Thoughts On Engine Failure During Takeoff

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2020 issue

In 2019, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crashed, apparently after attempting to return to the airport following an engine failure on takeoff. That brings up the question – when and how should a pilot attempt to return to the runway after an engine failure on takeoff?

This article will in no way attempt to analyze the cause of that B-17 accident. That plane was flown by an experienced pilot, presumably had three more good engines and was lightly loaded. In other words, it would be presumptuous to even attempt to reach a tentative conclusion as to the cause of that accident. Rather, we will attempt to examine the general situation of engine loss on takeoff and the appropriate action in those circumstances.

The latest NALL report (AOPA Safety Foundation) indicates that accidents on takeoff are the second leading cause of light airplane accidents. For the report period, there were 121 total accidents of which 24 were fatal.

The NALL report delineates several factors leading to the accidents, but this discussion will consider only the planning, flight and operational aspects because if accomplished properly, all causes will be covered as well.

Loss of Control, Stalled or Settled on Takeoff, and Weight/Density Altitude factors in accidents caused the reported fatalities. One additional fatality resulted when the aircraft “Collided With (An) Object.” This latter factor will not be addressed herein.

First, remember that the most important element in any emergency – and an engine loss on takeoff certainly is an emergency – is that the key to survival is “aircraft control.” Loss of control when airborne, or more accurately when airborne ceases to be, is virtually guaranteed to kill you. Therefore, it is imperative to maintain control even as the plane is going down. That means in this case picking the best spot, and maybe the best spot is the least bad one, and flying to that point, rather than stalling out of control into a random location. This requires the pilot to maintain professional calm while choosing the least bad course of action. Two key elements to successfully accomplishing this are “planning” and “acceptance.”

Consider two basic situations: Before and after liftoff. In both cases, planning involves deciding in advance what is the best course of action if power is lost at various stages of the takeoff. Obviously, before takeoff is the best time to plan. So, consider the takeoff portion first.

Before takeoff, a reasonable attitude is to assume that the takeoff will be a failure. With this in mind, step one is to figure out how far down the runway the takeoff can be aborted and still stop on the runway. Pick a marker of some kind and convince yourself that if you are not airborne by that point, you will abort the takeoff. Then, if the plane is not airborne by that point, the proper action is to stop the airplane. Just assume that is going to happen so that when it doesn’t, you are pleasantly surprised. In the case of a totally failed engine, the situation is obvious. In the case of an engine(s) running with reduced power, perhaps not detectable except by the fact of low RPM or manifold pressure, the key is to accept the situation and abort. It is better to be on the ramp wondering if you should have aborted the takeoff, than to be in the wreckage with your survivors wishing you had. Because of the single-engine performance of most light twins, it becomes even more important than it is with a single-engine aircraft, simply because loss of an engine in a single-engine aircraft does not tend to flip you on your back, whereas the twin at slow airspeed often becomes uncontrollable on one engine. Even if your skills and the terrain are such that you can fly it off, the performance is marginal at best and your skills may not be up to the task. This is borne out by the fact that the NALL report indicates that while multi-engine takeoff accidents were only 7.4% of total accidents, the fatality rate was the highest of all with 44.4% resulting in fatalities. By comparison, fatalities in single-engine, fixed gear aircraft accidents, while larger in number, had a 16.5% fatality rate. We’ll talk about twins later.

Now what about after you’re airborne and the engine power is not up to the task? Common wisdom is to go straight ahead, making only slight turns, missing as many obstacles as possible. Experience and data show that this is sound practice, mostly because a high percentage of those who ignored this advice are no longer with us. Furthermore, a high percentage of those who followed that advice are still alive.

In fact, statistics show that if the pilot maintains control of the airplane no matter how the incident occurs, whether on takeoff or otherwise, those who maintain control have more than a 70% chance of survival. If you don’t retain control, the odds are much higher that you will not survive.

The question always arises: “How high must I be in order to safely return to the runway?” The answer depends on a lot of things, including wind, performance of your aircraft, the terrain, and your skill and experience level. An interesting exercise will give you some insight into how high you must be, but not a definitive answer.

WARNING! Readers should never attempt any new training exercise or maneuver without the supervision and guidance of an experienced flight instructor, and then only if it can be done safely.

Remember to start this and other exercises at an altitude that permits recovery from unusual attitudes, including a spin. The following steps will provide insight into what might happen with a total engine failure after takeoff:
1. Note your altitude and, with climb power, pitch up to normal departure climb speed, typically best rate.
2. Once established in a stable climb, note your altitude, then abruptly cut power.
3. Immediately pitch for best glide speed while executing a 180-degree turn. Remain coordinated throughout this exercise.
4. Note the altitude at which this is achieved.
5. Note where you are over the ground and compare this with where you started the exercise.
6. Repeat at higher altitude until you can get back to the starting point at an altitude equal to or higher than the starting point.
7. Then consider that in an emergency, you will probably not be as competent and will have no advance warning, so some time will be lost as you react. Therefore, give yourself at least a 10% margin, then ask yourself if that happened on takeoff, how high and how far from the runway would you have to be to make it back to the runway? Generally, the answer is quite discouraging. Then consider what might happen with different wind conditions.

This exercise makes it very clear that the best course of action is usually to land straight ahead until you are at about pattern altitude. Hence, it is wise to make a pre-emptive plan to not return to the runway until at the height you have just determined.

Also, out of this exercise, comes a good argument for keeping landing patterns close to the runway whenever possible. The sooner you reach pattern altitude and within gliding distance of the runway, the better the chance of making it to the runway after power failure.

Remember, engine failures are most likely after a power change, usually after power up, like after takeoff, but also slightly less likely is power reduction, such as after takeoff and reducing power for pattern operations or departure.

The ability to handle a power-off landing is one that rusts rapidly. All too often pilots simply don’t know how to land safely without power. This, in part, is because too often, training teaches that power-off from the downwind to touch down is an emergency landing. That is not the case in your single-engine Cessna, Piper, Beech or Mooney, nor for that matter in your Cirrus or TTX. The latter two come down with more enthusiasm than the others, but hardly present an emergency from the pattern.   

Light twins provide a different situation. Recognize two things about twins: 1) A twin is slightly more than twice as likely to have one engine fail than a single, and 2) The fatality rate if an engine fails on takeoff is higher for twins than it is for single-engine aircraft.

The higher engine failure rate is because there is increased complexity to handle two engines, and the higher fatality rate is because pilots attempt to continue flight in conditions which neither they nor the airplane are capable of handling. The best choice then, if an engine fails at low altitude, is to cut the power on the remaining engine and treat the plane as a single-engine aircraft. If you have a few hundred feet and are in stable climb, your training hopefully kicks in and the reliability you sought in a twin can be realized.

As a final note on light twins, you may wish to consider the fact that Part 135 operators (business aircraft that conduct operations for compensation or hire are generally certificated under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations) have an excellent safety record in the aircraft. This is most likely the result of frequent checkrides and the resulting continuous training commercial pilots are required to have.

Many insurance companies require annual check-rides, either in a simulator or in an airplane. This is definitely a positive safety factor.

In all cases, remember that simply because it may be less expensive, your insurance company would rather replace your airplane, single or twin, than deal with your survivors in court.

In short, planning, training, and correct decision-making are key to minimizing the chance of an accident, and correspondently surviving, if one does occur, and this remains true for any emergency, whether on takeoff or otherwise.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at harlgren@aol.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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