Pilots do a lot of briefings. Takeoffs, approaches, missed approaches, single engine procedures, flight attendants, even the guys on the ramp are all topics to be briefed on a regular basis. At my airline, we also make it a point to brief the rejected takeoff (RTO) procedures. These can vary a bit from airplane to airplane based on the available technology and any manufacturer recommendations. We also cover the low speed regime, which we define as anything below 100 knots, and the high speed regime, which is 100 knots and up.
In the low speed regime, much more latitude is given to the pilots with respect to decision making and opting to reject or continue. However, as we get closer and closer to 100 knots—or further and further from zero—the window of opportunity narrows considerably. It’s one thing to reject at ten or fifteen knots because of bad sensor that shows a door is open, but it’s a much risker decision past 90 or 95 knots. The larger the airplane, the more inertia it has, and the more runway it will need to stop; and the more runway you need to stop, the less room for error there is.
But let’s say that you do cross the 100-knot mark and are passing through 120 knots and something happens that requires you reject the takeoff. Maybe it’s a fire bell, or an engine failure, or a flight control does something bizarre, rendering the airplane unable or unsafe to fly. Beyond the mechanical actions of the reject, what needs to happen?
First, fly the airplane. This is the ‘aviate’ part. You are now in command of a machine that was designed to be airborne and is developing lift, and you’ve chosen to suddenly reverse that process. You also need to keep the airplane on the centerline, which in windy or wet conditions can be a challenge. Assure yourself that you are indeed in control.
Second, navigate. Know where you are, and how much room you have left to stop. If you’re certain that you will be able to stop on the remaining runway, don’t plan on a certain exit—in fact, clearing the runway might not be the best idea—but you need to know where you are in case you will be clearing the runway.
Third, communicate. As you slow down, someone—you, if you’re alone—needs to advise the tower or the CTAF that you have rejected on the runway. The last thing you need is another airplane attempting to takeoff or land with you in the way. As you slow further and reach a manageable taxi speed, you’ll need to begin assessing the need for an evacuation while also taking care of any RTO checklists or memory items you may need to do. This is a bit of a coordinated effort in a crewed airplane, because generally the captain will call for the reject and perform it, while the first officer will handle radio communications. If an evacuation becomes necessary, all other checklists are usually abandoned, and an evacuation procedure is initiated. Doing it from memory is hard, and prone to mistakes. Written procedures are far better, trust me on this.
What happens next is something I make a point of briefing. Assume that a quick decision is made on the best exit(s) to use. You now need to get everyone off as quickly as possible (the FAA says in 90 seconds or less). I always discuss moving upwind of the airplane in case there is a fire or noxious fumes. Is it day or night? Rain or shine? Warm or cold? The conditions will affect the behavior of the people. It is critical that everyone be kept together and a head count is performed, which means you need to have a way to remember how many souls were on board, and if any little kids or lap children are in the count. This will be like herding cats, but you need to make sure people don’t go wandering off on their own, especially at night.
The good thing about discussing an RTO evacuation is that the same briefing can also translate to an evacuation upon landing if necessary.
Unfortunately, the actual evacuation isn’t something we get to practice at all, so we have to ‘war game’ it in our minds and in conversations with other pilots and flight attendants. You need to have a mindset of what you can control, what you need to do, and what you need to avoid. If it happens to you, it will be in a flash. Are you ready?