What About Those 180's Back To
The Runway After Takeoff?
Accident Prevention—Plans B, C and D
For some time the FAA has been moving away from the idea that aircraft control skills are the foundation of pilot training. Yes, students need to learn to control the airplane, but stall and spin recovery techniques have been deemphasized in favor of impending stall recognition and spin avoidance—not a bad idea. Except it’s a pretty good idea to know how to fly at all speeds, configurations and attitudes. And with the advent of “Technically Advanced Aircraft” a decade or so ago, the emphasis was switched, again, to “automation” and systems management. In the brave new world of GPS and glass panels, stick and rudder skills were somehow barely relevant. Somehow, “situation/scenario based” training became a brand new idea.
Yes, self-driving cars, and aircraft, too, seem to be on the horizon, stand by for news. In the meantime we’re still flying the same airplanes grandpa flew, mostly VFR, looking out the window (or not) and mostly hand flying from takeoff to approach and landing. When it comes to flying 99% of the airplanes in the fleet, equipped with steam gages and a windshield, I’m here to tell you all the happy talk about magic, automated flying just ain’t so, at least not yet and not for the foreseeable future. Stick and rudder skills are just as important today as they were generations ago.
John and Martha King deserve a round of thanks for recognizing that talk of “safety” is nice, but airplanes are not safe, never will be. What we should be concentrating on is accident prevention and strategies for mitigation of unexpected events. Do that and “safety” will take care of itself. Accident statistics have been showing the same patterns of death and destruction for decades. Although most occur at the airport on take off and landing, where the sheet metal gets bent but injuries are often survivable, the killers remain loss of control stall-spins on takeoff and approach in blue-sky conditions and controlled flight into terrain in marginal VFR. All are avoidable.
So what can be done to prevent these common, deadly accidents? Takeoff and landing accidents are often just dumb pilot tricks, simple poor technique, especially in tail wheel aircraft. But nose wheel airplanes have their share of runway accidents, too. Are those types of accidents fundamentally different than in-flight loss of control accidents? No, they’re not. Loss of control is loss of control and is almost always avoidable. Proper training and continued practice to develop and maintain skills are fundamental prerequisites to safe flying. GPS and glass panels are great, but you still have to be able to fly the airplane. Robotic light airplanes and “autoland” are still a long ways off for most of us.
Every pilot receives training for dealing with enroute in-flight loss of power and off-airport emergency landings, because the FAA requires it. Although fuel starvation is the number one cause of off-airport landings, mechanical problems and engine failure do occur, though not often. But when it comes to loss of power during the most dangerous phase of flight—the takeoff—scant attention is paid. It often boils down to the “impossible” turn: the usual advice is if you suffer power loss on takeoff just say “no” and land straight ahead, maybe small turns to dodge trees and houses, but basically, just land straight ahead. The thinking is if you botch the turn a loss of control will probably result, followed shortly by a fatal crash. So just go straight ahead. Better to land in the trees or houses than to risk a low altitude turn, stall, spin and fatal crash.
Really? Is that the only/best option?
Takeoff is the most dangerous phase of flight, low and slow but with high power and climb requirements. If you think a power loss in your single engine airplane would be scary, consider what happens if you have a power loss in a multi-engine airplane. If one engine fails you’ve got a “spare,” right? Really? Although most pilots never take multi-engine training or fly multi-engine airplanes, and most pilots think that “spare” engine provides a safety cushion, and sometimes it does, it also introduces some very serious—and very dangerous--problems. Given the hazards of power loss in multi-engine flying, multi-engine training introduces a couple of very useful new training concepts not covered, at least not seriously, in single engine pilot training. Recovery from partial loss of power if one of the engines fails can cause possible loss of control while on the takeoff roll and, especially, partial loss of power shortly after takeoff during the initial climb can be deadly. Loss of control on the takeoff roll or shortly thereafter is a very real possibility with single engine airplanes, too. But it just never seems to come up in single engine pilot training--at least not seriously--because the FAA doesn’t require it.
Multi-engine training introduces another concept new to single-engine pilots: minimum controllable airspeed, Vmc. Single engine pilots usually think of engine failure as total power loss. Sometimes, but many engine “failures,” whether the airplane has one engine or more, are only partial failures. Multi-engine airplane training is all about power loss, but a power REDUCTION from losing one engine, not total power loss. In multi-engine power loss training scenarios you still have partial power, one engine still turning, so you may be able maintain altitude or even climb. But improper technique, even with a only partial power loss, can result in loss of control and a crash. Get too slow in a now single-engine, multi-engine airplane and you will lose control, guaranteed, the airplane will roll over and you will die. So, don’t get slow and you won’t lose control. Same idea applies to single engine airplanes. Don’t stall it and it won’t spin. Just don’t hit those obstacles ahead or try to climb over them by pulling up. No dumb pilot tricks.
Easy, no? But it requires training and continuous practice.
The concept of minimum controllable airspeed in single-engine airplanes is usually related to stall induced loss of control, a not-necessarily unrecoverable situation, but nonetheless often fatal, especially at low altitudes. In fact, loss of control at low altitude, either on takeoff or approach to landing, is the number one killer of pilots and passengers in single-engine airplanes. Again, usually a dumb pilot trick, easily avoidable.
So, what can be done to prevent predictable accidents?
All type certificated airplanes have an FAA approved Flight Manual, Pilot’s Operating Handbook, Owner’s Manual or other source of information about the airplane to help the pilot fly the airplane within its limits. Performance Charts of various kinds are a normal component of Operating Manuals, providing lots of information about takeoff, landing and climb performance, performance speeds, fuel consumption, range etc. Every pilot is tested on their ability to find and use that information as part of the written and flight exams required to obtain a Pilot Certificate. Unfortunately, that’s often the last time many pilots ever look at the manual.
Because takeoff is the time an aircraft is most vulnerable to serious consequences that could result from mechanical problems, especially powerplant failure, it is deserving of the pilot’s serious attention before leaving the ground. Do you know how much runway your airplane needs to take off? To clear a 50 foot obstacle? Rate of climb, distance requirements to climb to altitude, time and distance to reach cruise altitude, climb fuel burn rate? If you have an engine problem on the takeoff roll can you abort the takeoff and come to a stop on the runway? How much altitude will be lost in a 90 degree, power off turn? 180 degrees? Since many general aviation flights are repeated “hamburger runs” to nearby airports, pilots usually don’t give much thought or study to possible “surprises”. You’re generally familiar with your airplane’s performance and the destination airports, you’ve made the trip for coffee and pie many times, same old stuff, what could possibly go wrong? But suppose you go somewhere new, loaded to max allowable? Whether old hat or big new adventure, the airplane doesn’t know, doesn’t care and its up to you, the pilot, to know what and how to do whatever’s necessary.
Otherwise you and your passengers could get killed.
Maybe the possibility is remote, but that doesn’t it mean it can’t happen. In nearly 50 years of flying, including 10,000+ hours as a CFI, I have had two engine failures on takeoff, one engine failure enroute and two control system problems on takeoff, any one of which could have killed me. Call me lucky. I’m also prepared. I know these things can happen, usually when least expected.
So how to prepare so a “surprise” doesn’t turn you into a statistic? It is very easy to make a standard form, specific to your airplane, that you fill out before every flight. It only takes a couple of minutes the first time, and even less after you’ve done it a few times. The first part should be a simple weight and balance “spreadsheet” that allows a quick check to make sure the aircraft center of gravity is within acceptable limits and will remain there for the duration of the flight. Do you know what an “empty weight cg range” is. Your airplane may, or may not have an "empty weight cg range" (Most do not. If your airplane has one you need to understand what it is and what it means). Does the cg location move as fuel is consumed? What is the useful load with full fuel? Can you fill the tanks, the seats and the baggage compartment? Maybe. Maybe not. You need to know. Most airplanes don’t have an empty weight cg range so you need to be able to quickly calculate cg location, especially if you are going to carry more passengers, fuel or baggage than usual. Many fatal accidents were entirely predictable, the result of out-of-limits aircraft loading.
Next, given the airports you will be using, compute the required takeoff and landing lengths. I don’t mean just figuring out how much runway you need to get off the ground, or just the landing roll. Suppose you have a problem, a “surprise” on the takeoff roll. How much runway length will you need to accelerate to liftoff speed, abort the takeoff and stop? Can you do it without going off the runway—is it long enough? If not, what will you do? Do you have a plan? What about taking off, climbing to 50 feet and having an engine failure? Can you land straight ahead on the remaining runway and stop before running out of runway? If not, what alternatives are available? How much would you have to turn to clear obstacles and get to a spot to land? Is it feasible? Are there trees, buildings or other obstacles you’d need to avoid? What would you do? Suppose you have a problem at 100 feet? 200 feet? 500 feet? All these things are, or should be part of your training and preflight preparation. Before you get into your airplane and roll out onto the runway you should have taken a good look around, considered your options under different scenarios and have definite plans, just in case.
Always have a Plan B. Plans C and D are also good things to have on board.
Now we come to the controversial part—options—and the “impossible” turn. Many pilots believe—because they’ve been told or read—that in every power failure situation the only option is to land straight ahead. I have read many times that in any emergency situation encountered up to 1000 feet AGL the only option is to land straight ahead. Really? That’s traffic pattern altitude for most GA aircraft. Don’t you make a 180 turn from downwind to final on EVERY standard traffic pattern approach? Is that an “emergency” situation? Would you EVER make an off-airport landing if you had an engine problem while on downwind in the traffic pattern? Maybe, but probably not.
Here’s a suggestion: Offer to take your favorite CFI for a ride, climb to a safe altitude and determine just exactly how much altitude you will lose if you simulate an engine failure. Try making the transition from climb to approach attitude while going straight ahead. Then do it again, but make a 45 degree turn. Then turn 90 degrees, 135 degrees and finally 180 degrees. Just make a normal climb at Vx, Vy or even enroute climb speed, make a nice smooth power reduction to idle power, pitch down to approach/descent attitude, and while maintaining a speed with a safe margin above stall speed, considering the angle of bank, not necessarily best glide speed, roll into a nice smooth turn to the new heading, 45, 90, 135, 180 degrees of turn. Keep the ball in the center, hold the pitch and speed steady. Pull the nose around smoothly to the new heading. Note your altitude before and after completing the turn. How many feet did you lose? Practice until you can do it instinctively.
What is the best bank angle? Glider pilots know that the best bank angle for minimum turn radius and minimum altitude loss is 45 degrees. That’s pretty steep, so consider it the maximum bank angle you will use, though there is no need to make it any steeper than necessary for the circumstances you might actually encounter. The load factor at 45 degrees of bank is 1.4. Stall speed increases with the square root of the load factor. Since the square root of 1.4 is 1.2, that means the stall speed in a 45 degree bank is 20% greater than at wings level. So, if your airplane stalls at 50 wings level, it will stall at 60 in a 45 degree bank turn. Fly accordingly, with a reasonable error factor, don’t get too slow. Better to be a bit fast, but not too fast—you’re trying to minimize altitude loss. Many light airplanes flaps-up, best glide pitch attitude is very nearly level attitude, maybe even slightly nose up, so that’s an easy first approximation pitch attitude target. No need to get it exactly right first time you try, and it will vary with bank angle, but with practice you will know exactly what pitch attitude you need. No Need to look inside the cockpit, just a good eyeball attitude while looking straight ahead through the windshield until you get the turn stabilized.
How do you get the nose from climb attitude to level/approach attitude? Presumably you always fly in trim. Trim is speed and power sensitive, so when you reduce power the airplane slows and when it slows it will pitch down. Unless you fly something like a Lake amphibian with an unusually high thrust line, the nose will pitch down all by itself with a power reduction. In any case, pay attention and learn exactly where to set the pitch. If that means you have to push the nose down to get the desired attitude, push it down or vice versa if it pitches down too much. With a power reduction most airplanes will just pitch down all by themselves and will try to maintain the trim speed set prior to the power change. Get to know your airplane. Normally, during the initial climb segment you will fly at or near best rate-of-climb airspeed so the trim should be in the ballpark for approach speed also and the attitude will naturally follow suit, but practice, see what it takes and do it, over and over again until you know exactly what to do.
You will be surprised at how little altitude it takes to make a 180 degree turn. With a little practice your Cessna 172 can easily make a 180 turn with an altitude loss of less than 200 feet. That’s not to say you should make a 180 turn if you have an engine failure at 200 feet AGL. Probably not at 250 feet, either. But at 300 feet, a 180 is definitely worth considering. A 90 degree turn will require even less altitude etc.
Know your airplane. Compute the distances you need with your airplane at the airport you're departing, given the day’s density altitude, look to see what options you have, where you could go from different altitudes, practice, practice, practice. Write down the numbers you’ll need before you get into the airplane. After you’ve done this several times you’ll know exactly what you and your airplane are capable of. You’ll be prepared. If the time comes, do it. It won’t be a surprise and you’ll know exactly what to do and how to do it.
Plans B, C and D, Practice, Practice, Practice.