Expecting the Unexpected: Beating the “Startle Effect”

by Richard Morey
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2022 Digital Issue

The FAA is particularly good at identifying accident trends and developing Safety Team training to address the underlying issues. Lately, the “Startle Effect” has received a great deal of attention from Jurg Grossenbacher, the FAASTeam Lead for the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) in Milwaukee. This article, in part, builds upon the FAASTeam recommendations; the rest is based upon my experiences. To maintain consistency and fidelity to the FAASTeam’s goals, I have used the recommended wording for the pre-takeoff briefing.

What we do not expect, and what we have not prepared for, will be startling when it occurs. Being startled by a safety-related action or occurrence during flight operations results in a slower reaction time, as our mind categorizes the unexpected as a potential threat. Fight, Flight, or Freeze is the normal response to a threat, but in aviation Freeze is not an acceptable response. Freezing in a critical phase of flight has resulted in accidents. Thus, the goal is to avoid being startled in the first place. The question is how do we accomplish this? The answer is in the title: “Expect the unexpected and plan for it!”
“Her ad-lib lines were well rehearsed…”

Knowing what to do in any situation saves us the time required to think of a response. When time allows, pilots use “checklists” to assist with troubleshooting issues and reducing response time. Time does not always allow us to use checklists, however. Consider taking your preparation to the next level. Knowing that something can happen and then expecting it to happen takes the startle away and gives the pilot a plan of action that has already been decided. This saves critical time. For example, I often teach in Cessna 152s. It is not uncommon for a door to pop open on takeoff in these aircraft. I was always startled by this, until I started telling myself to expect the door to pop open on each takeoff. Having “the door will pop open” as part of my mental pre-takeoff briefing made all the difference. After that, I was no longer startled when it occurred. Actively expecting the door to open, and making it part of the takeoff experience, took the startle out of the equation. A door opening on takeoff should not be a safety issue, as the pilot should be able to continue flying the airplane. Unfortunately, the distraction caused by this event, and the lack of preparation to deal with such events in general, has contributed to accidents in the past, some fatal.

Pre-takeoff Briefings

Being startled anytime during flight is not desirable, but during a critical phase of flight is particularly undesirable. It does not take much imagination to come up with scenarios during takeoff or landing that could cause a startle effect. During my multiengine flight training, my instructor and father, Field Morey, emphasized the importance of “briefing the takeoff.” The Pilot’s Operating Handbook provides procedures for various types of engine failure during takeoff and climb out. Multiengine pilots must have these procedures memorized. Of these procedures, the immediate action items are required to be memorized and practiced until they become second nature. Not responding quickly and correctly to an engine out in a piston twin-engine aircraft could easily result in catastrophe. Dad also gave me this bit of advice when it comes to losing an engine on takeoff in one of these types of aircraft: “No matter what the book says, if you lose an engine under pattern altitude, throttle back the good engine and land it straight ahead. You will walk away from that landing. If you try to nurse it around the pattern on one engine, you may well not walk away.” Every time I take off in a twin-engine aircraft, I review his words. They are part of my takeoff brief.

Single-engine pilots have less options and, as such, the pre-takeoff briefing has often been neglected in their training. Having an engine problem during takeoff, be it total loss of power or a reduction of power, should be anticipated with action plans reviewed prior to each takeoff. The following are the pre-takeoff briefings recommend by the Milwaukee FSDO FAASTeam. I have added comments.

“If there is any issue on takeoff and the aircraft is still on the runway, reduce power to idle, apply maximum braking, and hold centerline.” The goal of this being to stop the aircraft on the runway, but if this results in an overrun of the runway, so be it. Maximum braking does not mean locking up the brakes. Skidding or blowing a tire is not recommended, as skidding is not as effective at stopping an aircraft as controlled braking. Blowing a tire at touchdown speed may well result in an off-runway excursion.

“If an engine fails after rotation with runway remaining, immediately throttle to idle, and land.” This includes lowering the nose and establishing best glide. Apply maximum braking as described in the aborted takeoff scenario and hold centerline.
“If there is an issue during climb out and below 1000 feet AGL, pitch for best glide and land straight ahead, +- 30 degrees of heading.” Be aware of the wind direction and if possible, land into the wind.

There is much debate as to what to do at what altitude. Each pilot must consider the performance of their aircraft, the wind, the surrounding terrain, and their skill level before making that decision. The important thing is, make this decision prior to taking off. Know where you will land if the engine goes silent. You should consider making small adjustments to your plan of action dependent on unforeseen conditions, but the basic plan should be adhered to.

Having grown up in an aviation family, I have been privileged to listen to the stories of aviation pioneers. Listening to my grandfather, Howard Morey, and his good friend, Steve Wittman, talking about the old days was a rare treat and very instructive. Both Mr. Wittman and my grandfather had learned to fly in aircraft that were far less reliable than today’s aircraft. As a result, they were always looking for and keeping track of potential emergency landing fields. Their expectation was that the engine would fail because they had both experienced multiple-engine failures in their training. The likelihood of an engine failure is far less than it was back in the 1920s and ‘30s but is still possible. Taking a lesson from those who survived multiple engine failures just seems prudent for today’s pilots.

Keep in mind that it is far more likely that you will experience a partial engine failure or loss of power, than a complete engine failure. In this case, your actions need to consider the degree of loss.

I once lost about 10-15 percent power on takeoff with a student in a C152. This happened on climb out and at about 100 feet AGL, and was later determined to be caused by one of the magnetos failing. The aircraft continued to climb, but at a lesser rate. I chose to fly the pattern and land, rather than making an off-field landing. Had the power loss been more substantial, I may well have chosen to land it straight ahead.

Landings offer many opportunities to become startled. Just like takeoffs, it is important to plan ahead. If each landing is approached with the idea that a go-around may be required, then when it is required, it will be expected.

When turning final, I make it a habit to scan the runway and the surrounding areas for animals, vehicles, or other aircraft. I particularly pay close attention to high-wing aircraft snugged up to the hold short line, or any aircraft that I cannot “make eye contact with.” If the pilot of the aircraft cannot see final approach, the likelihood of them taxiing onto the runway is greater. For this reason, I teach my students to hold further back on the taxiway, where they can observe both base and final approach to the runway of which they are holding short.

By conducting a pre-takeoff briefing, the likelihood of pilots being “startled” by issues on takeoff are minimized. Actively having the expectation of something going wrong, rather than just the knowledge of it, and having an action plan thought out ahead of time, will minimize potential startle/freeze response and maximize the possibility of a good outcome. Be safe, expect the unexpected, and plan accordingly!

Safety seminars on the “Startle Effect” will be held throughout Wisconsin in the coming months. I urge you to attend, and to incorporate takeoff pre-briefings into every flight.

This article was in part based on the FAASTeam safety seminar on “Startle Effect,” presented by the following people:
Jurg Grossenbacher, FAASTeam Program Manager, Milwaukee FSDO.
Troy Siekas, FAASTeam Program Manager.
Levi Eastlick, Chief Pilot, Bureau of Aeronautics, State of Wisconsin.
Laura Herrman, FAA Lead Safety Representative.
Steve Krog, FAASTeam Lead Safety Representative.
Carley Young, FAASTeam Safety Representative.

Thank you all for your insights!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Morey was born into an aviation family. He is the third generation to operate the family FBO and flight school, Morey Airplane Company at Middleton Municipal Airport – Morey Field (C29), Middleton, Wisconsin. Among Richard’s diverse roles include charter pilot, flight instructor, and airport manager. He holds an ATP, CFII, MEII, and is an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) with Inspection Authorization (IA). Richard has been an active flight instructor since 1991 with over 15,000 hours instructing, and almost 19,000 hours total time. Of his many roles, flight instruction is by far his favorite! Comments are welcomed via email at
Rich@moreyairport.com or by calling 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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