Abort, Abort! — and How to Avoid It (Part 3)

The (twin engine Cessna) pilot reported that during the takeoff roll, the forward cabin door came open. He reached across the cabin and tried to close the door. ‘When I looked up,’ the pilot reported, ‘I saw the airplane was rolling off the right side of the runway.’ The airplane departed the paved surface and the right wing tip fuel tank hit a berm, splitting open and starting a fire.
–from the National Transportation Safety Board, preliminary report

Aborting a takeoff can be as uneventful as simply reducing power and rolling to a stop. It may even take the form of noting a problem during your engine run-up, and never taxiing onto the runway at all. A takeoff abort may require a quick “chop” of the throttles at rotation speed, or even a few feet in the air over the runway. In the worst case a takeoff abort may have to begin at a point where you can’t come to a stop on the remaining runway.

Remember the five phases of a takeoff:

  1. the Pretakeoff phase
  2. the Power phase
  3. the Acceleration phase
  4. the Rotation phase
  5. the Initial Takeoff phase

Each phase consists of predictable, measurable takeoff “targets,” that need to be attained for the takeoff to safely continue. What if you don’t get full power on takeoff, or acceptable acceleration, or reach the rotation point without getting dangerously close to the end of the runway? What if the cabin door pops open, or a passenger distracts you, or you’re taking off into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and realize you left your instrument approach plates on the FBO’s counter?

In descending order of importance, here’s what you need to do in the case of a takeoff abort:

Pay attention: Pay attention to what your airplane is trying to tell you. Don’t skimp on your preflight inspection; don’t absentmindedly rush through the Before Takeoff checklist and your engine run-up. Doublecheck the security of seat belts, doors and openable windows before taxiing onto the runway. Brief your passengers to maintain a “sterile cockpit” (they should refrain from talking or asking you questions except in the case of clear danger) from the point you “power up” for run-up until you tell them you’re 1000 feet above ground. The purpose of all this preflight work is to keep you from having to abort in the first place.

Maintain control: Above all, keep the airplane going in a straight line with the wings level. There’s no better way to maximize your chance of survival and minimize the danger of damage than to keep the airplane under control. Conversely, if you let circumstances distract you from maintaining control (such as with the Cessna twin pilot), you’re no longer in command of your airplane, and will have to live — or die — with the results.

Reduce power: Get the power to idle. The rapidity with which you need to reduce power — whether you should reduce or chop the throttle — depends on your circumstances.

  • Aborting from well below rotation speed, with lots of remaining runway? Bring the power smoothly back to idle.
  • Rolling toward the last thousand feet of the runway? Get the throttle to idle now.
  • Lose an engine on takeoff in a twin-engine airplane? Chop the throttles to remove “asymmetric thrust” (power on one wing with no power on the other) that threatens to force you off the side of the runway.

Regardless of the circumstances of your takeoff abort, the most important thing after maintaining control is to reduce power right away.

ANOTHER PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: I was instructing in an older Beech Baron twin at Wichita, Kansas’ Colonel James Jabara Airport. If you’ve never flown a Baron, you might be surprised to find that there are rudder pedals, but almost never any brakes, on the right (instructor) side of the airplane (in fact, a huge percentage have no controls on the right side at all, although under Federal regulations temporary units must be installed for flight training). My student, a fairly experienced Baron pilot, powered up for takeoff. The right engine’s propeller speed lagged, however, and he wisely reduced throttle on both engines to keep from rolling toward the right side of the runway. Surprising me, once he had regained directional control he reapplied full throttle to both engines — and again started to drift to the right. I called “abort, abort!” as per our predeparture briefing, and again the pilot reduced throttles and realigned the airplane with the runway centerline. Then, when I thought we were stopped, a third time the pilot set full power. We were easily in the last 1500 foot of the runway at this point, far too little remaining to achieve rotation speed. The pilot firmly held the throttles forward despite my repeat call of “abort, abort!” and I couldn’t pull the throttles back against his grip. Without brakes, I was forced to pull back the mixture controls to override the pilot’s power command. I continued to voice “abort, abort!” and then “brake, brake, brake” as we neared the end of the pavement. The engines, starved for fuel, quit and the propellers ticked to a stop as the nosewheel halted mere feet short of the end of the runway. We restarted the engines and taxied back to the ramp, where mechanics found a failed propeller governor on the right engine.

Brakes: After reducing power, brake as needed to come to a safe stop. If you feel the wheels slipping then “pump” the brakes (apply and release the brakes in quick succession) until your speed is under control — there’s no such thing as anti-lock braking systems in light airplanes, not yet. It may be helpful to pull all the way back on the control yoke to keep weight firmly on the main wheels (thereby maximizing brake effectiveness).

Warning: Some Pilots Operating Handbooks (POHs) call for retracting any takeoff flaps to increase braking. If so, be VERY CAREFUL to select the proper handle for flap retraction. FAR more than just a few pilots have inadvertently retracted landing gear (in RG airplanes, of course) when they THOUGHT they were retracting flaps.

You detect the need to abort, reduce power and brake as necessary to stop. But what if you’re getting dangerously close to the end of the runway? If time and maintaining aircraft control permits:

Mixture: Pull the mixture control(s) to idle cutoff. This quick action stops most fuel circulation in the engine compartment(s) — important in fire prevention if your runway departure leads to a collision and engine compartment damage (perhaps from collapse of the nosegear in rough or wet ground).

Fuel: Similarly, you’ll dramatically reduce the chance of a post-crash fire by shutting off the fuel. Turning the selector(s) OFF prevents additional fuel from flowing to the engine(s) — where things are hot and ready to burn.

Electrics: Again, as time permits turn off the alternator/generator and battery master switches. Electricity can spark a fire if you collide with something after leaving the runway; turning off the switches shuts off this dangerous ignition source.

Propeller(s): Do NOT pull the propeller(s) to low rpm, if flying airplanes with controllable-pitch props. At the higher rpm position, the prop blades are twisted “flat” against forward motion, creating significant drag at higher speeds. Keeping the prop(s) “full forward” will help you stop sooner. Every foot counts.

Door latch: Once again, if time permits, some POHs recommend unlatching the cabin door prior to an impact, presumably to prevent the door from jamming shut from the forces of impact.

BOTTOME LINE: During the takeoff roll, the hardest part — getting back on the ground — isn’t part of the problem. Fearful of flying (and more comfortable with automobiles) the groundbound sometimes say, “but if anything goes wrong in an airplane, you can’t just pull over and stop.” The groundroll is a special case; it is one of the few times in flying that you can just “pull over” and get out if anything strikes you as odd, slightly off, or just doesn’t feel right. Do not miss your best chance for a second chance. When in doubt, abort.

Next week, we’ll look at extreme circumstances in the abort scenario, and strategies for survival…