The runway behind you…

This is a story about two words – “unfortunately” and “fortunately” – and has been de-identified in order to protect the embarrassed. However much can be learnt from the following incident.

It had been a hot and busy day. The pilot was a diesel and electrical engineer and a specialist on installation and repair of electric power generators in remote areas.

The job was done so it was back to the plane and a quick onload and lash down of his heavy toolbox. The Cherokee 235 was lightly fuelled and, with only the pilot and his toolbox on board, one would think it would have performance to spare.

Windsock
Thew windsock at one end of the runway won’t always match the windsock at the other.

Unfortunately. The pilot was a big feller, well over 100 kilograms [220 pounds] and his toolbox probably weighed nearly as much. Fortunately, the airstrip was firm, over 600 metres [1968 feet] in length, the day not too hot and a windsock down the far end indicated a slight headwind at that point. Takeoff performance would be quite good.

He knew the aircraft well, having operated in and out of some quite restricted spaces over quite a long period. No need to taxi back right to the end of the strip – half way up will do! Unfortunately, a bad decision in retrospect.

The throttle was advanced and the aircraft accelerated quickly down the strip and out towards the nearby lake. What the pilot did not realise until he had passed his accelerate/stop point was that the wind, although indicating on his nose at the far end, was in fact hitting a curved ridge just abeam his proposed rotate point and was curling back down and partially across the strip – giving him a slightly downwind component.

But this was “a case of the bite of the bit. There was no means of stopping it.” At the last moment and in desperation (as a collision with the fence seemed inevitable), and with very little airspeed showing on the ASI, the pilot reefed on full flap.

Fortunately, the instantaneous increase in lift generated carried the aircraft over the fence and sagging just above the stall into the next paddock. The pilot heaved a sigh of relief as he milked the flap away while staggering away in ground effect.

Unfortunately, with his nose high attitude, he did not see a cattle beast right in front of him. With a huge impact, his propeller and one undercarriage leg hit the beast and there was a large thump aft. However the plane was still flying, even if a bit unstable in pitch and with the motor vibrating a bit. The pilot glanced over his shoulder and was horrified to note that most of one side of his tailplane was missing with the balance turned upwards like a giant windbrake.

To his credit, he immediately closed the throttle and crash-landed into the next paddock and slid to a halt. Had he not done so and continued on, the aircraft, as speed built up, would have become undoubtedly unstable and crashed into the lake with little hope for a happy ending. Fortunately, there was not a scratch on the pilot.

Unfortunately, the aircraft was not so lucky. The impact with the cattle beast had bent the prop, torn off one undercarriage leg and wrecked the tailplane assembly completely as well as doing associated wing and fuselage damage.

So what would an analysis of the incident reveal? The pilot admitted afterwards that had he known the local characteristics of the strip better and not been in such a hurry, he would have taxied back and used the full length for takeoff. He would have bolted away had he done so, as he would probably have been airborne and accelerating quickly when he would have encountered the area of tailwind component. Even if a little sink was encountered, at this point he was still over smooth ground with no obstacles to immediately climb over.

Piper on runway
Take all the runway you can.

“What happened to the poor old cattle beast?” I hear people ask. Fortunately, it was a quick death. The propeller had cut it clean in half right on the backbone. There was some post-accident humour in the incident, however, when the pilot later informed me quite indignantly that he had of course to pay a substantial amount as an insurance excess incurred for subsequent repairs to his plane and payout on the third party damage (the beast) but that he had not been offered even a little portion of the meat that was dressed out from the departed animal.

And the moral of the story:

On takeoff, remember, the runway behind you is no use to you. Take all you can – you never know when you will use the lot.

As I look back, having just got away with a similar incident myself, I still reflect: “There but for the grace of God go I! ”

Learn from the mistakes of others… There is no truth in the motto “Al audaz fortuna favorece” (Fortune favour the bold ) when it comes to aviation safety.

5 Comments

  • So many accidents have started with intersection departures. Always back taxi…I don’t care if you have 4 miles of runway and you only need 200 ft. You may have to set her back down in case of an engine failure or other emergency. And, although I’ve done my fair share, touch and go’s are just as bad as intersection departures.

  • D, with touch and goes you at least have some speed already to make up for departure further down the runway. I think much of that speed makes up for the distance lost. When I was in training for my private my CFI used T&Go’s a lot. I always felt we were at a very similar height in climb out as I would have had starting from the end. It is always a good idea to be cognizant of any change in conditions while doing those as well. Early on my CFI would dump the flaps as I powered up on T&Go’s, but later he made sure I did it so as to get that in my head when doing them alone.

  • I almost always use all the runway. Burned into my brain from early days as a crewmember on underpowered and unreliable AF transports.

    One of the few times I didn’t take it all the way to the end was back in 1984. I was stationed at Scott AFB, IL and was on the aero club board of governors and did all my AF traveling in aero club airplanes, which the government paid for. Heck of a deal.

    This particular day, three of the officers from my shop had a meeting at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, OH and asked if I would run them up, wait for them and bring them back. Flying beats working in the office, so I said “Sure”. Next morning bright and early we loaded up the Commanche and blasted off for OH.

    Getting ready to come back to Scott, the wx was crappy, so I filed IFR. After I got my clearance, ground asked me ” can you accept a takeoff from Taxiway Delta, 11,000 feet remaining” (not counting the 1,500 foot paved overrun). Long story short, I said “Well, sure”. The exception rather than the rule.

    So, as I’m sitting at the end of taxiway waiting to go, the tower says “you’ll be clear after the C-135 now on takeoff roll”. “Roger that, says I”. The 135 goes screaming by and the tower says “Aero Club 119 cleared for immediate takeoff”, to which I respond “how about if I taxi into position and hold for 3-4 minutes?” As the heavyweight 135 is staggering off the end of the runway and getting his gear up. Having operated little airplanes out of military bases most of my flying career, I am well acquainted with operating in a severe wake turbulence environment where you probably won’t get a second chance if you don’t pay attention.

    Nothing like coming down final in your C-172RG and hearing the tower tell you you’re number two to follow the B-52 on short final! Stay high, land looong, live another day.

  • Intersection departures can certainly be hazardous. But situations can suggest that’s not always required.
    One evening about 20 years ago a good friend and my CFII asked if I would fly him and his granddaughters home to Bangor,Me. Any excuse to fly and with my instructor friend was obviously accepted.
    We departed out of Hartford (HFD) for the flight to Bangor. Conditions were night IFR with ceilings at BGR just at minimums for the ILS. I flew the approach well and we landed. Met Joe’s daughter and said goodbye to the girls.
    I was offered an intersection departure by Ground at the quiet airport. But I knew the old adage of “the runway behind you” and explained I wanted full length. “No problem “. I was told, “but for your information runway length from the intersection is 6.000 feet but if you want the whole 12,000 feet that’s approved”. I decided 6000 was sufficient for my Mooney and accepted the intersection with a good laugh.

  • I used to be sanguine about intersection departures… until I dealt with a catastrophic engine failure. A “AhHa!” moment followed. Runway behind me really IS useless. Whether the runway is 600′, 6,000′ or 12,000′ I want the entire thing in front of me when the throttle goes forward… Engine failure on takeoff is not restricted to just after liftoff. If the fan stops (or power quits) at 500′ AGL a 12,000′ runway means I can land on the remaining (unused to that point!) surface. If it quits at 800′ AGL my uneventful (and never reported to the NTSB!) return to the runway is highly probable. IMHO, departing with wasted runway (that which is behind me) is like initiating a takeoff with 15 minutes of fuel. A bad idea.

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