Ask a student to name the easiest part of his or her last flight lesson, and chances are the answer will be the takeoff. A student learning to fly a taildragger might feel differently, but in a typically docile tricycle-gear trainer, a normal takeoff seems, well, easy. Push the throttle all the way forward, kick the rudders enough to keep the gear on the runway, and let the airspeed build before easing back the yoke. Next thing you know, you’re flying. Nothing to it, right?
Well, maybe most of the time. But as simple as it looks, it’s not quite automatic. It turns out that less-than-perfect takeoff attempts cause more fatal fixed-wing accidents than all types of mechanical failures combined. The total number of takeoff accidents ranks second only to landing goofs on the list of ways pilots abuse perfectly good airplanes.
This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. As we’ve noted before, you can’t crash into the sky—it’s a lot easier to hit something when something’s close enough to hit. And unlike low ceilings, poor visibility, darkness, or even turns in the traffic pattern, exposure simply cannot be avoided. There’s no way to fly without taking off. Still, if breaking ground was as straightforward as most of us like to think, it probably wouldn’t result in blood or bent aluminum an average of 14 times a month. That’s more than 40 percent of the number of landing accidents. Put another way, a pilot is less than two and a half times more likely to wreck an airplane trying to get it back onto the runway as trying to coax it off the runway in the first place—but it’s a good bet most pilots put far more than two and a half times as much energy into polishing their landing technique.
So what’s getting them into trouble? The usual suspects bear less blame than you might expect. Density altitude and excess weight only cause about 6 percent of takeoff accidents between them. Runway conditions, including short, soft, and contaminated are implicated in just more than twice as many. The biggest problems were actually the simple ones. Almost half (48 percent) result from losing control of the aircraft during the takeoff roll. Most often it’s a loss of directional control, which can then progress to ground loops, cartwheels, and collisions with airport signs, lighting control boxes, antennas, trucks, and assorted other hardware. Oddly enough, the great majority of these are not blamed on either gusts or excessive crosswinds; only about a quarter of the pilots involved cited the winds as a factor.
At least they lived to tell about it. Bad as these accidents sound, only about 11 percent of them are actually fatal. The body count is driven up by the No. 2 cause of takeoff mayhem—departure stalls. These make up about one-third of all takeoff accidents but cause nearly 60 percent of fatalities, and those first few hundred feet of climb are one place where altitude is not a pilot’s friend. The chance of survival diminishes rapidly with height above the runway. Premature lift-offs that wind up wallowing in ground effect or settling back to the runway are more likely to end in overruns, with relatively low energy to expend in whatever collision may follow. From perhaps 30 feet on up to the point where recovery first becomes possible, though, greater altitude only increases the momentum to be dissipated on impact.
Curiously enough, there don’t seem to be obvious risk factors associating takeoff problems with any particular group of pilots or aircraft. More than 88 percent are in piston singles (and remember, that’s after excluding accidents caused by engine failures), but fatalities are four times as likely in those involving twins: Whether piston or turbine, almost half of multiengine takeoff accidents are fatal. Student, private, commercial, and airline transport pilots are all involved in about the same proportions as in all fixed-wing GA accidents. More than 70 percent are on personal flights and less than 14 percent during flight training, matching the overall record almost exactly.
However, experience does figure into the record in one way. Private pilots, commercial pilots, and ATPs all suffer about the same mix of accident types. Losses of control account for between 43 and 49 percent and stalls for between 30 and 35 percent. Between about 18 percent and 20 percent of takeoff accidents are fatal for each. Among student pilots, though, more than three-quarters of takeoff accidents are caused by loss of control, and 21 percent involve stalls. Fatalities are equally rare in both cases. In the past 10 years, only seven fatal takeoff accidents took place on student solos.
So takeoff technique might be another place where sound initial training can’t be counted on to last a pilot’s lifetime. Advanced ratings, aircraft check-outs, and flight reviews all offer instructors the chance to make sure certificated pilots continue to keep their heads in the game, take nothing for granted, and leave nothing to chance.