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On Instruments: The Case Against ITOsOn Instruments: The Case Against ITOs

You can barely see the runway stripe ahead of you. Ready for takeoff?

At some point in instrument training you were probably subjected to an instrument takeoff. Sometimes called the ITO, it’s a rite of passage in which you are under the hood and performing a takeoff from a standing start. The idea is to perfect your skills at simultaneously tracking the runway centerline, monitoring your acceleration, and taking off—all without any visual references.
P&E On Instruments
Illustration by Oliver Burston

The ITO drill is always done under the hawk-like gaze of a CFII. The instructor typically gives you steering cues—“one degree to the right, now two back to the left,” often followed by an urgent “I got it! My airplane!”—and other firm guidance as you do the takeoff run. This is a very good idea. The ITO may be good practice, but most pilots believe it should remain just that. Because once you’ve earned the rating, why on Earth would you take off under these conditions?

FAR Part 91 does not mention any visibility requirements for taking off in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), so “blind” takeoffs are legal in theory. But are ITOs wise? No way.

Think of it: Zero visibility, and any deviation from the (invisible) runway centerline could send you on a high-speed runway excursion. Assuming you maintain your lateral cool on the runway, the takeoff must be performed with precision. This means a nice, positive rotation and liftoff with wings level, followed by a climb at VX or VY to make a quick getaway from terra firma. Torque and P-factor will be high at the moment of liftoff, so your coordination must be perfect.

That’s not your only concern. A post-takeoff emergency is almost guaranteed to end in big trouble—because with such low IMC weather, a return to the departure airport would be a near-impossibility. Even if you flew a perfect instrument approach, you’d never see the runway.

This is the main reason why most charter and airline flights require naming a takeoff alternate if the departure airport’s weather is below landing minimums. Should a problem arise, standard procedure would most likely be an immediate diversion to a takeoff alternate that has better weather. The basic assumption here is that the airplane has at least two engines, and that one of them has either quit or lost power.

I conducted an informal poll among a few pilots, asking when they’d seriously consider doing a for-real ITO. “Never” was the big response. “Only if there was a thin layer of ground fog, with low tops,” answered a couple. “I won’t do it again, even with an instructor,” offered another. “If the sappers were at the wire,” one wag said.

The thin-fog scenario sounds appealing at first. Just seconds after liftoff you’d be in sunny skies. But you’re still faced with two bad options if a major problem occurs in those few seconds: a return to the airport below minimums, or a blind off-airport landing.

That said, what would be the “best” conditions for an ITO? No wind, for one, which fits perfectly with the thin-fog situation. With no wind, tracking the centerline is easier, and the wings are easier to keep level after liftoff. A heading bug would be a big help in staying on path, as would a flight director with command bars. No obstacles in the takeoff path would be another must-have, as would a straight-out departure procedure. Having a head-up display (HUD) with enhanced, infrared vision would be the crowning touch. After all, low-visibility operations are HUD specialties. Too bad most of us don’t have HUDs—yet.

When the chips are down, most of us are fighting the odds. ITO? Just say no.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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