Post-Takeoff Engine Failure: Not So Rare
If you haven't seen this video, take a few moments to watch it. In a nutshell, it's a video summary from several angles of a post takeoff engine failure in a Bonanza and the subsequent forced landing just off the airport. The pilot, who along with his passenger, emerged unhurt from the accident said he posted it as an educational exercise. Frankly, I'm at a loss to say what you might learn from the video, other than the importance of bank control and airspeed management. I'd surmise that most of us already know that. The airplane, by the way, was equipped with four external cameras to catch all this and you're allowed to wonder, as I did, how odd that it is that an airplane so equipped would crash. But that's not the main point, really.
The real educational moment is the underlying cause: an engine failure or power loss just after takeoff followed by an investigation that reveals nothing wrong with the engine. If this seems odd, it shouldn't. It happens a lot. In fact, it happened to a Mooney we once owned, leading to the loss of the airplane. For our Used Aircraft Guides, we routine review about 100 or more accidents each month for a specific type. The engine failure on takeoff scenario isn't a leading cause of accidents for most airplanes, but for some it ranks high. Mooneys and Arrows equipped with the 200-HP Lycoming IO-360 are one, but you see this across all types.
If the airplane or engine is recovered, the investigators set it up and try to run it and it many cases it starts and runs fine, as did our Mooney. The probable cause is usually given as engine failure for unknown reasons. It would be convenient to blame the pilots for all of these, but they're just too similar for that to be the case, in my view. No one seems to particularly care about this identifiable trend, either, not the NTSB, not the FAA nor the insurance companies. Just before they wrote our partnership a $110,000 check for a hull loss, I asked our insurer why they don't investigate these things more thoroughly. The answer was right out of the MBA playbook. Not many result in injuries or deaths, there aren't enough of them to represent an addressable loss pattern and digging into them further is expensive and likely to be inconclusive. As long as the insurance business unit is hitting its numbers, no one seems to care. And that's how system "safety" works in GA.
In its accident report on the Fairbanks crash, the NTSB had more data to work with than it usually does, given camera roll from four angles. But the footage doesn't reveal much. In the body of the report, the NTSB notes that there was no evidence of high RPM operation on the ground, implying, I take it, that no run-up was done. Well, big deal. Who can say if a run-up would have made any difference. I tend to think it wouldn't, because a lot of these post-rotation stoppages occur after a normal run-up. While a run-up might reveal fuel flow or pressure anomalies, they're mostly focused on magnetos and my theory is that it isn't ignition that causes these unexplained stoppages but some kind of fuel issue, perhaps a vapor lock that clears after the engine has cooled. As far as I know, no one has investigated these incidents in any systematic way, so who can really say?
As for the run-up, there are two schools of thought here. I'd guess the vast majority of pilots perform a run-up before every takeoff, while a minority do the run-up only on the first flight of the day. I'm in the latter group. When I used to fly multiple legs a day for charter and freight, I'd do one run-up in the morning and that sufficed for the entire day. A mag check will catch a bad mag or a fouled plug, but neither of those is likely to put you into the trees. If you accidently switched the fuel off, a run-up may or may not reveal that. So it's a calculated risk to skip the run-up. Just because some people don't doesn't make it wrong.
Maybe the real lesson in the Fairbanks accident, then, has nothing to do with run-ups, airspeed management or bank control. It's the larger consideration of realizing this could happen to anyone at anytime and you'd be wise to expect it on every takeoff.