Tom Willett was regarded as a natural. A former USAF navigator, Willett had become one of Globe Aero’s most reliable international ferry pilots. He flew a little of everything to pretty much everywhere, and he always managed to make the delivery, even when others were stuck for weather, politics or a simple reluctance to take the risk.
Willett died in the first minute of flight out of Lakeland, Fla., back in the mid-’80s. He was loaded with ferry fuel for a trip to South America, and shortly after takeoff, the airplane was seen to pitch up, stall and nose straight in. Willett was probably killed on impact. We’ll never know for sure what happened to him, but it’s apparent something went very wrong during that critical first minute.
The initial 60 seconds after you push the throttle(s) up remain the riskiest part of any flight. Some pilots regard the landing as the acid test, but barring pilot error, the airplane has already proven its willingness to fly by that time. Each takeoff is a new test.
Instructors have been warning for years that many takeoff accidents are born during the preflight, long before the pilot even starts the engine. Though most pilots will agree that checklists can shortstop omissions in the cockpit, too many of us fail to use them during the preflight. You’ll notice I said “us.” Many aviators, this one included, have started engines with chocks still in place, or with one or more tiedown ropes still attached. Another common problem is pilots leaving pitot-tube or engine-intake covers in place, again easily avoided with a takeoff checklist.
In one instance, the pilot of an A36 Bonanza dragged a large piece of concrete to the run-up area, and actually initiated takeoff with the huge concrete block still attached. To the surprise of several witnesses, the airplane actually managed to stagger into the air before the huge block won the tug of war, pulled the tail down, and slammed the airplane back to the runway, collapsing the gear and totaling the airplane. The pilot was lucky to walk away.
An appropriate preflight is critical on all aircraft, but some owner/pilots who keep their aircraft in private hangars have a natural advantage. Not much can change between flights on hangared, private aircraft, whereas aircraft operated by a variety of rental pilots and stored outside can experience more adverse changes, and many of those won’t be noted on the squawk sheet.
Fly The Airplane First
Too many takeoff accidents don’t have to happen. Some of the most common of these devolve from a cabin or baggage door popping, a storm window coming unlatched (though most of those simply seal up tight from the inside), or an oil door suddenly arcing full open as the aircraft lifts off. The change in angle of attack and airflow often precipitates anything loose to open.
Rotation speed is one of the busiest times anyway, and the last thing you need when you’re initiating liftoff is an emergency that really isn’t one. Most aircraft manifest little or no aerodynamic reaction to an open door, but the noise and rush of air can deceive an unwary pilot into believing he has a real problem. The cardinal rule is to ALWAYS continue to fly the airplane first, and troubleshoot the problem second.
Sixty seconds without a critical failure is no guarantee of success on the flight, but if you’re smart enough to leave everything alone, it should provide a good hedge against problems. Gear and flap retraction might seem obvious exceptions, and most of the time, that’s true. Most of the time. Some manufacturers suggest you lose virtually nothing in climb by leaving takeoff flaps deployed, and there even are circumstances when quick gear retraction is inadvisable.
I was flying out of a near-7,000-foot-tall mountain strip recently on a gusty day, and someone on the Unicom alluded to possible wind shear. Forewarned, I didn’t immediately retract my Mooney’s landing gear when I had positive rate. Good thing. Climbing through 100 feet AGL, airspeed dropped by 20 knots, and the airplane began to sink back toward the runway. Fortunately, we didn’t descend all the way to the asphalt, but if we had, at least the wheels would still have been under me.
I’ve always followed the advice of an old instructor who once preached poetically, “When you push the throttles forward, don’t do nuthin’ but fly till there’s plenty of sky.” After you put the wheels to bed and streamline the underwing (assuming no wind shear), leave the power running at maximum for at least the next three to five minutes, and fuel pumps on if they’re required for takeoff. I leave pumps on for at least the first 3,000 feet. If the engine-driven pump fails and only the electric is available to maintain power, I’d rather discover that fact at 3,000 feet than in the first minute when a temporary lapse of power could be more critical.
On that score, it’s important to assure that the pump actually works well before you begin takeoff. On those airplanes that demand pumps for engine start, you have an obvious clue if the pump fails, but guarantee that it still works as you taxi out. On other airplanes, it may be more difficult to determine pump health.
One method of checking operation is looking for a spike in fuel pressure, though that’s often not definitive on airplanes with low pressure systems. A second method is to watch for an ammeter drop, though again, most pumps draw so little power, you may not see much change. Finally, you can simply listen for the sound of the pump, preferably at idle power.
Virtually all general aviation airplanes are rated for max power for at least five minutes, usually enough to climb to an altitude from which you could probably return to the airport. Traditional wisdom has it that the most likely time for an engine failure is the power reduction after takeoff, and for that reason, I always postpone that change as long as I can, consistent with engine limitations.
There’s less margin for error during takeoff than in any other phase of flight. Excluding a midair collision, the only time an accident can occur is when the airplane collides with the ground, and since takeoffs typically demand higher speeds than landings, the accident potential is greater.
The vast majority of general aviation aircraft can land in about two-thirds the runway required for takeoff. For that reason, you’re only kidding yourself if you sneak into a short runway and assume that because you got in, you can get back out. Not always so. Most of us will never operate into strips that short, but sometimes, there’s no choice.
(Fifteen years ago, I had a graphic demonstration of that principle on a trip from St. Louis to Subic Bay, Philippines, in a Cessna 421. When I was approaching Subic for the final landing of the trip, the controller advised that available runway length was 500 meters. I knew that had to be wrong as the approach plate suggested I should have 2,900 meters. I asked him to repeat. Again, he said available landing distance had been reduced to only 500 meters because of resurfacing. I had left Guam nine hours and 1,600 miles ago, and there had been no NOTAM about Subic, not necessarily a surprise in that part of the world. I was down to minimum fuel, and it would have been dicey getting back to Manila. Fortunately, it’s possible to ground a 421 in 300 meters if you have to. I had to. No way I would have considered going back out from the same runway, as the 421 requires at least 600 meters for takeoff.)
Back in late 1988, when Piper switched from a Continental to a Lycoming engine on the Malibu and renamed the airplane the Malibu Mirage, I delivered the first production machine to Kassel, Germany. On takeoff from Glasgow, Scotland, on the final leg, I lifted off and immediately saw fuel contrails pouring from each wing.
Both fuel caps had come off the airplane. The fueler had merely placed the caps in the wing detents without cam-locking them down. My fault, no one else’s. After I landed, the fueler advised me in no uncertain terms that they NEVER tighten down the caps—that was the pilot’s job. He was correct. Fortunately, both caps were recovered in good shape with nothing worse than scratched paint.
The volatility and quantity of fuel are other concerns that might seem obvious but often aren’t. Misfueling can happen to even the best pilot, and you may not know you have the wrong grade of fuel in the tanks until you push up the power. Similarly, initiating the takeoff roll on a semi-empty tank would seem a really dumb mistake, but some older airplanes made it possible.
I used to own an old Bellanca that had three fuel tanks, two wing tanks and an aux fuselage tank. When you selected a given tank, you had to also position a second fuel-quantity selector to read that tank’s fuel state. If you switched the tank indication selector to a full tank but left the actual fuel selector on a near-empty tank, you might get an unpleasant surprise a few feet in the air. Some older Bonanzas utilized a similar system.
Another procedure suggested by an Alaskan bush pilot was to start the engine on the least-full tank (assuming it had some fuel in it), and switch to the fullest tank before taxiing to the run-up area. Switching tanks can introduce air bubbles into the system and cause a slight hesitation in power as much as a minute or two later—not a good idea, especially during a short-field takeoff.
Checking control continuity prior to departure would seem such a natural precaution that no one could possibly forget it. Wrong! As incredible as it may seem, people still leave control locks in place and push the power up for takeoff. Ten years ago, a client did exactly that in his 340 at Santa Monica Airport in Southern California, and he and a passenger paid the ultimate price. I was scheduled to leave with him on a vacation trip across the Atlantic the following day.
Intersection takeoffs are almost universally a bad idea. Yes, I’ve made them on occasion, but they’re almost never defensible. Giving away any available runway is rarely smart. A great instructor, Gary Halopoff, used to ask how stupid I would feel if I made an intersection departure 1,000 feet from the threshold, then lost an engine at rotation, and ran off the end into the overrun or the approach lights, when I could have stopped short if I had used the entire length.
Finally, a nearly incomprehensible takeoff glitch in a special type of airplane deserves mention, though it hardly ever happens any more. The Cessna Skymaster features engines on each end of the fuselage rather than mounted on the wings, and some pilots have been known to initiate takeoff after the rear engine had idled out, all the while wondering why the airplane accelerated like a heavily sedated Galápagos turtle. For that very reason, Cessna mounted a large red alternator inop light for the rear engine, and revised the flight manual to direct full power on the rear engine before advancing the front throttle for takeoff. If nothing happened when the right (rear) throttle went forward, that was a sure sign that things weren’t right.
Most pilots who are simply awake just don’t make that kind of mistake, it says here….