Takeoff Briefings for Singles

baron-off-airport

I wonder why takeoff briefings are not typically taught or performed in single-engine airplanes. I think they should be, because they’re as important — if not more so — in a single than the multi-engine airplanes where they’ve long been standard procedure.

Air Safety Institute data show that regardless of category and class, the takeoff and landing phases are where most accidents occur. It’s true of the light GA airplanes you and I are so passionate about, and even more so for the Gulfstream IV I fly at work. In fact, since the G-IV went into service in 1987, there have only been four fatal accidents, but all of them were during takeoff or landing.

While thinking through the particulars of a low-altitude emergency prior to takeoff won’t help in every scenario, it certainly underscores the hazards inherent in flying close to the ground. A thoughtful takeoff briefing is important because emergencies and mechanical failures are as common and dangerous in singles as in twins. Things happen quickly when the engine quits at low altitude. Doesn’t it makes sense that the time to prepare for emergent situations is well before venturing into situations where they might occur?

I fly a wide variety of aircraft, and that provides additional rationale for a takeoff briefing because proper procedures vary from from one airplane (and situation) to another. For example, when flying a Cirrus, the ballistic recovery parachute is an option and a briefing helps reinforce when and where it will be used. On the other hand, if I’m flying a multi-engine recip, I’d probably want to keep flying if an engine quit after lift-off. But even in a typical GA single, there are still lots of decisions to make: where to land, which way to turn, when you can safety make a turnaround, etc. An intelligent pilot will consider the wind direction & velocity, runways in use, traffic conflicts, and more.

So why aren’t single engine pilots exposed to this during training? For one thing, today’s teaching methodology is based on material that’s been in use for half a century. Anyone who’s taken an FAA knowledge test can tell you that. Back then, airspace was simple, open fields were everywhere, and it was assumed you’d just glide down to landing. Today? It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider my neighborhood. At Santa Monica, you practically touch the roof of a gas station before reaching the numbers for runway 21. At Compton, homes are built so close to the field that residents can count the rivets dotting the underbelly of a landing aircraft’s fuselage. Airports like Hawthorne and Fullerton? Good luck. Obstacles in every direction, including some of the most densely populated parts of Southern California.

You might be thinking “Ah, my airport is nothing like that!”. Maybe so, but even if you’re based at a rural field, you probably fly to urban or mountainous airports from time to time. Something else to consider: if I’ve learned one thing from my seventeen years of flying, it’s that real world failures don’t always mimic our training. I’ve had several emergency situations, but not one of them was anything like the standard training scenarios.

The most common simulated emergency is a total engine failure. In reality, powerplant failures are often partial. You’ll lose one cylinder, but the rest still function. The decision making process is more complex in those cases. You have a partial power loss, but it’s entirely possible that amidst the vibration you’ll have enough power to maintain level flight. Do you fly around the pattern? Nurse it up high enough to turn around? Pull the power and land on the remaining runway? You’ve only got one chance to get it right. The pilot most likely to do that is the one who has thought these things through.

Because they’ve been around for half a century, you’d imagine the takeoff briefing would be pretty much set in stone, but even today they undergo frequent modification. Gulfstream recently changed it’s philosophy on this and emphatically states that “there is no such thing as a standard briefing”. I wholeheartedly agree with that approach. Aircraft weight, wind, weather conditions, alternate options, and many other variables are always changing. Note that none of those factors are limited to multi-engine transport-cateogry jets — they are equally applicable to a single engine trainer.

What we’re really talking about here is the role of a pilot. Those who know me can attest to my affinity for high quality stick-and-rudder skills. But anyone can learn to physically maneuver an airplane. The safest pilots are the ones who manage risk effectively. That means having a contingency plan for as many “what-ifs” as possible before shoving the throttle forward for takeoff.

25 comments

  1. People always ask me “hey Graeme, how long did it take you to learn to fly?” or “how long do you think it would take you to teach me how to fly” What I want to say but keep to myself is “I could probably teach you to fly and physically maneuver the plane in an hour..but to become a pilot? That might take a lifetime”

    Since take offs are the most critical phase and most dangerous phase of flight (according to MC), there should be take off briefings. I think its in the PTS, well, at least my examiner required it, that on my Comm Check ride, he insisted on a T/O briefing. So I think at the commercial level its required.

    The only thing I have a slight disagreement on is when you said “mechanical failures are as common and dangerous in singles as in twins” but I would think in twins its 2X times more common as there is 2x as many parts to fail.

    I’ll end with an old twin antidote….”You know its a funny thing about those twin pistons….when one engine fails, the other engine will take you Directly to the crash site..”

    1. Yes, flying is like that old board game Stratego: “a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master”.

      As for the mechanical failures, you’re right that twice the number of parts means twice the odds of a failure for any given component. Having said that, the twin has options the single does not, so it’s hard to quantify the safety factor. Twins recips don’t have any better safety record than single-engine aircraft, and an engine failure after takeoff is always going to be dicey at best. They really shine during cruise and descent, where an engine failure is much less of a critical situation when compared to a single. They also sport system redundancy (alternators, vacuum/suction systems, etc) — at least, when things are working properly. :)

      1. HELLO RON. I LEARNED TO FLY FROM A 3000 FOOT DIRT RUNWAY IN A COTTON PATCH. MY INSTRUCTOR TAUGHT ME TO START MY TAKEOFF (AFTER A GOOD WALKAROUND PREFLIGHT) AT THE END OF THE RUNWAY. HE TAUGHT ME THE “RUNWAY BEHIND, THE GAS AT THE PUMP AND THE ALTITUDE ABOVE YOU” WERE THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER. THEY NEVER FAILED ME. ON ONE OCCASION, WE BLEW A JUG ON TAKEOFF. I YELLED, “wHAT DO i DO?” HE SAID, “I DON’T KNOW, IT HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME!” THEN i REMEMBERED, WHEN THE ENGINE QUITS, YOU BECOME A GLIDER PILOT. I SAVED THE LANDING.

        1. A great lesson! And a good argument for glider training even for power pilots. If you were departing out of a cotton patch, I’d imagine the surrounding area was relatively flat and unpopulated?

          Engine failures are probably less common nowadays than they were back then… but the airports are hemmed in by a lot more development these days, too, so it’s a mixed bag.

  2. Good post Ron. In light of the Mooney going down out of MYF last week in San Diego, the partial power scenario is real. After flying 121 and 135 for years, my briefing in my Bonanza takes a little more thinking, seriously. There are a few things to reach for in regards to fuel selector, mixture, mags, etc, all the while pitching down dramatically (depending on power available) and looking for a place to set down. I think most people believe the single is a no brainer if the engine quits, but quite the contrary. As far as the twin being safer, it’s dependent on the pilot of course. The redundancy that you speak of comes with a price that only a proficient pilot can afford.

    1. It’s interesting how an engine failure at 10,000′ near an airport is not a huge deal, while the same failure at 100′ or 1000′ might be far more perilous even with the best decision-making. Unfortunately, there are some phases of flight where the options are simply not that great, even in a multi. You summed it up pretty well with that last sentence.

  3. I was actually going to write about the MYF incident but completely forgot.

    I’m not sure if that was a back of the power curve issue because the media said it was on some kind of touch and go and you know the climb out profile of that mooney wing even when it’s clean. Or perhaps it was a partial power issue like Rapp said. Either way, a briefing for take out out of MYF is as Ron says, likens to CPN, or FUL, or HHR. There is the In N Out and then the target center just there. The only thing I saw out of FUL was that railway track.
    Either way, our aircraft still fly, unless you fly the pitts, when the engine quits… so just fly the plane which is exactly what the mooney pilot did sounds like.

    1. Actually, the Pitts does pretty well if the prop goes to high pitch the way it’s supposed to (or the pilot selects low RPM manually). One of the training tasks I’ll do with experienced Pitts pilots is to give them a simulated engine failure on downwind, but bring the prop back to low RPM. The glide ratio improves so dramatically beyond what they’re used to that most of them overshoot the runway the first couple of times.

  4. I was taught to do a briefing as we were sitting at the hold short line. In particular, at KSMO where I trained (and am based) it was “everything guarded until you can glide to the beach, don’t touch anything). And an understanding that you would land straight ahead until high enough to glide to the golf course, then high enough to make it to the beach. Once I can make it to the beach the flaps come up, the fuel pump is off and the RPMs drop back from takeoff power.

    These briefings have made me much more comfortable with high altitude operations going through the Rockies. I don’t touch anything until we can glide somewhere or turn back to the field. That’s important when you are departing Wyoming’s higher airports and a box climb for fifteen minutes is necessary before you can continue on course with safe terrain clearance.

    1. Interesting. I’d never heard of single engine pilots doing them, but I guess some do!

      A box climb is a wonderful thing. Altitude means options. Even around Socal, there are good places to use them — Catalina and Big Bear come to mind. I suppose it’s a testament to the reliability and maintenance of our airplanes that we see so few issues from airplanes departing places like Santa Monica.

      1. Ron, the most recent PTS requires a preflight briefing for passengers, though they do not state what should be covered. I normally teach that they at least need to know how to fasten and unfasten their restraints, how to open the door and when to keep their hands away from any controls. If you need help after a power failure, it would be wise to even offer how to exit the airplane under such situations. One has to consider the flight, the passengers and what you might say that could cause fear with new flyers.

        1. Yes, the passenger briefing has long been a legal requirement. I was referring to a pilot takeoff briefing of the kind used by multi-engine pilots — basically a plan of action for emergencies during or shortly after takeoff. When to abort, when to continue, where to land if necessary, that sort of thing.

  5. At our 141 flight school, a pre-takeoff briefing has been required for all levels of training since well before I came here in 2009. And I came from bizjets to this operation, so I was pleasantly surprised that the pro-pilot hopefuls we were training were already explaining their thought process about “what if” something happens on takeoff and climbout. Part of our primary training is simulating “the impossible turn” at altitude in the practice area so our students know just how much altitude they really need to get back to the airport in the case of an engine failure on climbout. Our single engine students understand that it’s better to come down straight ahead, under control, regardless of the landing surface, than to run out of airspeed, altitude and ideas all at the same time in a tight turn.

  6. I’ve done briefings during my training in a Piper Warrior, but not on every flight.

    Just this past weekend I did one out loud before some solo pattern work… It had been a while since I flew solo.

  7. NICE WORK-i HAVE BEEN TAKING OFF AND LANDING FOR 60 YEARS–STILL ACTIVE–YOUR COMMENTS BRING BACK THE IMPORTANCE OF BRIEFINGS, TO STUDENTS, AND EVEN IF ONLY TO YOURSELF. THANKS AGAIN

  8. Ron, who says that single engine pilots don’t prepare as pilots of twins do? Sure I don’t have a lot to do with a Stearman but structurally
    I can see and check all control surface attach points (try checking them on your G4! ) Also, I’m always ready to use south side grass if power
    is lost or diminished on takeoff and I’m always on the lookout for a place to put her down should the big noisy thing up front take the day off.

    I most assuredly would rather be in the Stearman should power be lost than in a kerosene burning luxery liner which has a VMC well over 100
    knots or more! Try setting that down on a golf course or road and having anyone survive. Anyhow, of course it is always to think of all the things
    that could go wrong before launching and in that regard I agree with you totally.
    Best, Martin Benson

    1. I wouldn’t say that single-engine pilots don’t prepare as well as those flying twins. But I had never heard of a takeoff briefing before I started flying aircraft with multiple engines and always thought it could be equally valuable regardless of the aircraft type. I’ve noticed that there’s something to learn from each kind of flying. For example, sailplanes taught me a lot about aircraft performance, speed-to-fly, and other such concepts.

      As for a power loss, yes, the Stearman is just about the ideal aircraft for that scenario. Slow flying/short landing capability, and a structure that’s as tough as nails.

  9. Nice article! Learned to fly in 2009 and Take-Off Briefings, were part of it since my first flight. We were taught to discuss three scenarios before we left the stand. It now is a habit on every flight.

  10. It all boils down to one very important part of every airplane, and that is the Pilot !! The pilot is the only part of that airplane that can say we will or we won’t , period..It dos’ent matter much of anything else. If the pilot is compitant and has his stuff together, without a dought he will make the right desition and come out with a good ending. I have flown with people that say and think they are Gods gift to piloting, and if reallity they just plain suck….A very good friend of mine continous to tell me how he knows everything about flying and I keep bringing out things to him that could of gotten us in big trouble.. Its not the airplane folks, It’s the PIC and the brain between his ears that will triumph!! Sorry..Joe Gutierrez

    1. No need to apologize, Joe. I think most folks would agree with you. Of course, even good pilots may make a poor judgement every now and then. I include myself in that august group. So if there’s something we can learn from it, perhaps it will make the difference one day for a fellow aviator.

  11. Great post Ron! This is something that many don’t give much thought. After teaching engine failures on takeoffs for years, I still have heightened awareness in that first 800′ and I’m thinking about where I would go if it quit. Great discussion.

    1. Thanks Brent. Heightened awareness is a perfect description of it. I always feel infinitely more relaxed once I see a thousand feet on the altimeter, especially around SoCal.

  12. A few decades ago I was ‘time building’ in multi engine aircraft. An older and much wiser pilot taught me that the last thing I should do before takeoff is go through the ‘engine failure on takeoff’ checklist. Touch or point to each lever, switch and gauge. That way if an engine fails on takeoff I’ll be repeating something that I did moments before, not trying to remember something that I haven’t done for a long time. I carried that over into my single engine flying.

    As a glider pilot on aero tows I learned to ‘call out’ when passing through the altitude above which I could turn back to the airport in the event of a rope break. I carried that over to my ‘power’ flying. That pretty well assures that I’ll make the right decision about whether or not to turn back, and it means that my decision will be immediate rather than wasting time and losing altitude while I try to decide.

    1. Ah yes, the 200′ call-out — I remember it well from my own glider training. Cirrus teaches something similar on the SR20/22. At a specific altitude, the call-out is “flaps and CAPS”, a reminder that the flaps can be raised and that the ballistic recovery system is now available for use. In aerobatic aircraft, I like to brief the minimum altitude at which we can safely bail out and what that procedure is.

      The takeoff briefing is useful in every aircraft.

  13. Since some replies mentioned a passenger briefing, I’ll share my ‘passenger briefing checklist’ for part 91 flights in light aircraft.

    Passenger Safety Briefing
    S: Seatbelts and seat adjustment
    A: Air vents and action to prevent airsickness
    F: Fire extinguisher and first aid kit
    E: Exits, emergencies, and equipment
    T: Traffic and talking (‘sterile cockpit’ for takeoff, approach and landing)
    Y: Your questions?

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