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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Sudden silence

Experiencing an engine failure right after takeoff leaves you little time, little altitude, and a lot of decisions to make--fast! On September 17, 2005, the pilot of a Piper Malibu had to make a quick decision when his engine failed shortly after takeoff from Runway 17R at Houston's Ellington Field.

Witnesses saw the Malibu take off and climb. At 300 feet, the engine began to sputter, and then there were no more engine sounds. The flight continued straight ahead at a consistent altitude for about 10 seconds before it entered a level left turn, followed by a steep descent. The Malibu hit the ground in a left turn and cartwheeled about 125 feet. The landing gear and wing spoilers were both in the retracted position. The pilot and his passenger were killed. The private pilot had about 640 hours, 330 of which were in the Piper Malibu.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to be the pilot's improper decision to maneuver back to the departure airport following a loss of engine power.

Remember basic aerodynamics? When an airplane is turned, the vertical component of lift is reduced, and overall lift is lost. Therefore, if a turn is initiated and there is a lack of excess thrust (or in this case, no thrust because the engine has failed), the airplane will descend. At 300 feet agl, you have no room for error.

According to the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook, "If an actual engine failure should occur immediately after takeoff and before a safe maneuvering altitude is attained, it is usually inadvisable to attempt to turn back to the field from where the takeoff was made." The tricky part is defining "safe maneuvering altitude." How much altitude do you think you would need to make the runway safely?

The best way to answer that question is to try the maneuver. Nobody is suggesting simulating an engine failure right after takeoff--close to the ground. However, there is a way. First, find an instructor and go out to the practice area. Climb to a safe altitude (at least 3,000 feet agl) and set that altitude as a hard deck. Establish a takeoff configuration and have the instructor simulate an engine failure at different altitudes above your hard deck--200, 500, and 1,000 feet would work well. Once your engine has "failed," practice making the turn back to the "runway." Find out how much altitude is truly needed to complete the turn safely before reaching your hard deck.

For more information about maneuvering flight and its hazards, see ASF's Maneuvering Flight Safety Advisor and the special report on stall/spin accidents.

Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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