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#201 What if…?

What if the engine quits, what if the baggage door comes open, what if a tire goes flat, what if something starts smoking….

Aviation is full of “what ifs”.  And I think it should be.  I guess my “favorite” has to do with how much runway we leave behind us. I’m fascinated by this subject.  I once watched a jet touch down long during an instrument approach and landing.  He screeched off the departure end of the runway, coming to rest about twenty feet into the dirt, his wheels sunk up to the axles.  Twenty feet!  If he’d touched down twenty feet earlier, he wouldn’t have gone into the dirt (I’m assuming that he had antilock brakes or braked efficiently so that he really didn’t skid).  Similarly, if we start a takeoff roll twenty feet further down the runway, rather than powering up at the very approach end, we might experience the same ending in the event of an engine failure on takeoff.

 Photo by Bert Garrison

The long landing I described above is an isolated incident and contains details that make it very understandable.  But almost every day, I see people who should know better sacrifice runway that could prevent them ending up with their axles buried in the mud.  Let’s take the long-taught and generally accepted technique of the “short field takeoff”.  Most airmen will hold the brakes and bring up the power.  Then they will release the brakes and start the takeoff roll.  Like many things taught in aviation, this technique can be defended and actually makes sense.  In fact, I believe this is the technique approved by both the AOPA and the FAA, two organizations who really know what they are doing when it comes to aviation (did you infer the sarcasm?).  It’s also taught by the “Acme” school of aviation (that’s just my term for virtually all modern flight schools). By running up the power with the brakes on, you’re developing full power without using any runway.  That makes sense.  Of course, subjecting your propeller to the possibility of picking up gravel and rocks doesn’t.  And overcoming inertia doesn’t either.  Would you like to know a better way?  It starts in the runup area.  That’s where you have done everything you need to do to prepare the plane for takeoff. The only reason I include that part is because I’ve seen so many pilots “fuss around” on the runway.  In my opinion, they should not have entered the runway until they were ready to go.  In failing to do that, they have handicapped the “short field” part of the short field takeoff.

An aircraft on takeoff is at its most vulnerable.  If there is safety in altitude, there is no safety on takoff because there is no altitude! If there is also safety in airspeed, there is little of of that as well as the takeoff begins!  With that considered, as the aircraft enters the runway, the pilot should be doing a couple of things.  He should be ensuring that he’s not leaving ANY runway behind him.  And he should be very slowly opening the throttle.  By the time he is 90 degrees from runway heading, he should be opening the throttle even more.  And by the time he is on runway heading, he shouldn’t be able to open it any more, ‘cause it’s wide open.  This takes a little practice and if he opened it a bit too soon and was going a bit too fast to make that turn, he may find himself on the far side of the runway.  Since he was taught to be on the centerline, this may be rather disconcerting.  It shouldn’t be.  In a tailwheel airplane, he is also applying full forward elevator. This will bring his tail up and minimize the drag of the main wing by increasing the drag from the horizontal stabilizer.  The drag this creates is far less than the drag created by the wing BEFORE the tail comes up.  As he begins to thunder down the runway, he simply and gradually returns to the centerline. He’s actually created a bit more runway with that maneuver, so he doesn’t mind being off to the side for a little while (we’ll just put a gag on the complaining “Acme” instructor in the right seat!).  In the interest of keeping this article short, I’m not going to deal with other stuff like transponder power, heading indicator check, engine check and making sure that a squirrel hasn’t wandered into his path.

By simply using that technique, the savvy airman has made the shortest takeoff he possibly could.  And his propeller will thank him.

With my recent decision to gradually eliminate primary instruction from my flight instruction duties, I am mostly only flying with rated pilots.  The vast majority do not conduct the better short field takeoff I just described.  I think that is a shame.  But I asked for it.  Instead of blindly following the old “We’ve always done it this way” attitude that so many flight instructors have, I’ve chosen to question some old techniques. I think that by simply asking “why”, I’ve come closer to better piloting techniques.  But that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure Acme would disagree.  After all, they’ve always done it a certain way…

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