Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When To Abort

Aborting a flight—either on takeoff or in the sky— can be one of aviation’s most difficult decisions

Mention the word "abort" to a pilot, and you'll immediately summon visions of every pilot's nightmare— an engine failure on takeoff. The airlines have hard and fast rules for handling that problem; general aviation should have the same rules, but it usually doesn't.

Airlines deal with balanced field lengths, ref speeds and other constraints that can practically make any decision for them. Airline crews drill every six months during recurrency checks on every possible emergency, using sophisticated simulators to protect them from harm.

Personal airplanes operate with a different set of rules. All airliners fly behind at least two engines, while the vast majority of general-aviation machines are singles. That obviously means any malfunction should demand an abort unless that's absolutely impossible. Even if we do fly twins, we're sometimes operating from short runways in adverse conditions, situations where deciding to go or stop can be extremely difficult.

Or not. Sometimes, the decision to abort isn't a matter of choice. I was bringing back a Cessna 421 from Subic Bay, Philippines, to Oakland, Calif., 10 years ago. The airplane was an old friend. I had delivered it to Subic only three years before, but the diminishing supply of avgas in Indonesia and the Far East convinced the owners to trade up to a King Air.

The legs to Guam, USA, and on to Majuro, Marshall Islands, had gone without too much difficulty. I had overnighted in Majuro before the long, 2,000 nm leg up to Honolulu.

The next morning, I was sitting in the airplane, ready to fly, at 7 a.m. Majuro's only runway slices along a rare, straight section of the narrow island. The ring atoll is only about a quarter mile from lagoon to Pacific, and runway 7/25 has beach on both sides, no more than 100 yards from the centerline. If you lose directional control left or right, there's a good chance you're about to get the airplane wet.

I lined up on runway 7, pushed up the power and watched the needles rise to the redlines. I released the brakes, and the 421 began to roll down the 7,900-foot concrete strip with the acceleration of an ice-cream truck. Speed with the heavy overload of 350 gallons ferry fuel eventually managed to reach liftoff.

I was reaching for the gear handle when the left engine suddenly lost power. The airplane pulled hard left, and the port wing dropped toward the sand. I chopped the right throttle, managed to level the wings, slammed the 421 back onto the concrete and stood on the brakes as the runway-end fence loomed straight ahead.


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