But a 30 second reflection can sure help…
There has been a rash of takeoff accidents featured in the news. That cabin-class Cessna hitting the trees in Alabama was dramatic, as was the footage of the Beech Duchess in a yard in Florida. There have been a lot others and when I read of these I think about how unforgiving airplanes can be if you fly away without the old ducks all in a row.
My thoughts turned to the cockpit of my P210, on the ramp at Epps Aviation in Atlanta. Another pilot was flying, he started the engine, got a clearance to Savannah, and even though the airplane was parked on a slight downslope it didn’t start rolling with the application of a little power.
Both pilots had the same certificates and ratings and, as a matter of fact they had the same name. But when there is a transgression like that it goes down as sins of the father so, as fathers do, I started barking orders.
There was really nothing to do but tell ground control we’d be a minute, do a complete shutdown, get out and pull the chocks, and then start all over to get everything humming again. Then I did something I usually did but had omitted this morning. I said we’d just sit for a brief period and reflect on that screw up and wonder if we had left anything else undone.
No, leaving a chock under the nosewheel is not a life-threatening event, but it can portend bad things. The lapse comes from the same place that a neglected control lock, or inadequate sump draining, or not double-checking the fuel, or not properly latching doors comes from. And those things can all hurt.
Takeoffs are wonderful maneuvers and I never failed to think of it as pure magic when the weight of the airplane shifted from the ground to the wings. It’s still the same airplane but when it flies it comes alive.
That’s the happy part of taking off. What comes next is a period of flight with few options and where any problem can quickly become a serious problem.
One source I looked at indicated that ten percent of the fatal accidents happen on takeoff. Because the period of time is short relative to the rest of the flight, this suggests that the risk is quite high. Many or most of the things that lead to trouble in the first three minutes of flight can be anticipated and that is why it is important not to rush through the pre-flight work.
It is also probably safe to say that most accidents that occur in the first ten or fifteen minutes of flight can be traced back to something neglected before flight.
I’ll give you another anecdote that relates to this. The ramp this time was at Indianapolis, where I had stopped for fuel on my way to Wichita.
It was snowing when I landed and the snow got a lot heavier while the line folks gassed my airplane. It was almost like a snow burst. I had flown through one of those once and it was like having snowballs thrown at the airplane. Whoomp is what it sounded like when one of the big hunks of snow hit the airplane.
I surveyed the airplane and it was obvious that a lot of snow had accumulated in the short time it took for fueling. I knew that I couldn’t leave without clearing the surfaces.
Most of the FBO crew was at the terminal getting snow off of airline aircraft. The most help I got was the loan of a push broom and the promise that if I would wait for a lull in airline activity they would help out.
I always carried spares and equipment for most eventualities in my baggage compartment. One of my staples was automotive deicer in spray cans. I heard many horror stories about damage this could do to the windows of airplanes but I used it many times for frost removal with no ill-effect.
The plan was to use the broom to get the snow off the flying surfaces and then douse everything with deicer in the hope that would keep things clear while I taxied out for takeoff.
Now I’ll treat you to an air fable. There was an airline 727 ahead of me for takeoff. Surely, I thought, the heat from his engines would help with my snow accumulation. I couldn’t get too close because the airplane was stopped and it would take a lot of power to get moving on the contaminated surface. I just wanted to get warmed up, not blown away, so I stayed back a ways. Dream on.
It was still snowing heavily. The 727 took off and then I was cleared for takeoff. I looked back at the horizontal tail and there was definitely some snow back there but I didn’t know how much.
The takeoff felt pretty normal but a minute or so after takeoff there was a whoomp, the airplane rolled left, and I corrected. Then another whoomp and the airplane rolled right, and I corrected.
The sounds were from the snow sliding first off the right wing and hitting the tail followed by the same thing from the left side.
Next, a strained voice from the 727 flight deck informed the controller that they needed to return and land. There was no mention of why this was necessary but I’d sure bet it was snow related.
I was okay so I kept going but had I returned and run into the captain of that 727 I think we would likely have agreed that our takeoffs should have waited for a lull in the snowfall.
I was preparing for a low-visibility takeoff one foggy morning. That meant moving deliberately through the pre-flight, checking everything at least twice. Such a takeoff is demanding but I never thought it particularly risky. Something being askew would change that, thus all the double-checking.
I had an epiphany when I thought about my preparation on this foggy morning. The need for careful preparation might not be quite as important on a clear day but it can still be pretty important. From that day forward I treated all pre-flight preparations equally, regardless of the weather.
Accidents that occur on or soon after takeoff actually fall into two separate columns.
When something happens after an IFR departure, it usually relates to the pilot losing control of the airplane in roll.
When something happens after a VFR departure, it usually relates to power—not enough or not running well or at all. Not enough power would cover those accidents where a pilot tries to fly out of a place that is simply not big enough given the conditions that exist. A loss of control often follows a loss of power so on a visual departure problem the flaw is in pitch control. The pilot stalls the airplane after having a problem with the available performance.
There are proportionately a lot of IFR departure accidents. If I had to describe a typical accident of this type, I would go for night, a somewhat rushed departure, an unfamiliar airport, and a pilot of moderate flying experience but, given the airplane involved, a lot of experience making money. I’m not jumping on the bandwagon to poke at one-percenters but a lot of folks who reach that level do seem to feel skill in that area might equate to skill at something like flying. It doesn’t.
I have always been a proponent of, on departures in IMC, climbing straight ahead at full power in the takeoff configuration until 1,000 feet above the ground. (The landing gear would be retracted, if applicable, when a positive rate of climb is indicated.) The transition from visual to instrument flying must be made when the airplane is rotated to a flying attitude. Staying visual for as long as you can see is not the way to do it.
Doing it that way means that you can give your absolute attention to the attitude of the airplane in that period when you are adapting to the sometimes disorienting sensations of flight.
This can’t be done off some runways because of departure procedures. One I used frequently and that required a high degree of concentration was Runway 16 at White Plains, NY (HPN). The procedure there is runway heading to 800 feet, which is about 400 AGL, then a climbing right turn to a heading of 320 and climb to 3,000 feet. I always knew that it was a condition ripe for spatial disorientation so I always felt I had to be locked and loaded to do some of that flying stuff, as Goose sort of said in Top Gun.
A pilot from a prominent family had his Piper Meridian pulled out and prepared for takeoff one foggy morning at HPN. You guessed it, Runway 16 for departure. You also guessed that he lost control soon after takeoff and crashed or I wouldn’t be telling this story.
Loss of control is a hot button with the Feds now but most of the emphasis is on low speed events like stall/spin accidents. It is actually pretty easy to come up with ideas there. Hey, we’ve been doing just that in Air Facts since 1938 which just illustrates that any solution to this old problem is elusive.
Even more elusive is any answer to the question of control losses on IFR departures.
One difficulty comes because it is something infrequently done and something you basically have to learn on your own. Simulators aren’t much good as might have been illustrated one scuzzy evening. The pilot of a Cessna P210 couldn’t keep it under control and crashed a quarter of a mile past the end of the 8,100 foot long runway.
The day prior to the accident the pilot had an instrument competency check in a simulator.
Simulators are good for a lot of things but this is not one of them because they can’t simulate how acceleration affects a pilot’s sense of what is going on with the airplane or with himself.
So how do we approach this problem? The only way is with a deal the pilot makes with himself. In that pause before takeoff the pilot has to acknowledge that the next three minutes will be totally critical and that the mindset can and will be on nothing but controlling the airplane. There might be squirrelly and disorienting sensations to overcome. That takes concentration.
What about the autopilot? This can certainly be useful but only if its use is the same as on VFR departures. Certainly if a pilot decides on the spur of the moment to use an autopilot for a low-visibility departure the chances of setting it up correctly will not be nearly as good as they would be if the autopilot were used that way all the time.
I remember one low-weather departure accident where autopilot confusion likely had a role. The airplane was new, both to the world and to the pilot, and it had a full autopilot.
The pilot got his IFR clearance, took off, wandered about a bit at low altitude and crashed. Pilots who knew him surmised that he was wondering how this thing (the autopilot) worked the whole time he was airborne. He did not have the reputation of a planner but of one who did things on the fly.
I had a simple (roll only) S-Tec autopilot in my P210 and always thought it one of the better devices to use in reducing risk on IFR departures.
One of the problems pilots have had with full autopilot systems comes when the autopilot is not set correctly and it startles the pilot by doing something unexpected when engaged.
The correct procedure here is to turn the autopilot back off and hand-fly while evaluating the situation. The natural reaction is to grab the wheel and try to make the airplane do what you want, even though the autopilot is on. The sensations and control pressures that come with that are pretty astounding and if any force is applied to the pitch control system the autopilot will roll trim against the force and continue to do so as long as the force is applied. That could be spatially disorienting, to say the least.
With my simple S-Tec, the device had absolutely nothing to do with pitch control. This procedure is not actually recommended but runway heading could be set, the autopilot activated in the heading hold mode, and the takeoff made in this configuration. If some aileron were needed on takeoff, as in a crosswind, the autopilot could be easily overpowered and it would revert to holding heading using roll when the need for aileron was finished.
Alternately, and the way I did it most of the time, the autopilot could be activated in the heading hold mode right after liftoff. Either way, the autopilot would be keeping the wings level while the airplane climbed on runway heading. The first turn after takeoff, a frequent time of trouble, could also be handled by the simple autopilot.
Many years ago, when autopilots were first becoming common, Piper actually offered models with two autopilots, a simple one and a full-service deal. I flew a Piper for a while with that feature and actually used the simple autopilot a lot while seldom using the more complex one which I didn’t care for.
To me, low visibility departures were an enjoyable challenge. I felt like I was prepared and ready to perform and the reward was great. If a pilot is at all apprehensive about doing this, best watch TV and drink a Coke in the pilot’s lounge until the visibility improves to one mile.
I want to offer the ultimate example of a disastrous IFR departure. I’ve used this example before, but it such a good example of how pilots can put themselves in impossible situations that it bears repeating. This is as it was related in the NTSB accident report. The airplane was a Cessna 551 Citation flown by an owner-pilot.
The pilot called from home at 0909 for an IFR clearance which became valid until 0930. He said he needed 15 minutes to get to the airport. The call ended at 0914.
The chief pilot preflighted the aircraft while the pilot was en route to the airport. The pilot arrived between 0920 and 0925.
After enplaning and loading he made an immediate start and taxied a short distance to the runway.
The chief pilot noted that approximately two minutes had elapsed from engine start until the takeoff roll was started. Up to three minutes was needed for the gyro to be up to speed after the generator had been selected.
Witnesses stated that the ceiling was between 20 and 100 feet and the visibility was reduced by fog.
The aircraft took off at 0930. At 0934 notification was received that the aircraft had crashed. It impacted 1.75 miles north of the airport in about a 30 degree nose down, 90 degree left bank attitude. No preimpact failures were found.
The chief pilot stated there were no mechanical deficiencies on the previous flight but he noted that some avionics had been slow to warm up. Also that the pilot had previously used the copilot’s HSI during takeoff.
There’s an old saying, that dates back to the year 1575, that seems applicable here: Haste makes waste.
All takeoffs have a lot in common and even though instrument and visual departures have different requirements they share one strong similarity: if you don’t have all those ducks in a neat row before advancing the power, those first three minutes could be long and potentially painful.