Abort! Abort! Abort!
Aborting a takeoff isn't a failure on the part of the pilot; it's a pilot showing the right stuff by recognizing the wrong stuff and taking action to keep people alive.
It’s probably even money that every pilot who has flown more than 40 hours has awakened in a cold sweat after having had a takeoff nightmare—trying to get performance out of an airplane that is barely in the air, unwilling to climb and rushing toward something tall and menacing.
It's even worse when you're awake and it's happening for real: You’re in a loaded airplane that has been reluctant to leave the runway and now is not showing any interest in climbing over the trees. How did you get there and what can you do about it?
Too many pilots have asked themselves that compound question just before discovering that the answer to the second half is "nothing.”
The answer to the first half of the question is more complex. When takeoff accidents are reconstructed the striking result is too often that had all things been working normally, the pilot used all of the available runway and the airplane wasn’t over gross weight, it should have cleared the obstruction. So, what's going on?
Let's take a look at a real-world example—some details have been changed to protect the guilty. We've been flying a couple hundred pounds over gross in the Saratoga HP pretty steadily because, with full fuel, it can only carry two big people and their luggage. We've been putting the spouse and the two kids in and getting away with it. But the kids are getting bigger and one kid really, really wants to bring a friend on this trip. We rationalize: If a couple hundred pounds over gross is OK, what's another 150 pounds? Except that this trip is to that resort where the runway is 3000 feet long while home base has 5000 feet. And the resort is at an elevation of 2500 feet. And it's the 4th of July weekend and, because our Sunday-morning departure for home got delayed so the kids could swim one more time, it's now Sunday afternoon and 95 degrees F. Density altitude is way up there and one of the brakes is dragging enough that it takes 1200 rpm to taxi instead of 1000. And, oh, yeah, fuel is cheap here at the resort, so we filled up.
We go charging down the runway, vaguely aware that things are not happening as quickly as they usually do. We can see the far end of the runway, but the foreshortening effect of distance makes it nearly impossible to accurately estimate how much is left. We make a fast power check: Manifold pressure, rpm and fuel flow are where they should be. Should we have leaned the mixture? The midfield taxiway intersection goes by and we're looking at less than 40 knots on the airspeed indicator. The idea of aborting the takeoff flashes to mind but the sound of the engine going from high power to idle will get the attention of everyone on the airport, so we'll be admitting to everyone in earshot that we screwed up. Plus, we're not sure we can stop on the remaining runway and it rained hard last night, so it's going to be muddy off the end and getting stuck will really be embarrassing—and maybe we won't get pulled out of the muck in time to leave today and we've got to be at work tomorrow and the spouse is going to raise the roof over how much it costs to fly if we can't even use the airplane to get home on time and oh man this one is going to be tight and gawd! there's the end of the runway, there's no room to stop, we gotta go. We pull on another notch of flaps because we think that obstacle-clearance climb requires two notches but we haven't looked that up recently and we're off the ground right near the end of the runway and find that override switch right now so we can get the gear up and is best angle 85 or 95? Those trees are right here! Right now! And we're gonna hit and it's gonna hurt. . .
Hitting trees flying at 85 knots hurts. A lot. It hurts a lot more than hitting them while rolling at 20 knots after having the good sense to abort a takeoff that isn't going well. The forces we face in an impact are a squared function: When we double the speed of the impact, we don't double the force of the impact—we quadruple it. That's a nasty, hard, unbending rule of physics.
We will probably be embarrassed if we hit the trees at 20 knots after an abort. We probably won't be embarrassed if we hit those trees 3/4 of the way to the top flying at 85 knots. Or at least, not for very long—we have to be alive to be embarrassed.
To Abort: Perchance to Live
The airlines and military have long recognized that most pilots are successful, goal-driven, obsessive perfectionists who view mistakes as hideous things. As a result, they teach pilots that aborting a takeoff is not a mistake. They teach that, on every takeoff, there are things that must happen for the takeoff to continue. If those things don't happen, there is something wrong with the airplane and it is the pilot's job to save the day by aborting, even if it means going off the end of a runway, because the chances of survival go way up as the speed of impact goes down.
I think the mindset of being spring-loaded to abort a takeoff if certain parameters are not met and that the hero-pilot is there to keep the airplane from killing everyone by aborting is a way to keep on living. It's a little like NASA's approach to launching a rocket: The default answer to the question of whether to launch is "No"—it is up to the hardware, software and humans to demonstrate that everything is working properly so that the question may be answered with a "Yes." For an airplane takeoff, the default should be "abort" unless the airplane demonstrates that it is healthy enough to continue.
Let's look at the things that can cause an airplane to crash on takeoff and see if there are any warning signs for the pilot so we can come up with parameters to be met before we let a takeoff continue.
It's a choice made by the pilot. A 10-percent increase in the weight of the airplane increases the distance over an obstacle by 21 percent—that's worth a pilot's undivided attention and respect.
Do we really want to make one? Is it that important to save taxi time? In reading takeoff accident reports, it's interesting how often the pilot initiated the takeoff from an intersection. Is it an indication of other shortcuts the pilot is willing to take that cut into the margins on clearing that obstacle?
Does the manual say the airplane will clear an obstacle in the available distance? If not, attempting to take off is stupid and may be criminal. Over some years of involvement in aviation lawsuits regarding takeoff performance, I've found that a properly maintained airplane will usually meet book takeoff performance, but it truly has to be properly maintained. The engine has to be developing full rated power; the prop has to be in good shape, the tires properly inflated and the brakes not dragging. I've also observed that airplanes picked at random for inspection usually have something that prevents them from matching book performance—anything from a heavily filed prop or the wrong prop to an engine not making power to low tires. So, I agree with the aviation writers and textbooks that recommend a pilot allow a margin above the book performance numbers for deciding on whether to make a takeoff.
In airplanes with a fixed-pitch prop, there is a way to get a good indication whether the engine and propeller combination are developing appropriate power. It's called a static runup. We taxi to a spot where the prop won't pick up all sorts of trash and the propwash won't cause damage. Then hold the brakes, pull the yoke or stick all the way aft and go to full power. The resulting rpm must be in the range published by the manufacturer in the manual. For example, for a Cessna 152, the acceptable rpm range is 2280 to 2380; for a Cessna 172N it is 2280 to 2400. If the rpm we see on the tach doesn't fall within the acceptable range, it's an automatic abort. Assuming the tach is accurate, if the rpm is too low, the engine is not making power or has the wrong prop or an improperly pitched prop. If rpm is too high, the prop may have been filed beyond limits, the tips may have been cut down too far, it may have the wrong pitch or be the wrong prop. All of those are reasons that the airplane will not perform per book on takeoff. For a constant-speed prop airplane, it is not as simple: the rpm should be at redline, but manifold pressure will depend on the density altitude, which means we have to do some homework to determine the max. manifold pressure attainable before doing a check.
Dragging Brake(s)/Low Tires.
Keep track of how much power it takes to taxi at your normal speed on flat, dry pavement in light winds. For most airplanes, it will run on the order of 1,000 rpm. If the power needed goes up by about 200 rpm, find out why before making a takeoff.
Proper Acceleration On Takeoff.
Here's the big one. There is a solid rule of thumb: The airplane will break ground in the available runway length if, by the half-way point of the runway, it has reached 71-percent of the published speed at which the nose is to be raised on takeoff. If the manual says to raise the nose at 60 KIAS, then we better be looking at a speed of at least 42 KIAS at midfield. If not, it's an automatic abort because a parameter has not been met. This go/no-go parameter does not guarantee obstacle clearance; it just gives information regarding getting off the ground on the available runway.
They are rare, but extremely ugly takeoff accidents—the ones due to locked or jammed controls or badly mis-set trim. While those should have been caught during the pretakeoff check, pilots still miss them and try to fly with the control-lock engaged, a jammed elevator control or the trim rolled all the way forward. The parameter is that when we go to raise the nose on takeoff, if the control wheel does not physically move aft when normal or slightly more than normal pressure is applied and the nose does not start coming up, a parameter has not been met, so abort the takeoff. This one will probably involve running off the end of the runway, but that is almost invariably better than trying to continue at high power.
For a takeoff abort, close the throttle instantly and make sure power is completely at idle, hold the control yoke/stick slightly aft of neutral and apply heavy braking to the point of sliding the tires. If you ever get a chance to ride with a test pilot on a max-brake-effort stop, it's an eye opener. Get on the brakes as hard as you can. If you slide the tires, back off a bit, but only a bit. Raise the flaps to put more weight on the wheels. Don't worry about calling the tower; you're busy. If you are going off the end of the runway and have the time, pull the mixture to idle cutoff, cut the master, turn the fuel selector off and pop the cabin door(s) open slightly. Keep trying to make the airplane go in the direction you want and keep trying to stop the airplane until it does come to a complete stop. Don't give up trying to make the airplane do what you want it to do.
If we take the above and boil it down into an abbreviated mental checklist of parameters that must be met or we save the day by aborting the takeoff, we get something along the following lines:
Are the trim tabs, flaps and fuel selector(s) properly positioned and does the mag compass reading match the runway number? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
1. At full throttle, is the rpm is in the acceptable static range on a fixed-pitch prop airplane? With a constant-speed prop, are the manifold pressure, rpm and fuel flow where they should be for the elevation and temperature? For a turbocharged engine, are manifold pressure, rpm and fuel flow at redline? If not, abort. If yes, continue.
2. Airspeed indicator off the peg and moving without jerking within 5 to 10 seconds of going to full power? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
3. At the mid-field point on the runway, has the airplane reached at least 71 percent of the published speed for raising the nose? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
4. At the published speed for raising the nose for takeoff, can the yoke/stick be moved aft and does the nose begins to come up? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
It's up to the airplane to demonstrate to the pilot in command that it is capable of performing on takeoff. It's up to the pilot in command to assure that it is doing what it's supposed to do and, if not, to abort the takeoff and live to fly another time. Aborting a takeoff isn't a failure on the part of the pilot; it's a pilot showing the right stuff by recognizing the wrong stuff and taking action to keep people alive.
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 and 2.