It was 1984, and I was ferrying one of the last of the Cessna 207s to South America. It was a midsummer afternoon in South Texas, and the mushroom cumuli were climbing high into the stratosphere all along the border and south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Waves of thermals were rising from the hot black asphalt at little Zapata County Airport, deep in the heart of Texas, as I taxied out after a fuel stop.
The plan was to fly the 100 or so nautical miles down to Brownsville, and then launch into Mexico the next morning for the first big leg south to Guatemala. The 207 was loaded heavy with ferry fuel, spare parts, baggage and whatever else we could close the doors on, and the airplane was laboring under the load.
OAT was about 100 degrees, and CHT was approaching four times that as I finished the abbreviated run-up, announced on the Unicom and took the runway. Takeoff had seemed a fairly leisurely affair. And then, all of a sudden, as if it had discovered a crack in the earth, the right wing dropped just before rotation at about 55 knots and slewed hard to starboard, practically out of control. I slammed my left Reebok to the floor as hard as I could, but the 207 still headed for the dirt. It came to a stop with the remainder of the right tire hanging partially over the lip of the asphalt, the loose Texas prairie a few inches below. Fortunately, the big prop never touched the ground.
The right main gear wheel had simply come apart, and it had taken the right tire with it. The wheel and tire were history, but fortunately, the brake assembly and remainder of the lower strut were undamaged. By some miracle, the airplane had stayed on the asphalt runway—barely. Had the right wheel dropped off the edge into the dirt, we might have lost the right gear strut completely and possibly wiped out the airplane.
I haven’t always been so diligent about staying centered on the runway during takeoff, but in those days, Zapata was a narrow little strip, perhaps 35 feet wide, and I had been careful to keep the nosewheel dead center on the white line as I powered up. Good thing, as it turned out.
I learned to fly in the ’60s in Long Beach, Calif., where the longest runway, 12/30, is nearly two miles long and 200 feet wide. Training aircraft generally aren’t welcome on the long “airline” runway, but even the other eight GA runways are more than 5,000 feet long by 100 feet across. Little guys rarely need more than half that. That didn’t matter to my instructor, Gary Meermans, a check pilot for United in his part-time job. He always insisted that I use all of the available runway in both length and width. Gary suggested that I hold the centerline to lift off, and not sloppily allow the nose to drift left as torque and P-factor exerted their influence.
|It’s important to maintain centerline during and after takeoff. At airports with parallel runways, maintain the runway track throughout the initial leg, especially if there’s any crosswind.|
Gary also was adamant that I never accept an intersection takeoff, and that I use every inch of available runway. He got me in the habit of back-taxiing, whenever necessary, from the run-up area to start the takeoff roll at the beginning of the asphalt or the actual threshold. Arcing out onto the runway and giving away the first hundred feet were forbidden. He used to say, “Wouldn’t you feel like an idiot if you wasted that first hundred feet of runway, had to abort late in the roll and then ran off the opposite end by only a few feet and wound up wrecking the airplane?” Good point.
Later in my aviation education, during my multi-engine transition in an old Apache, I took to heart what Gary suggested about runway discipline: “Maintaining centerline is even more important in twins, as any asymmetric power failure is guaranteed to cause a problem with directional control. If I see you’re off centerline on any takeoff, you can be almost guaranteed to lose the engine on that side.” I stayed on centerline.
(Perhaps the only exception to planting the nosewheel on the centerline and making certain it stays there until rotation is if the runway has those irritating centerline lights. Having the front tire bounce over the raised protectors is justification for initiating the takeoff run with the front wheel slightly to the right of center—torque will tend to turn it left.)
I had a friend in Florida who had his own take on runway discipline. Johnny had an otherwise stock 1946 Globe Swift with a big six-cylinder, 210 hp Continental engine installed in place of the standard four-cylinder, 125 hp mill. The Swift’s small tail had never been designed to control so much power, and accordingly, the FAA had certified the engine upgrade STC with the proviso that a powered-up Swift use only 22 inches of manifold pressure for takeoff.
When I flew Johnny’s Swift, he instructed me on his special technique for takeoff. It certainly wasn’t in accordance with the feds’ directions, but it worked for him at his uncontrolled airport in Venice.
In no-wind conditions, he’d take a position at the threshold on the far left side of the runway with the nose pointed about 30 degrees to the right of the runway heading. He’d add full right rudder before the power-up, push the throttle to the stop and hold on.
Johnny had it worked out perfectly. Just about the time I reached the centerline, torque had turned the Super Swift far enough left to be aligned with the runway. The airplane also had leaped to 60 knots, the rudder was starting to take effect, and the Swift was ready to rotate. Once it was in the air and accelerating, the Swift’s small vertical tail had accumulated enough aerodynamic load to keep the airplane flying straight.
Another aspect of maintaining centerline holds true after takeoff as well as on the ground. At any airport with parallel runways, it’s important to maintain the actual runway track during the initial leg, especially if there’s any crosswind blowing. I’ve seen some pilots lift off and simply keep the wings level, meanwhile drifting left or right with the wind rather than tracking outbound in a straight line. At Long Beach, runways 25L and 25R are separated by perhaps 3,000 feet, but in the afternoon, the consistent left crosswind can blow an airplane departing on the left toward the right pattern.
One way to correct the problem is to note the crosswind direction and make a SWAG estimate of corrected heading after liftoff, then adjust heading in flight. Another method is to look back through the rear window (if the airplane has one) and make certain you’re tracking directly outbound from the runway. Many urban airports have runways aligned with local streets, and that’s another way to check your outbound track.
Takeoffs and climbouts aren’t the only time you need to consider staying centered. It’s equally important on landing, perhaps even more so considering that you’re decelerating from a higher speed to start with. Holding the centerline on touchdown can be especially critical, for several reasons. If you did blow a tire on liftoff and didn’t know it, your first indication of trouble will come the moment you contact the runway. If you’re flying behind a nosewheel, you’ll at least have the option to recognize the problem and either continue the landing or go around and consider your options. If it’s a main gear that’s problematic and you’re not on centerline, you may find yourself in the weeds faster than you can think about it. That’s all the more reason to give yourself every advantage by touching down dead center.
Another cardinal rule I’ve always been taught is to always brake in a straight line from the center of the runway, and test the brakes immediately on touchdown, even if you’re flying a 152 into the space-shuttle runway in Florida. That way, you’ll know if you actually have brakes and fully inflated tires on both sides, and you’ll have time to correct if you don’t.
Once you’re down and everything seems to be tracking normally, don’t worry too much about how much runway you use, as long as it’s not more than you have. Remember that it’s all yours if you need it. Don’t try to impress yourself or anyone else by screeching to a stop to make the first turnoff. In fact, some pilots (typically owners who have to pay for brakes and tires rather than renters who don’t) prefer not to use brakes much at all if there’s plenty of runway. It’s easier on your nerves and easier on the airplane.
Similarly, never try to turn and brake at the same time. In addition to the side stress it places on the gear legs and tires, extreme examples can lead to wheelbarrowing in nosewheel airplanes. Brake the airplane down to walking speed before you try to leave the runway, and don’t drift to the left or right side after landing in preparation for making a special taxiway. Hold the centerline until you know you can make the turn easily. You can blow a tire or lose a brake as easily at low speed as at high velocity.
I know tracking down a runway with the white line directly beneath the center of the airplane is a little counterintuitive. You don’t drive your car that way. (Okay, some people do.) Just remember that the tricycle configuration of most airplanes is far from ideal on the ground. Airplanes were meant to fly, not drive. Give yourself every break (brake?).