Engine Failure on Takeoff

Last night one of my former students from a long time ago hosted a pilot get together on zoom.com. He had a great turnout and the theme of his meeting dealt with engine failure on takeoff. He led a discussion concerning various accident scenarios and how pilots could approach each without bending metal. If you have a chance, check out his Facebook page at All American Aviation. Jeremy, the former student, became a US army tactical helicopter pilot, went on to fly as a civilian CFI, got into float flying, and works professionally in the corporate world.

Many in the discussion talked about the reaction time from the point of engine failure to actually taking proper action. Those in the discussion who had actually experienced a power problem shortly after liftoff observed that yes, they did hesitate. It was the psychological aspect of disbelief—“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Next, the participants talked about analysis and then action. This can take anywhere from two to five seconds, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time. However, when the nose of the airplane is pointed up in a Vy climb, or worse, in the best angle of climb attitude, airspeed will bleed faster than a bunch of poker players running from an illicit game in a police raid.

Some of the flight instructors in the discussion talked about what they do to train their students. There was a unanimous agreement about immediate actions, which includes flying the plane first. And the most crucial aspect of flying the airplane is keeping the airspeed up. As mentioned, when the power fails, the airspeed becomes critical. If the nose is up, the pilot is headed for a place where he or she will lose control of the aircraft. And that becomes the crux of the problem.

As long as the pilot is flying the airplane, the outcome is manageable. It is when the pilot stops acting as the pilot-in-command that survival becomes questionable. Pilots have to be thinking all of the time, which brings us back to the concept of always being situationally aware. Before every takeoff, each one, you have to know what lies beyond the nose of the airplane, you should have a good idea of the terrain past the runway as well as to the left and to the right. You should also be critically aware of the minimum altitude you would need to try that “impossible turn.”

The impossible turn is a maneuver every pilot will have to decide as to whether or not they want to try. In most instances, pilots who try the impossible turn do so on instinct; at the time of the engine failure, they put very little decision-making or thought into the impulsive maneuver. What makes this even more deadly is the lag time between engine failure and acting. By the time a typical pilot begins to react and start turning around, there is very little airspeed on the plane. Consequently, many who tried to turn back stalled the airplane and spun in.

From a very low altitude, recovery from a spin is very doubtful. The airplane is going to hit, and it’s going to hit hard. Kinetic energy will instantly dissipate when the airplane becomes suddenly stationary. That instantaneous release of energy is deadly. It results in blunt trauma injuries, which are usually fatal.

On the other hand, the pilot who keeps control of the plane through a controlled forced landing will dissipate the energy of impact over time. Another way to describe this is that the airplane slows down gradually. When energy is decreased over distance and time, the crash is survivable.

Survival is a function of pilot action. In the engine failure on takeoff scenario, the critical question is, what does the pilot do and when? Pilots need to understand that if the engine “burps” or outright quits, there is no thinking—put the nose downNOW! In doing this, the pilot will preserve airspeed, and then comes the time for analyzing and decisions.


©2020 J. Clark

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