Managing Risk: “Cleared For Take-Off!”

By Steve Rossiter, an ATP/CFII in both helicopters and fixed wing. After flying two tours in Vietnam he served two tours as an Army Instructor Pilot (one in helicopters and one in airplanes). Steve has been a CFI and professional pilot for over 50 years.

I live on a hill overlooking the airport in Missoula, Montana (KMSO), so I have an opportunity daily to see airplanes taking off and landing. It has always been interesting to me that so many pilots choose to make intersection takeoffs instead of using the full length of the runway. Of course, at Missoula there is plenty of runway in both directions for most general aviation airplanes to takeoff. But is it a good idea to only use half the runway? We each have our own opinion on this question. However, I’m taking this opportunity to discuss my position.

When I’ve talked to pilots about intersection departures, not just in Missoula, I hear all sorts of rationales: It’s faster. It costs less to taxi the shorter distance. It’s not unsafe. It’s not illegal. I operate from shorter runways all the time. All of these comments are absolutely true. So, why the discussion then?

Having been a professional pilot for 52 years, a certificated flight instructor for 50 years, and a graduate of the USC Aviation Safety Management and Accident Investigation Program, I’ve sat around many airports “hangar flying” with lots of pilots, most of whom were professional pilots, and the consensus has been that, as a rule, intersection departures are not considered the best idea. Say what?

My main concern is safety. The fact is that it is not as safe to depart from an intersection as it is to depart using the full length of the runway. The operative term here is as safe. Consider this situation:

You accept a departure clearance from Taxiway Golf on runway 29 at KMSO. From Taxiway Golf you have 3,950 feet of runway available, more than enough runway for your airplane. When you get about 3,000 feet down the runway (either flying or still rolling on the ground), you suddenly experience a problem and need to be back on the ground and stopped as fast as possible. Let’s say that you are extremely proficient and you are able to get your airplane down and stopped, only overrunning the end of the runway by a few hundred feet. Oh, yeah, and you also ran through the first couple of layers of approach lights. Or you landed in the rolling hills west of the airport or in the grain field east of the airport.

If you’d had the same emergency situation using the full length of the runway, it would likely have been a non-event. It is unquestionably safer to depart from the beginning of the runway than it is to make an intersection departure. You will never need the extra distance of the full length of the runway until you need the full length of the runway. Is your crystal ball good enough to know the difference?   Mine isn’t.

A friend of mine’s crystal ball was not good enough either. He and another friend made an intersection departure in an airplane they had just purchased. About 400 feet in the air, they lost power. With no more runway ahead of them, the pilot attempted to turn back toward the airport. They ended up hitting a power line, a tree, and a fence before coming to a full stop in someone’s backyard. Although the airplane was destroyed and there was some damage on the ground, both pilot and passenger walked away from the accident site.

When the aircraft first lost power, how much do you think that pilot would have paid to have all the unused runway behind him back? Do you think he has thought about his decision to make an intersection takeoff since the accident? From the starting point at full length on a 9,500 foot runway, there still would have been runway in front of him or at least relatively flat ground. Do you think a pilot who has had such an experience might rethink the concept of full length departures as opposed to intersection takeoffs? Most important, will you learn from this pilot’s unhappy experience?”

Please remember that there is nothing more useless to a pilot than the runway behind him, the air above him, and the fuel left in the fuel truck.

I’ll always opt for the full length of the runway for takeoff except on the rare occasion when air traffic control requests the use of an intersection. In those cases, I am aware of and accept the higher level of risk associated with complying with their request. Whenever you make the choice to make an intersection takeoff, please acknowledge to yourself that you are accepting a higher than necessary level of risk and ask yourself if it is worth it.

Steve Rossiter is a Lifetime Member of SAFE. He started his flying career as an Army Aviator with two tours in Vietnam and two tours as an Army Instructor Pilot one in helicopters and one in airplanes. After his military service, he worked as a law enforcement pilot, an airtanker pilot, a helicopter firefighting pilot, an air taxi pilot, a helicopter external load pilot, a check pilot for the Department of Interior and US Forest Service, and prior to retirement, served as the National Aviation Safety Manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Steve holds an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate for both Airplanes and Helicopters and has several type ratings, Steve is also an Advanced and Instrument Ground Instructor and held CFII Airplane and Helicopter until 2014. He is currently President of EAA Chapter 517, Inc., and Vice-President of Five Valleys Hangar of the Montana Pilots Association.

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

6 thoughts on “Managing Risk: “Cleared For Take-Off!””

  1. Excellent article on managing risk. Perhaps pilots who choose to increase risk by only using half a runway for takeoff, have not thought through the level of responsibility flying entails? One tool I have used for many years when tempted to take the less safe option, is thinking; “If this goes wrong, who am I going to be explaining it to?”
    I conjure up an image of me sitting in an FAA FSDO conference room, my least favorite inspector drumming his fingers on the table saying; “Geeze, Charlie, what on earth were you thinking?” But it doesn’t stop there – The insurance agent, the owner of the airplane, my loved ones, the loved ones of any injured or deceased passengers, the jury in a civil law suit….. the list gets pretty long! Maybe that’s part of it? Pilots just don’t think of all the people to whom they are responsible before they push that throttle forward.

    1. Thanks to Steve for a great article! Surprisingly, the take-off is statistically the most dangerous (fatal) phase of flight! Ironically, it is also the most under-appreciated by pilots, probably mostly due to complacency; “Hard to miss the sky…” Loaded with fuel and not yet “warmed-up” on the controls or mentally prepped, pilots often just push up the throttle(s) and go.

      I advocate a complete take-off briefing, at every level of piloting, to consider the possible bad outcomes (premeditation of evils). This readies the mind into “Code Yellow” (the safety is off). Otherwise, the sudden surprise and inevitable “startle response,” can lead to delay and ineffective/inappropriate action when every second counts. I have had three failures immediately after take-off; it gets “exciting” fast! Though it is fortunately an unlikely occurrence, we need to train “expecting a surprise” 🙂

  2. Well Said. After my solo in a C-150 my instructor needed to meet a friend in Indiantown, FL, a 6,000 ft turf runway. I was to practice touch and goes while he met with his friend. I did, all went according to plan, until I picked him up mid field. He asked “can you take off from here”? I replied, sure, he said “never waste runway”. As we were back taxing (off center) one of the mains dropped in a gopher tortoise hole. Luckily the wheel pants were back in the hanger, we shut down and with some effort got unstuck. I guess not wanting to risk the nose wheel dropping in a hole, we taxied out to the center line, skipped the run up and took off with about 3,500 feet of turf in front of us. The plane seemed sluggish coming out of the grass. Then around 75 feet above the runway and the orange grove approaching fast, we lost one cylinder. I continued to fly as instructed, making a very shallow turn back to the runway while he leaned the mixture for maximum power on the 3 firing cylinders. Everything turned out fine, but I’ve never left runway behind me since. If I had completed the back taxi and had 6,000 feet of runway, I could have easily landed straight ahead. As it was, we didn’t know, so we continued and hoped the engine would keep running long enough to get us back over the runway. Any time you remove a safety margin, that is when ole Murphy will will strike!

  3. Starting takeoff from an intersection, instead of the full length of available runway, begins with a certain mindset. Call it complacency, or resignation that everyone else is doing it, or I’m saving taxi time, money and gas, whatever. I fly from several airports in my area, two have runways of 3200 ft., and two of 7000 ft. None of the runways has a suitable clear area to land on if I have an engine failure shortly after takeoff. One airport, the busiest of the four, routinely uses intersection departures for small, single and multi-engine airplanes. If a pilot requests full length from the control tower there is never a refusal or implied coercion to use an intersection. I operate from these airports as a CFI, a CAP member, and in the past, an airline pilot. As a CFI giving a flight review, or a CAP member riding with another CAP pilot in the left seat, I brief the remaining distance of runway available from the intersection. Surprisingly, almost shockingly, I’ve never had anyone rethink and change to using the full length. I then ask where they intend to land if the engine fails and we can’t turn back to the airport. Satisfactory answers are few.
    I’m hesitant to cite the FAR relating to preflight action, but I must. Flight rules sec. 91.103 (b) (1) (2). Read it, I won’t bore you further. Why waste perfectly good concrete and a great margin of safety! Would you takeoff with only one magneto working, or tires only half inflated, or only half of the weather briefing, or only a radio transmitter, and not the receiver, or only partial flight controls?
    To paraphrase others on this blog: When the accident investigator asks you why you didn’t use all the runway available, (if you survive) what are you going to say?

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