Giving Pilots “Sharp Tools”?

S.A.F.E. is presenting “The Improbable Turn” this Thursday at 8PM with Rod Machado and Russ Still. Please sign-up here; we even have a Lightspeed Zulu 3 headset to give away to FAA registered pilots (WINGS)! At the heart of the issue is the poor unfortunate pilot in a suddenly quiet plane in the air on takeoff (and his CFI responsible for providing guidance and solutions). So if this turns out to be you, what’s the “best” answer; and if you are a CFI, do we convey the simplest, safest advice or potentially risk more danger with the “sharper tool” of a turn back maneuver requiring greater judgement and skill?

This title comes from my childhood experience growing up in a family of feral brothers and friends always playing in the extensive woods around our home. My father was criticized by a neighborhood “helicopter mom” for letting his young son have a pocket knife (this was hunting and fishing, not “in the hood”). My mother’s defense was “if his father gave it to him, he also taught him how to use it safely” As CFIs, do we teach pilots the “least common denominator solution”? or can we risk “sharp tools” and teach judgment with the inevitable danger of misuse? I think every pilot (and CFI) has to decide this question for themselves, but we certainly want to carefully examine all available options.

So let’s freeze our airplane and pilot at that “point of decision” when our engine coughs and goes silent on takeoff; CRAP, THIS IS BAD! Imagine yourself in this situation. These failures are usually powerplant (89%) and statistically catastrophic, though often avoidable (fuel mismanagement 38.8%).  So step one is more careful preparation before advancing the throttle on takeoff to eliminate ever having to choose a solution in the air. Step two is being contantly vigilant on every takeoff so we are ready if we have to suddently “do that pilot stuff”.

Once in this “awkward agl,” power failure situation, only one thing is certain; we will be on the ground in about a minute-either as a falling object or in a successful outcome. Comparing straight ahead with turning back is statistically difficult since successful turn-backs are seldom recorded. What we *do* know is that only 4.8% of emergency off-field landings are fatal and in 83% there are “little or no injuries.” (from the excellent Rod Machado emergency programs). Straight ahead at best glide with slight turns is a remarkably good solution. It is also important to remember at this point of decision “the insurance company owns the plane” and your primary goal is to save yourself, your passengers and minimize any threat to people on the ground. Another solid fact is that if you attempt a turn-back and screw it up, this loss of control will almost certainly be a fatal stall/spin ending.

But pilots *do* regularly complete this tricky emergency maneuver and turn back successfully; that is what we will discuss this Thursday. Glider pilots are required to perform this maneuver on every checkride. My previous 135 training in the PC-12 required a turn around to be demonstrated ever 6 months our regular ATP checkride. What would I personally do at this “point of decision” and what should I teach this as a CFI? (my personal score is currently 2 and 2 in 48 years of flying) The successful execution entirely depends on altitude, preparation, proficiency and the context of wind and geometry for each unique runway situation. If you have *not* carefully evaluated and prebriefed this maneuver and also practiced it at altitude, absolutely land straight ahead with slight turns to a hopeful landing. In the 135 flying world, standard operating procedures requires that before every takeoff  we precisely brief all our options; straight ahead and turnback altitude. This includes who will fly, when and which way to turn back; also who works the radios and where to land. (At most urban airfields there are also few open areas.)

Join us Thursday, there is lots more to discuss, but on every takeoff please do your homework and make your decision *before* takeoff. Also always exercise extreme vigilance as you advance that throttle for takeoff. We know this is a statistically a very dangerous time (24% of fatal accidents). Though flying is fun we also have the huge responsibility of managing risks.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!


Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

Tell us what *you* think!