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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