Ask a student pilot, and you’ll probably be told that taking off is the easiest part of any flight lesson. At least, that applies to normal takeoffs; soft-field technique is another matter. When all you want to do is get out to the practice area to drill maneuvers or around the pattern to work on landings, the takeoff is a foregone conclusion. Point the nose down the runway, open the throttle, and go. What could be simpler?
Like too many things that seem stone obvious, this one turns out to be wrong. Takeoffs run second only to landings as an opportunity for pilots to get into trouble. Almost one-fifth of all fixed-wing accidents happen during takeoff attempts, and for all the time pilots spend worrying about their landings, botched takeoffs are more than six times as likely to be fatal.
Of course, this is partly a matter of opportunity. As the old saying goes, “Nobody’s ever crashed into the sky.” The converse is also true: It’s a lot easier to hit things when there are things around to hit. But most of the same solid objects are in the vicinity whether you’re coming or going, and you’d think they’d be easier to avoid before the gear leave the ground. You’d also think that hitting them from a standing start would result in a softer impact than dropping in out of the sky. In both cases, you’d be wrong.
During a landing, speed is decreasing (or should be) and the aircraft is aimed at the near end of the field with mostly open space beyond. Taking off, the aircraft should be gaining speed—if not, that could be your problem—and increasing its angle of attack as it abandons the safety of the airfield for all the obstructions across the fence. At full power, turning and rolling tendencies are maximized before there’s enough airspeed to provide complete control authority. Throw in a sudden distraction, a gusting crosswind, or improper elevator trim, and things can quickly get out of hand.
And that assumes the powerplant keeps producing power. While we don’t recommend training for engine failures while close to the ground, the concern over them isn’t misplaced. Fully one-quarter of all takeoff accidents over the past 10 years resulted from either known breakdowns in engines or fuel systems, or engines that lost power for reasons that couldn’t be reconstructed. Another five percent were due to fuel mismanagement, most often fuel selectors turned off or set to the wrong tank. All told, engines quitting during takeoff caused almost 500 accidents over the past 10 years—one every eight days, on average.
Of course, that means there are more than twice as many in which the engines can’t be blamed. A relative handful—65 in 10 years—were triggered by breakdowns in some other part of the airplane, most often landing gear or a control cable, but more than 70 percent of all takeoff accidents were purely pilot-inflicted. The most common cause was loss of control (directional, attitude, or both), which accounted for 359, but there were almost as many departure stalls, with 291. Runway conditions were blamed for 116, while weight and density altitude were only implicated in 49.
Perhaps most perplexing, this is one of the few areas in which the accident record of training flights doesn’t look much different from the record overall. Takeoffs made up 18 percent of training accidents and 19 percent of those on non-training flights. It’s true that those on training flights were only two-thirds as likely to be fatal, which probably reflects both the weight and power of the aircraft involved and the higher share that arise from simple losses of directional control. Still, what’s distressing isn’t that training flights don’t fare better, but that there’s so little sign of improvement after pilots pass their checkrides. Student pilots suffer about twice their share of landing accidents, but private pilots are at least as prone to bungled takeoffs.
Complacency probably enters into this, but so, perhaps, does training. A brief informal survey of a few of the CFIs around AOPA headquarters suggested that only around 5 to 15 percent of all dual instruction given toward the private certificate focuses on normal and crosswind takeoffs. Maybe that isn’t enough. Every flight includes at least one, and even if they are the easiest part of flying, they end in spilled blood or bent aluminum about three times a week. Maybe they’re not as simple as they seem.