I’m reflecting on a piece I wrote after a tragic accident not only at my home airport but of a friend. Strangely enough I had a lesson with a student today and the weather was about what it was 3 years ago but visibility was only slightly better as can be seen here.
So we cancelled the flight and resorted to a simulator session. While being a little disappointed it was still productive and a good lesson that we can’t always fly. We need to know our limits which the following is about.
I hope you find this useful and evaluate your own safety practices.
Here is the audio that originally aired on the Airspeed Podcast thanks to Stephen Tupper.
Take-offs are a surprise
There are times in our lives where we pause to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, or what we hope to do in the future and how to achieve them. Other times it’s our failures that trigger this and we want to learn from it and try and avoid repeating them. Sometimes we get to learn from the events other people have gone through and reflect on it.
What follows is my journey of self-examination as a pilot.
First off I must thank Stephen Force for the inspiration I received from his First Solo episode and hearing of his journey with a bag of fears and the roadblocks he faced when his instructor died in a terrible crash.
It was in that episode that we as pilots are reminded aviation is safe but to a large extent it’s terribly unforgiving when an accident does happen. We want it to be safe for us, our loved ones and other passengers that entrust their lives and well being to us. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.
We strive to learn the performance characteristics and limitations of the aircraft we fly and then operate it safely within those boundaries.
We learn and practice emergency procedures so we can handle them and have a safe outcome for us and then lastly the plane.
From our early training onward we know the importance of protecting lives on the ground and the need to stay away from populated areas if we must land during an emergency.
I want to address a few things that have come to mind in the past weeks in light of a recent accident that struck all to close to home for me.
On February 17, 2010 a Cessna 310 left Palo Alto with three on board for an hour and fifty minute flight to southern CA. This time however, the flight lasted less than a minute.
The pilot was one of the good guys, a commercial rated CFI with whom I did my BFR with in 2005 when I joined the partnership he started with 4 other people for a Cessna 172.
I flew with him several times doing various training flights and have shared dinner and margaritas with all the members of our group to discuss plane issues, life, best routes to fly and places to go eat.
He was a successful and talented Electrical Engineer and someone who just loved aviation. His passion for teaching was clear as he enjoyed teaching others to fly to the extent it was hard to get him to accept anything more than a token payment for his time. He didn’t do it for the money, but because it was FLYING! And he loved it.
I’ll leave it to the NTSB to make the determination of probable cause, my intent is to learn from that fact this accident did happen and in light of the WX conditions are there things that I would do to keep me safe in similar circumstances?
To that extent, I say that take-offs are a surprise. Why? It’s been said that while take-offs are optional, landings are clearly NOT.
How can it be said that take-offs are a surprise? Didn’t we go to the airport with the intent and desire to take-off and go somewhere?
This concept comes from my training for the commercial rating. I learned many new habits that I’ll admit I should have been incorporating all along. Whether it was due to several years of not flying and having earned the private license a few decades previous, it was a good thing to learn these new safety related habits.
I’ll admit that learning to do passenger pre-start safety briefings and departure briefings felt awkward, as well as talking to myself in doing various callouts during the take-off roll. However I stuck with it and I knew that in the interest of safety, these were things a competent pilot needed to do. I was learning a new mindset and for that I was thankful.
Part of that departure briefing included what we expect to happen, and what to do in the event something didn’t go as planned. This is where the surprise comes in.
My CFI, Jason Miller, told me that I should plan on aborting EVERY take-off and be surprised if the engine keeps running and we can accelerate to rotation speed and can fly away.
Even after that point we should be ready to react in case it fails on climb-out and we need to do something. Whether it’s landing straight ahead or making a slight turn to avoid obstacles, we need to be ready until the first 1000’ is under us and we have an extra moment to evaluate our situation.
A lot of the scenarios we practice involve emergencies at higher altitudes or in cruise flight. The failure we train for most on takeoff is an engine failure and then to a lesser degree instrumentation or loss of radio communication. At cruise altitude we have the luxury of a little time to diagnose, trouble shoot and develop a plan of action.
I remember a flight my buddy took years ago as a newly minted pilot. Returning from LA to Northern CA he faced higher than expected headwinds. He started getting nervous as the rental had fuel gauges that made it hard to accurately tell the quantity. This was a late night flight and would require a $20 fee to call someone from home to get fuel as this was before the 24 hour self serve pump era. He at least had time and altitude to consider his options. He now knows landing and paying the fee was cheap insurance and peace of mind even though he arrived safely but had cut his fuel reserve close.
I too have my own fuel story, but I used it as a learning experience to shape my practices today so that my reserves are higher and I’ll make the extra stop even if not really needed.
Sometimes the lessons we learn come from close calls, and in other cases from fatal accidents. Set some personal minimums and then STICK to them.
Part of our preparedness is to plan for the time when things do go wrong.
What are the action items for an electrical system failure?
What if the vacuum system failed?
What if an engine failed?
What if my engine fails at 200’? At 500’? At 1000’?
What if any of these occur in IMC?
Each altitude has different action plans and alternatives. Are we ready for each? Have YOU asked WHAT IF?
What if?….. What if?….
Were you surprised the engine didn’t fail so you could continue the take-off? You need to be surprised. Or did you firewall the throttle, waited a few seconds and pulled back, just EXPECTING all to go well?
I know I am asking WHAT IF now.
Now think of having to do that at 100 to 200 feet in IMC. That is a critical time to have to do this. Whether it’s diagnosing an engine or vacuum system failure affecting the attitude indicator to keep us upright, we need to have a back up plan before we start the take-off and be ready to react.
By doing the departure briefing I was reminding myself what I would do in various circumstances. It helped me to be spring loaded to react.
The same needs to be done for low visibility take-offs. I practiced how to do it during instrument training and to maintain aircraft control during the take-off roll.
These include failures of the vacuum system or an issue with the pitot static system that gives us the all important attitude information to keep the shiny side up.
Can we brush up our basic attitude flying skills? What about practicing partial panel? Could we practice a partial panel take-off to simulate a vacuum failure at rotation under the watchful eyes of a CFII of course. For those of you that are multi-rated, how proficient at single engine operations are you? Are you ready for an engine to fail and have practiced the procedures required?
I use a portable GPS as do many others and appreciate its many abilities including the terrain awareness so I know what’s out there if I’m in IMC or at night. Those mountains have a habit of being dark and unlit at night.
I had never thought of having the simulated panel page of the GPS up and displayed on take-off in case of an instrumentation failure. I love having the GPS for the battery powered backup navigation in case of an electrical failure. But never for a moment did I think it could serve a purpose on take-off. I may never do a take-off with a 100’ ceiling but the idea is the same.
Isn’t this why we got the instrument rating after all? To blast through a low fog layer into clear air a 1000’ above us? We need to remember that getting there carries with it certain risks during the first few minutes of flight that we need to be prepared for to the extent we possibly can.
On a recent flight I did put the GPS into the simulated panel page and thought of actually using it after rotation in IMC.
Would it have made a difference in the chaos of either an engine failure or dizziness caused from spatial disorientation from entering IMC so quickly after rotation?
It may not have, so make no mistake about it, I’m in no way implying I have found the cause or solution to this terrible accident, as the details and causes are unknown. It just got me thinking to look at my own safety practices and ask,
WHAT IF? WHAT IF?
It’s been a few weeks since the accident that took our friend and colleague.
I’m having trouble coming to terms with this one. This was a seasoned and skilled pilot. It’s not my intent to analyze this accident and say what went wrong. My desire was to learn from this and see what I can do different to make me safer.
This means keeping my skills sharp and using anything at my disposal to stay upright as best I can.
If I’m ever not surprised, I’d like to think I thought of and practiced the right WHAT IF for that situation. That’s what we do as safe pilots.
So I put this question to you, are YOU thinking WHAT IF?
Will I be surprised at my next take-off? I hope so.
I WANT to be surprised on my next take-off, and a million more after that……..
I’d like to thank all the CFI’s I have learned from over the years.
Todd Bennett, Doug Groom, Dan Adams, Ewe Lemke, Steve Philipson, Jason Miller, and especially Doug Bourn.
Forget the Dr. title, I want CFI after my name. It’s coming, I can feel it.
All of you set a high standard I too aspire to attain and will teach ALL of my students to think of
WHAT IF…. WHAT IF….
I’m proud to say I did become a CFI in Oct, 2010 and am enjoying teaching flying and inspiring a new generation of pilots. But let us never forgot that we should put safety first even at the expense of delays to our trip that may have business or personal consequences. We need to remember its better to show up late than not at all.
Ron Klutts CFI
Here is the NTSB report on this accident.