The number of our landings must always equal our number of takeoffs — or so goes the adage — but sometimes the safest way to ensure equality is to do neither. Unlike birds possessing the gift of flight and whose skills are instinctive, we have the gift of thought, but our skills are hard won. We earn them through repetition and reason, yet it is precisely the former of these, which can work against us. I am talking here about expectations (with apologies to Charles Dickens) and in particular, those which affect us while we’re still on the ground.
Of course, in discussing our prospects on the ground, what I really mean is while we’re still on the ground, but expect soon not to be. Also working against us as pilots is our tendency to want to succeed at everything we do. Most of us don’t do night carrier landings, possess finely honed reflexes and a strong resolve bred from confidence and skill, where a “can-do” mind-set would be among the most important of attributes. More than my own personal whimsy draws me to wonder however, when a “can-do” attitude really ought to be “might do“. Yes, we do run-ups, but sometimes, that may not be enough.
Unless your aircraft has a high bandwidth wireless internet connection, or you’re perusing a hardcopy printout as a passenger, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re sitting comfortably, on the ground, with a few moments of spare time. But time is the one thing we don’t have in abundance during a takeoff, traversing the length of a football field in three seconds or less; not for troubleshooting, nor indecisiveness — only decision-making. To better illustrate the issue of expectancy, let me recount one particularly profound insight that came to me (actually, it was handed to me on a silver platter, to be quite honest) when I was flying with a local flight instructor some years ago. Grumbling when he heard the aircraft in front of us announce that its landing would be a full stop, to paraphrase what Sidney Stephens said, his rhetorical question was “Oh yeah? How does he know?” (The implication: suppose the brakes fail? Suppose he’s a student and his CFI tells him to go around?) The same thing applies all the more when the pilot in front of you announces a touch-and-go, so you relax a bit and start “tailgating” on final. Well, the dangers of assumption are equally true, if not more so, when we prepare to take off.
Musical Chairs — Aviation Style
Most of us fly smaller airplanes, for which the concept of a “balanced field” is usually irrelevant. Balanced field length concerns engine failure situations for larger aircraft, and is the runway length where, for a given gross weight, elevation, and takeoff configuration, “accelerate-stop” distance and “accelerate-go” distances are the same. In transport category aircraft, if an engine failure occurs below a critical takeoff “decision” speed known as V1, a balanced field length will allow the pilot to close the throttles, stand on the brakes, deploy spoilers, apply reverse thrust (although I don’t believe this last item is included in the definition), and still stop on the runway. If an engine failure occurs at V1, the aircraft will achieve a height of 35 feet by the end of the runway, if the takeoff is continued. That’s for a field that’s “balanced“. For most of us who aren’t bush pilots and who usually have plenty of runway, although most phases of flight allow time for careful thought, we still don’t have an abundance of time before it’s too late to change our mind.
Pop Goes the Weasel
We should all emulate the takeoff procedures used by airline pilots, who before every flight spend a moment or two reviewing what they must do if they decide to abort their takeoff. While continuing the takeoff in a single-engine airplane after an engine failure is academic of course, a pilot can still encounter situations where aborting the takeoff is the best option. Take the infamous “popped door” scenario, or as in numerous documented cases, an unusual vibration or noise, poor acceleration, or even problems with directional control. After so many uneventful takeoffs, we lose sight of the possibility that something might stick the proverbial foot out in front of us, and we’re programmed to keep going.
Some Less Than Stellar Examples
Of course, even airline pilots aren’t perfect. One example is the well-known Air Florida incident at (then) Washington National, one stormy winter afternoon in 1982. As the 737 began its takeoff roll from runway 36, acceleration was poor because of icing on the wings and engine anti-ice not having been activated (causing misleading cockpit indications of sufficient power). Although the first officer voiced his concern, rather than reject the takeoff (or further advance the power) the captain, his crew, airplane, and passengers staggered into the air, only to crash into the ice-cold Potomac River. Other examples occurred where the ostensible benefits of numerous prior simulator rehearsals were wasted, where conviction prevailed even in the face of evidence to the contrary (such as incorrectly selected trim or flaps), and trained crews failed to respond properly. But these represent a tiny minority, and general aviation has far more. In each case, the pilot probably expected a normal departure without reviewing the alternatives. A healthy suspicion for potential trouble, combined with well-practiced and decisive responses, help assure a successful outcome in any emergency. According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, the vast majority of takeoff problems are caused by poor preflight inspections (another reason not to hurry your preflight!)
This kind of “extinction of suspicion” mind-set is natural: every other time that we’ve lined up on the runway and advanced the power, everything has always gone well — until the one time it doesn’t. Earlier I mentioned that our having done a run-up may not be enough. The issue isn’t how revealing a magneto check at 1700 rpm is, versus the actual full-throttle takeoff shortly thereafter. Rather, it is this: even though everything checks out in the run-up area that doesn’t mean a rejected takeoff is no longer a possibility. Subsequent problems resulting from the way we handle whatever comes next present more complications (more on that in a minute). Also, many incidents involve something developing over an interval of time (even if it is a few seconds), rather than happening instantaneously, so realization and the need for action may be less obvious. It’s the same thing that makes vacuum failure so treacherous in IMC. On top of that, the situation may require a switch from a primarily visual mode to aural, kinesthetic, olfactory … who knows? But even so, flight instruction should include more “takeoff rejection awareness“. All it takes is a quick agreement with a co-pilot, or for most of us, a self-dialog, during which we plan a response, in case something doesn’t feel right.
An abort done even before the airspeed’s alive is no big deal; control isn’t an issue, and you just slow down and exit the runway at the next turnoff. If the aborted takeoff is executed at a low speed, the process is fairly straightforward; however, a high-speed abort is another matter. You may already be up in the air, and have to suddenly switch gears from takeoff mode to landing mode. Every second there’s more and more “runway behind you” and a high speed abort requires a high-speed decision to turn a pessimistic suspicion into decisive action. If the runway is wet or otherwise contaminated, it becomes even more critical. Boeing did a study and found that about three-quarters of all rejected takeoffs were made at lower speeds (80 knots, which for a transport category aircraft is slow) and only two percent occurred above 120 knots, but these were the ones that resulted in incidents and accidents.
BOTTOM LINE: Always think, “What if…” every time you start your takeoff roll. You never know when that Jack-in-the-box can pop out at you…or, to put it another way, when the music stops, don’t be left without a chair.