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Going Up? - Taking Control of Your Takeoffs

Source:, By Tom Hoffmann


Takeoffs are a breeze, right? Just firewall the throttle, keep the nosewheel on the centerline, and rotate at XYZ knots. While seemingly simple in procedure, takeoffs are a lot more complicated and, as accident data reveals, more deadly than most people might think. In fact, takeoff and departure accidents for GA have remained in a deadly pattern for more than a decade, averaging just under 150 per year between 2003 and 2012.

A dominant factor in these accidents is loss of control (LOC). As highlighted in the most recent Joseph T. Nall Report, LOC accounted for half of the 150 takeoff and departure accidents in 2012 and nearly a quarter of those were fatal. A chief factor in both the frequency and lethality of takeoff and departure accidents is the limited amount of time pilots have to plan a response to an emergency or unexpected situation. You may have mere seconds to retain or resume control, so your actions need to be fluid and near-instinctive. That’s also why you need to have a plan in mind (and rehearsed) well before you push the throttles to full blast.

For example, do you know where your abort point is? Did you account for runway conditions, temperature, and wind? How about weight and balance? And what’s your plan should you encounter the eerie silence of an engine failure on takeoff? No pilot should ever leave the ground without giving careful thought to each and every one of these questions. Sadly, GA accident reports are rife with examples of pilots disregarding these important precursors of safety. Join me as we explore how to take back control of takeoffs.

Strive to be Normal

A good place to start with takeoff safety is looking at what exactly comprises a “normal” takeoff. According to the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook, a normal takeoff is one in which the airplane is headed into to the wind, or the wind is very light. Also, the takeoff surface is firm and of sufficient length to permit the airplane to gradually accelerate to normal lift-off and climb-out speed, and there are no obstructions along the takeoff path.

It would be nice if every takeoff conformed to those conditions, but in reality, it doesn’t always play out this way. But just because you may not be lucky enough to have normal conditions doesn’t mean you can’t expect a normal outcome when taking to the sky. All it takes is solid preparation and legwork.

Windy Wisdom

It starts with the planning process — well before you even set foot inside the aircraft. As part of your preflight preparation, you’ll want to carefully study weather conditions, taking note of wind direction and velocity. Both of these will help you estimate your direction of takeoff, anticipate wind correction inputs during taxi and takeoff roll, and determine if an existing crosswind component is within your (and your aircraft’s!) comfort zone.

taking control of take offs

If there is a crosswind, be sure to use full aileron into the wind once you start the takeoff roll. As you feel increased pressure on the ailerons and they become effective for maneuvering, you can gradually reduce control input. You’ll want to maintain some aileron pressure on the takeoff roll to prevent that upwind wing from lifting once airborne and to keep the airplane from side-skipping (see Fig. 1). Proper rudder control is also critical on the takeoff roll to keep the aircraft from becoming a giant weathervane and to correct for its left-turning tendency at full power. Crosswinds require a careful balancing act; overcorrecting or underestimating their effects can lead to a LOC situation in the blink of an eye. Practicing crosswind takeoffs with an instructor can help you fine tune your coordination as well as help develop your personal go/no-go threshold for future flights.

Studying the wind will also give you an idea of which runway is in use and allow you to plot out what landing options you might have should you lose power on takeoff. If you’re in unfamiliar territory, studying the sectional should give you a good indication of where it may be safe to set down (fields, roads) as well as what areas to completely avoid (dense housing areas, office buildings). You can also check out Google Earth aerial maps on your smart phone or tablet, and ask a local pilot or instructor to help you get a better lay of the surrounding land. This will help you discover any hidden obstacles (trees, towers, power lines, etc.) that you’ll want to factor in on your takeoff roll.

Another important consideration of your pre-flight weather research is density altitude. Being high, hot, and heavy before takeoff is often a disastrous mix. Be sure to check your aircraft’s performance limitations with regard to temperature, altitude, payload, and how much pavement you’ll need to get airborne. It can be an eye-opening experience when you run the numbers and see how much more takeoff distance you need to stay safe with high density altitude. It goes without saying that a weight and balance check should be a part of every pre-flight plan. Carrying extra weight (or less than you’re used to hauling) can affect several aspects of your takeoff and departure, including ground roll and V speeds. (Always check your POH). If the numbers don’t add up or are too close to call, consider delaying your takeoff until cooler and more performance-friendly conditions prevail.

Know Thy Runway

A huge factor in determining a successful and safe takeoff is studying up on the runway you plan to use. In addition to some of the more obvious things like length, surface, and condition, you’ll want to pick out some prominent landmarks, like a windsock or taxiway intersection at or near the halfway point along the runway. These will help provide a visual abort point should your takeoff not go according to plan. There’s a good rule of thumb to estimate that abort point; you’ll want to see 70 percent of your rotation speed (Vr) by the time you reach the halfway point.

Another somewhat more insidious factor for runways is slope. Taking off uphill can greatly affect your acceleration and ground roll and make obstacle clearance a teeth-gnashing experience if you don’t account for it. There’s also the matter of restricted visibility when you have a steep runway gradient; two pilots on opposite ends of a runway may easily lose line of sight with each other. Check the Airport/Facilities Directory (A/FD) or consult with local pilots for details on gradient. Some aircraft will have takeoff performance charts that factor in gradient. If not, a good rule of thumb is to add 10 percent to your effective runway length for every one percent of runway grade.

common errors on takeoff

Obstacles are another common foe of safe takeoffs. Just how high is that tree at the end of the runway? Keep in mind that factors like grass, soft ground or snow will require a correction factor in that calculation. Once you’re able to estimate the height of an obstacle — use the A/FD, Terminal Procedures Publications or a local pilot’s knowledge to start — consult your POH/AFM to run the numbers on how much runway you’ll need. Since these numbers are never an absolute, it’s best to hedge on the side of safety. Another good rule; add 50 percent to your numbers.

Laying the Groundwork

Many takeoff accidents are caused by simply overlooking basic but critical aircraft functions and configurations while still on the ground. A thorough preflight and strict adherence to checklists are the best tools you have to prevent complacency from creeping in. They can also help prevent that “taxi of shame” moment after you realize there’s a big red REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT flag dangling from your left wing.

Some less obvious, but no less critical things to check include tire pressure, trim tabs (set for takeoff?), flaps (set as needed?), and flight controls (free and correct?) Some people might get the free part, but take for granted they’re correct. Make sure everything moves the way it’s supposed to, especially if your bird’s been in the shop recently. A good opportunity to double check this is when you’re holding flight control corrections for wind on taxi. Barreling down the runway at full speed is the very last place you’ll want to discover that your elevator is rigged in reverse or that a control lock is still in place.

red plane takeoff

The Impossible Turn

It would be hard to talk about takeoff risks without mentioning the dreaded engine failure on takeoff. Seconds matter, so you should always be mentally prepared for what to do in this situation. Otherwise, a poor decision, or no decision at all, will likely result in tragedy.

A good plan for handling a loss of power on climb-out should always involve maintaining control and flying the aircraft first. At climb pitch attitude with no power you’ll be close to a stall, so lowering the nose (reducing angle of attack) is imperative. Some pilots will instinctively react by turning back towards the safety of the runway they just departed. This aggressive maneuver may require more altitude and airspeed than you can spare, not to mention the danger of conflicting traffic. Circumstances will vary, but the general recommendation is to establish a controlled glide toward the safe landing spot you hopefully have already scoped out during your preflight prep. Knowing — and quickly establishing — your best glide speed will go a long way toward ensuring you are able to maximize your choices for a place to set down safely.

Boiled down to the basics, takeoffs are not generally a difficult maneuver. But without the right planning and preparation, it’s the phase of flight than can be least forgiving if something goes awry. If something doesn’t look or feel right to you, stop and give yourself more time to review your situation. As the saying goes, takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.