine failure, you need to have a good idea of the outside picture that you're aiming for; you don't have time to waste with your eyes in the cockpit staring at the airspeed indicator (we'll assume you're in visual conditions; training for this scenario in instrument conditions is a topic for another article).

Neil Ulman, AOPA 3888431, of Vermont, also received excellent primary training, and shares this exercise with readers: "If I ever get in that dire, engine-failure-on-take-off situation...if I remember to 'push,' it will also be because of some creative and caring instruction. My instructor [who is also Ulman's son] and I flew a Cessna 172 from Palo Alto [California] out to the old Castle Air Force Base at Merced, California, and used the 11,000-foot, former B-52 runway for custom-tailored exercises, including power failure on takeoff. We started our takeoff roll from the approach end. After we had reached a couple of hundred feet, my instructor pulled the power off and had me land the airplane — straight ahead. I got the feel of how hard I had to push to maintain a safe airspeed and put the plane back down on the runway with the proper flare."

Unloading

A number of our readers have military aviation backgrounds, and shared a concept that is familiar to military aviators but should be well understood by every pilot who flies: unloading.

One member, Michael Friese, AOPA 1107144, explained the concept well: "The military uses a maneuver called 'unloading' to help their aircraft accelerate during combat maneuvering. By pushing the aircraft over to zero G, the induced drag goes to zero, and improves aircraft acceleration, or decreases aircraft deceleration. (If the wing has any geometric twist the drag will not go exactly to zero, but it will be close enough.) An effect from this maneuver is that at zero G, your stall speed [effectively] goes to zero.

"While instructing I would teach my students that an engine failure from a nose-high climb attitude requires unloading the wing to zero G for the following reasons: First, getting rid of that induced drag, which is a large part of the total drag in climbing flight, will decrease your airspeed loss while pitching down. Second, in zero G, your stall speed is zero. Third, the pitch rate required to unload to zero G usually gets the nose down fairly quickly to minimize airspeed loss."

Terry Slawinski, AOPA 821267, a former U.S. Air Force fighter weapons school instructor and F-16 pilot, added to Friese's discussion. "We taught our guys to unload by pushing or pulling, if inverted, until they were light in the seat. It wasn't exactly zero G, but it was close enough, perhaps 0.1 to 0.3 G. We taught this because it was close enough to zero G to gain all the drag-due-to-lift advantages of real zero G. More important, it allowed pilots to decrease the pitch rate so that they could keep control of the nose relative to the horizon and stay light in the seat longer (accelerating) before they needed to load up again to keep from burying the nose.

"It was amazing how fast a jet accelerated when you unloaded it versus staying at 1 G or more. It was also amazing how it could tumble or fall without stalling, departing [controlled flight], or spinning, if you kept it light in the seat. 'Unload for control' is a life-saving maneuver," Slawinski concludes.

Lucius Day, AOPA 864473, a former U.S. Navy pilot, describes specific maneuvers that he practiced in his military flying days (and that he continues to teach as a civilian instructor) that expand on those we suggested in the original article. "My first training plane was an SNJ. Later I taught in T-34Bs. We had two syllabus maneuvers that directly address the situation you discuss in your article.

"The first is what we called the power-off stall — except it was nothing like the FAA's power-off stall. The Navy's power-off stall was a power-off stall with a power-off recovery. The procedure was to complete the last 90 degrees of a clearing turn in a trimmed-up, stabilized, power-off glide. After verifying the stabilized glide, the nose was raised to the three-point landing attitude and held there (with increasing back-stick), noting the aerodynamic indications of the approaching stall, until just before the airplane was about to enter a spin. Then brisk, positive forward stick was used to lower the nose to somewhat below the normal glide attitude (and held there) until speed approached the normal glide speed. Then the attitude was adjusted to maintain the normal glide.

"The second maneuver was what we called a low altitude emergency (LAE). Basically it was a simulated engine-out initiated by the instructor cutting the power at an altitude below 1,000 feet, usually between 300 and 400 feet agl, when the student was in a climb. A student learned very quickly to respond with a positive and aggressive pitch correction."

Day concludes: "I am extremely critical of the FAA treating power as integral to the recovery from every syllabus stall. I'm convinced a student should realize that stall recovery depends entirely upon reducing angle of attack and that power is used, primarily, to conserve or regain altitude."

Lessons from other aircraft

A number of pilots wrote in to report on how experiences in other categories of aircraft had improved their airplane flying — and reinforced the need to preserve airspeed and controllability in the event of a powerplant failure (or, in the case of gliders, the total lack of one).

Myron Badstibner, of Pennsylvania, writes, "I am a very low-time (15 hours) student pilot, training in a 172. But I am a relatively high-time ultralight (Quicksilver MX) flier and aviation enthusiast. The ultralight that I am flying has a high drag level, and I can attest from first-hand experience that even it requires a lot of push in this type of event. I realize that many GA pilots downplay ultralights, but they really are flying at its most basic, and most fun, if done in a safe manner. A couple of hours with an ultralight instructor in a two-place ultralight trainer [or what is now a light sport aircraft] would go a long way in demonstrating the recovery from this type of condition."

Steve Hurst, AOPA 5177094, of Georgia, elaborates: "The push factor gets larger and the time window smaller when the aircraft has more drag. I experimented with simulated engine failures while climbing in ultralights. The light aircraft slows very quickly, and elevator response is slow because of the lack of prop wash over the elevators.

"If the engine quit, the stick had to go full forward now and the rudder neutralized to avoid a stall. There was no time available to recognize an engine failure. [Coupling] this with the lower dependability of [certain] ultralight engines and the lack of protection for the pilot made me change my normal takeoff to a much shallower climb. This [climb] does not look as spectacular both in and out of the cockpit, but I think it is much safer."

Roger Worden, of California, helped me recall the relationship between my own glider training and airplane flying by relating his experience flying gliders. "I was surprised by your statement, 'If you're like most pilots, this wasn't part of your primary training.' Nosing over in order to recapture flying speed is something we learn about — and practice — in glider training. We don't have engine failures, but we can have rope breaks when aero towing or winch launching. We are taught to push forward until the airspeed is stabilized at a safe speed before even thinking about whether to land ahead or to turn back. We declare a safe turnaround altitude before takeoff, and call out that altitude when we pass through it, so the decision is pretty much automatic. (That altitude is typically 200 to 300 feet agl, depending on wind and terrain.) Many pilots never experience an actual rope break, but I had one recently at exactly 300 feet, and this training made it a nonevent."

From the Kings

Renowned flight instructors John and Martha King (see " Flying Together: King Air," September 2006 Pilot) had a very positive reaction to the article, and when we had the opportunity to discuss it further, John King compared his experience instructing in airplanes with that of flying aircraft in other categories (the Kings hold flight instructor certificates in, at last count, every possible category of aircraft). "In the helicopter, you take off with the minimum power to let you get going," and with the minimum pitch up on the collective blades. "Rotor rpm decays precipitously; you can't get the collective down quick enough."

Drawing from his experience in weight-shift-control aircraft, King posits that pilots ask themselves, "What am I doing with this wing?" He suggests the book Fly the Wing for further education on the concept. But in broad strokes, to preserve airspeed and energy, you must pitch the wing to the proper attitude. In an airplane, you're pitching the whole airplane.

For pilots who fly aircraft equipped with the Garmin G1000 primary flight display (or similar PFDs such as Avidyne's FlightMax Entegra EXP5000), King gives this tip: "Look at the aircraft's attitude indicator and recognize what the pitch attitude is for V Y (numerically). We know it's 16 degrees in the [Dassault] Falcon, 11 degrees in the [Cessna] Citation we had, but didn't know what it was in the 172 because it's hard to see [on a standard attitude indicator] — until you have a large-format display" such as that on the G1000's or Entegra's PFD. "Now we know it's 9 or 10 degrees in the 172, and complete power-off glide is 1 degree down or on the horizon depending on the conditions."

With the PFDs, you can get virtually an exact pitch attitude — and use it to aid you in recognizing the exact sight picture outside. Of course, you will need to push the nose further below the horizon line initially to capture or retain the appropriate glide speed if you're already pitched up, as you would be in an initial climb.

Improving our collective SA

Quite possibly the greatest benefit from reading the article, as noted by many readers, was the increased situational awareness they now possessed from having thought through the various scenarios possible if an engine failed immediately after takeoff for them, in their airplane, at their airport. And many reported that they would practice these scenarios to refine their skills.

But here's an important point to keep in mind if you plan to practice, again from John King. "Sometimes training can give a student a false impression. For instance, if an instructor were to demonstrate the need to lower the nose after engine failure after takeoff, the demonstration would most likely be conducted in a lightly loaded airplane with a forward CG. In this demonstration the nose would lower on its own and the student might be left with the assumption that he had just witnessed a non-event. If in real life an engine failure were to occur at best-angle-of-climb speed in a heavily loaded aircraft at the aft CG limit, the pilot would be faced with an entirely different situation. Based on the demonstration received in training, the pilot might not understand the urgency to lower the nose."

Flying at a different weight means you are flying a different airplane (see " Proficient Pilot: CG at the Aft Limit," January Pilot). "We need to have students who understand pitch plus power equals performance," says King. "To this end, another skill-enhancing task is to fly around the pattern with the instruments covered up [so the student cannot see them]. You'll learn quickly how vulnerable you are when you're pitched way up, as you are on climbout.

"If we're more 'pitch aware' we can make these associations," concludes King. So make it a point to improve your own pitch awareness with practice, planning, and rehearsing your every move in the event of a power loss on takeoff.

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