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How to learn: The takeoff

Complete the headwork before starting the legwork

Because the concept of "taking off" is simple and easy to understand, it's a maneuver that's quickly learned. Yet, sometimes the lesson is not completely taught because the greatest challenge in learning takeoffs lies not in physical skill, but in the mental work required. This headwork aspect means you should consider an array of factors before every takeoff. And while the physical skills of taking off are important (a high-speed taxi followed by a rotation and climb), the preflight planning and headwork aspects most likely have a much greater bearing on overall takeoff safety.

But before we discuss those factors, let's go over some of the common problems you may have with takeoffs and consider some solutions.

Directional control

One common problem is maintaining directional control during the takeoff run. Invariably, the airplane starts off on the centerline but then sometimes drifts toward the left or right side of the runway. It may swerve when you try to get it back on the centerline.

First, you must learn to discern where the nosewheel is in relation to the centerline of the runway or taxiway. This takes some practice in side-by-side trainers, because you're not sitting on the centerline of the airplane. To recognize and compensate for this difference, try leaning over the center of the airplane while you're taxiing. This will give you a different perspective. Also, ask your instructor to help you out by estimating how far left or right the nosewheel is from yellow taxi line. Then, you can make the proper corrections.

Second, don't accept substandard taxiing. Discipline yourself to always taxi at a safe speed and on the centerline. With strict discipline, you'll soon develop the skill to masterfully steer the airplane around curves and taxiways with only your feet and the judicious use of throttle and toe brakes. If you accept sloppiness during taxi, you are asking for directional control problems at the higher takeoff and landing speeds.

Third, try not to overcontrol with the rudder pedals on the takeoff run. Because a takeoff involves high speeds, everything seems to be happening at once. Try to relax, and realize that as the airplane gathers speed, progressively smaller rudder pedal inputs will be required to keep the airplane tracking the centerline. If the airplane does drift off the centerline, don't attempt to steer back toward it. At high speeds this can be unsafe. Instead, concentrate on just paralleling the centerline from your current lateral position. This will result in a safer and smoother takeoff run.

Fourth, make sure you're looking far enough ahead of the airplane. At higher speeds, your vision must be focused farther down the runway in order to have time to react. If you find yourself reacting to the airplane rather than controlling it, you're probably focusing too close and your rudder corrections are too late. Try focusing anywhere from 20 to 100 yards in front of the airplane (depending on your speed) so that smooth, timely corrections can be made.

Finally, perhaps you could benefit from some high-speed taxi practice. With your instructor on board, ask the tower controller for a high-speed taxi. Or, at a nontowered airport, ensure the runway is clear. Accelerate the airplane to just below rotation speed while tracking the centerline. Hold this speed as long as practical, and practice making timely rudder corrections. Be sure to plan your deceleration so that you stop with ample runway remaining.


Another element you may have difficulty with is rotation. Rotation is the act of lifting the nosewheel of a tricycle-geared airplane off the runway by pulling back on the yoke, raising the elevator and causing the tail to lower. This step is key to a smooth takeoff. The difficulty is that you may either rotate too early or too late, and/or over- or underrotate. A proper rotation is important for safety reasons and for minimizing takeoff distance. For example, rotate too early and drag increases, thus increasing the takeoff distance. Rotate too late, or forcibly hold the nose down too long, and a tricycle-geared airplane could be rolling along on only the nosewheel, an unsafe condition known as wheelbarrowing.

A proper rotation is easy if you keep in mind these points. First, before you line up on the runway, verify that your pitch trim is set to the takeoff position. Second, know the published rotation speed for your aircraft. To help build airspeed awareness on the takeoff run, make it a habit to call out "airspeed alive" when the airspeed indicator needle moves off its peg and "rotate" when rotation speed is reached. Take only quick glances at the airspeed indicator, however; focusing on it too long can cause you to drift off the centerline.

Third, learn to recognize what the target pitch attitude for rotation looks like from the cockpit. For some airplanes, this is when the nose cowling appears to cover up the runway ahead. Another is when the top of the cowling is in line with the horizon. Your instructor's demonstration can be worth a thousand words here. Once this sight picture is known, the nose should be rotated into this position on every normal takeoff.

After the aircraft is rotated and placed into the takeoff attitude, hold that attitude until the aircraft reaches flying speed and lifts off the runway by itself. This speed is usually a few knots above rotation speed. A common misconception is that rotation means liftoff. Except in certain cases, this doesn't hold true for most small general aviation trainers. So, when the aircraft doesn't lift off when they rotate some students continue with the back-pressure until it does. This results in overrotation.

Upwind track

One of the most frustrating and by far the most vexing problem for students is maintaining the proper ground track during climbout. And ground track is important. A straight upwind is crucial for traffic separation at airports with simultaneous departures off parallel runways.

One of the most common reasons for this difficulty is that normal visual references are obscured in the climb because the nose is too high to see over. Fortunately, with a minimal crosswind, just keeping the wings level will ensure a fairly straight upwind track. Since the horizon is obscured by the nose-high attitude, try using your peripheral vision to keep the wings level. If you still have trouble judging bank angle, use your attitude indicator.

Another good technique is to use the heading indicator to maintain a runway or departure heading. But remember, heading only equals track in a no-wind condition. Therefore, look behind or below the aircraft occasionally to see if you're maintaining your desired ground track. If not, then you must adjust your heading to correct for wind drift. In order for this technique to work well, you must hold heading closely by keeping the wings level. Also, make sure you're holding enough right rudder pressure to compensate for P-factor. Relaxing this pressure can cause drift to the left and degrade your climb performance.


Once these procedures and techniques are mastered, you can learn the headwork aspects of a safe takeoff. Basically, you ask yourself a series of questions and consider a variety of factors that could affect the outcome.

For example, do you perform a last-minute flow check of the key checklist items before taking the active runway? This rapid check, using both sight and feel for each item, should be performed in the run-up area before takeoff. Its purpose is to verify and confirm that items specific to your aircraft are in the proper position for takeoff. This could include such as: tailwheel locked, primer locked, fuel selector and pump in takeoff position, carb heat off, propeller setting, mixture setting, flap setting, and trim setting. Don't overlook lights on and transponder set to the ALT (altitude) position.

After you check the key items do you visually clear the final approach path and the runway environment before taking the active runway? No pilot operating at a controlled airport likes to "taxi into position and hold" for more than a minute or so. This clearance, while expeditious for the controller, places you in a vulnerable position. Exposing your back to landing traffic is so hazardous that some airline pilot unions are advocating that their members refuse these clearances at night. That's why it's vitally important to know if an aircraft is on final or base leg approaching to land on your runway.

After receiving your takeoff clearance, but before applying power and accelerating, do you check the runway ahead to make sure it's clear of other aircraft, vehicles, debris, or animals? You don't want to abort a takeoff if you don't have to. Speaking of aborted takeoffs, do you choose an abort point before you take off? An abort point can be any prominent landmark -- a windsock; a building to the side of the runway; a clump of grass; or a runway turnoff, sign, or marking. Promise yourself that if your airplane is not airborne with a positive rate of climb by this point you will abort the takeoff and stop in the remaining runway. This abort point depends on takeoff performance and considers such items as airplane weight, pressure altitude, ambient temperature, wind, obstacles, and terrain. Figuring out how much runway is required and where the abort point should be can be determined in a few minutes by consulting the airplane's takeoff performance charts.

Do you always line up using all the available runway? Smart pilots know that runway behind them is useless. Pilots become complacent because they depart from low-altitude airports with long runways. Using every foot of the available runway is not just good policy; it can also be lifesaver -- especially when departing from a short runway on a hot day at a high-elevation airport. After you apply takeoff power, do you scan the engine gauges and power instruments for proper indications? This scan is to confirm that you have a healthy engine that is developing full power. It is preferable to identify engine problems early in the takeoff run than later.

Prudent pilots know that timing is essential in flying. Thus, do you note your takeoff time when cleared for takeoff? Fuel management, all forms of navigation, and flight plan activation are all directly dependent upon "time off." Simply make a mental note of it when taking the runway and then jot it down when safely airborne.

Do you determine the wind direction and speed as you line up on the runway? Tower controllers routinely give pilots wind information before they give them their takeoff clearances. Pilots need to know wind information, period. If the controller doesn't give you this information, and you don't know it, ask! Knowing that a crosswind or tailwind exists before takeoff gives you the edge you need to make the right decisions and use the safest techniques.

Finally, do you always climb out at the best rate of climb (VY) airspeed until reaching a safe altitude (unless obstacles are a factor)? Consider that an aircraft is in a "risk" zone from the moment it lifts off until it reaches a safe maneuvering altitude. If the engine stumbles or quits in this zone, your options are limited. A forced landing straight ahead, or slightly left or right if it offers a better landing area, would probably be your only options. The objective is to pass through this "risk zone" as quickly as possible. To accomplish this, the airplane should be flown at VY. This speed will allow the airplane to gain the maximum altitude in the minimum time, thus minimizing time in the risk zone. If obstacles exist, check the takeoff performance charts for obstacle clearance requirements and climb at the best angle of climb speed (VX) until the obstacles have been cleared.

Survival instincts

The takeoff is a maneuver much like any other, with its own procedures and objectives. Making safe takeoffs means considering many different factors, chief among them the sense of when a takeoff is not going as planned. Learn to trust your instincts. If you get a feeling something's not right, aborting the takeoff is almost certainly the safest course of action. There is no reason to force an ailing aircraft into the air.

Christopher L. Parker is a CFI and an aviation author, speaker, and FAA remedial training specialist. He is captain of a Canadair Challenger business jet based in Van Nuys, California.

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