Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Staying Centered

If you’re a pilot, there’s more to staying centered than transcendental meditation

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.

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