By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the December 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
It seems like a “normal takeoff” is one of the easier tasks for a pilot to learn and perform — at least in a tricycle gear aircraft. The throttle goes up, add some rudder to counter the yaw and keep the nose straight, accelerate, and apply some gentle back-pressure when the airplane is ready to fly. What could be easier? But every now and then, we get a surprise in the midst of our performance or overlook something that we might or should have paid attention to. The result can be anything from a sloppy performance to a fatal crash. If we examine some of the things that occasionally go wrong, we get a good idea of what to pay attention to as we perform that seemingly simple act of a normal takeoff.
Flights will go better when we’re paying attention to the instruments on the takeoff roll.
We get our first indication that the airspeed indicator is working on the takeoff roll. If we aren’t checking it then, we could easily find ourselves up in the air with a bad indicator. Maybe that wouldn’t be a problem, but depending on the situation and our skills, it could put us in serious jeopardy, or at least well behind the airplane.
I like to check all the engine instrumentation on the takeoff roll just to make sure all is well. Yes, we check it during the run-up, but checking on the full power takeoff roll is good confirmation that everything is truly okay for takeoff.
As prepared and proficient pilots, we should have a good idea of how long our takeoff ground roll should be. Checking that the aircraft is performing “to spec” can be important for our safety.
If the airplane isn’t accelerating the way it should, we might expect some problems during the low-altitude, low-speed portion of our flight. It’s better to find out something is wrong early so we can make a timely decision on whether to continue or not.
This problem can easily catch a pilot off guard. Last year, the pilot of a Beech 36 series Bonanza in Texas learned this one the hard way. He had forgotten to check the trim setting before takeoff and was then surprised when the aircraft rotated early and entered a nose-high attitude with the stall warning blaring. About 20 feet off the ground, the plane rolled right. Apparently he overcorrected and smacked a wingtip on the ground as he attempted to recover. It all worked out — except for substantial damage to the wingtip — but the accident could have been avoided.
Besides checking the trim setting before flight, I like to have my hand on the trim shortly after liftoff to make sure we get the right hands-off attitude and airspeed at the get-go — just in case what I anticipated wasn’t what really occurred, or some other distraction arises.
Just about any omission of a preflight checklist item can bite us in the tail. Consider the pilot who forgot to reinstall the oil filler cap on his L-19 Bird Dog, and then remembered it after takeoff. He became especially worried about what might happen when he noticed a decline in oil pressure, so he wisely decided to make a precautionary landing at another airport to correct the oversight.
Sadly, he made a hard landing and bounced, causing the landing gear to collapse in the process. The airplane skidded off the runway, and one wing hit the ground in the process. Clearly, the crash wasn’t the direct result of the missing oil filler cap, but this is the way many aircraft accidents occur — one mistake sets off a chain reaction of unfortunate events. We should always be diligent in those preflight checks!
One of the many hazards we face at any airport is the potential for traffic of all kinds, including other airplanes, vehicles on or crossing runways, and wildlife wandering onto the runway at the most inopportune time. Years ago on a takeoff roll in a Piper Cherokee Six, I found myself watching as a crazy duck seemed intent on playing chicken. Even as I was accelerating, his course kept him in the same relative position — a sure sign of an impending collision.
I lifted off and then dipped a wing so it would pass beneath him. It was a dumb move on my part. I should have aborted the takeoff when I saw the danger coming toward me. Clearly, that trick could have gone seriously wrong.
We all know to watch out for wake turbulence, but what we might forget is that wake turbulence can occur even with smaller aircraft and with helicopters. We shouldn’t be in too much of a rush to complete our takeoff. A couple minutes delay in our arrival at our destination will seldom make a lasting difference, but low-level aerobatics can end abruptly and permanently end our flying days.
As we head into the winter season, we have other factors to consider in our takeoff procedures — items that can really put the squeeze on safety margins.
One day while waiting out a snowstorm at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (KBJC, formerly Jefferson County Airport) outside Denver, Colorado, I watched the overconfident pilot of a Mitsubishi MU-2 attempt a takeoff run with a snow-covered runway. Apparently, he was on a tight schedule and couldn’t wait for the runway to be plowed. Instead, the pilot did some plowing of his own — right off the runway into a snow drift.
Runway conditions can impact takeoff performance and safety, adding a significant challenge in what otherwise is a normal procedure. When snow, ice, rain, debris, or other contamination is present, pilots should carefully consider the impact on making a safe takeoff. Remember that stopping distances as well as takeoff ground roll can see significant impacts based on runway conditions.
Some pilots will take a laissez faire attitude toward frost, snow, and ice on their aircraft, but science and accident reports suggest the importance of following the FAA’s clean aircraft dictum. Among the prevailing myths is that accumulated snow will blow off during the takeoff run. Don’t bet on that.
Experience also shows that even what a pilot believes to be “polished” frost can result in a significant loss of lift. The fallacy of this often is realized when the pilot runs out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas toward the departure end of the runway. Also, recognize that ice can accumulate in unexpected places, such as inside control surfaces, propeller spinners, wheel fairings, landing gear mechanisms, and control cables with potentially devastating consequence. The best plan is to make certain the aircraft is free of ice and snow before flight, and avoid conditions that could result in new accumulations during taxi, takeoff, and flight.
The basic procedure for getting an aircraft into the air is not overly difficult, but as with so many other aspects of aviation, the devil is in the details. There’s a lot to look for as we push the throttle forward for takeoff. A lot can happen to give us an unforgiving surprise and quickly change our “normal” takeoff to something quite abnormal. Never become complacent. Even a “normal” takeoff is a time to be on our toes.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.