Experiencing an engine failure right after takeoff leaves you with 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 the Malibu's engine failed shortly after takeoff from Runway 17R at Houston's Ellington Field. The pilot and his passenger were killed in the accident.
Shortly after the airplane took off, the tower controller heard a weak radio call, which included the words "engine" and "power." The controller asked the pilot to repeat his call, and he responded, "I'm going down."
Witnesses saw the Malibu take off and climb to about 300 feet with no problems. At 300 feet, the engine began to sputter, then went quiet. 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 cart wheeled about 125 feet. The landing gear and wing spoilers were both in the retracted position.
The private pilot had about 640 hours, 330 of which were in the Piper Malibu.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's improper in flight 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 plane 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. Instead, it is safer to immediately establish the proper glide attitude, and select a field directly ahead of or slightly to either side of the takeoff path." The tricky part is defining "safe maneuvering altitude." Most pilots would say the minimum would be 500 feet agl, just about the altitude where the turn to crosswind is started.
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. Now, nobody is suggesting simulating an engine failure right after takeoff—close to the ground. However, there is a way. First, find your local 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 yourself in a takeoff configuration, have your 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". See 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 the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Safety Advisor, Maneuvering Flight , as well as the foundation's Special Report on Stalls and Spins, available online.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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