by Nate "Buster" Jaros
As you probably know, I often discuss airborne, and in-flight emergencies, and emergency procedures (EPs) centered around engine failures and so forth while traveling around the skies. If you’ve read my book Engine Out Survival Tactics, you know it’s an extremely thorough look at this specific EP, and provides pilots with some concepts and training regimens to help solve that difficult puzzle. What I’d like to do now is to have a look at another specific emergency, one that is not discussed too often in GA, but trained and discussed heavily in the military and professional flight operations. We are going to look at three key considerations during an aircraft emergency on the runway.
The following are three important considerations to think about every time you take the runway for takeoff, or land…with or without an emergency. The following works for takeoffs, aborts, normal landings, and emergency landings too.
Bottom line: if you’re on a runway here are three things that you need to know. Here we go!
1. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
Fly the plane first, and know if you should go or stop (more on that next). Whatever you are doing, get the thing under control, get it on centerline and get it stopped safely. With a fire or some other engine problem, or even controllability issues like a blown tire or such, your only job is to aviate. Don’t worry about what happens next, or what’s going on on the radio, or that Air Force One in on six mile final behind you…fly the airplane and get it safely stopped.
Keep it on the runway, and fly it till the last part stops moving. Use all available controls - brakes, steering, crosswind controls. That is job number one! If you’re going to depart the prepared surface, continue to do your best at controlling the aircraft, and consider shutting down the engine.
During a takeoff, be ready for anything. Again, job one here is to aviate…nothing else. When I’m traveling down the runway on takeoff, I’m mentally prepared for an abort every time. Sometimes I even say to myself “I’m aborting, I’m aborting, I’m aborting” until I pass my go/no-go point. More on that next. Be spring loaded to abort your takeoff with anything that doesn’t look right, sound right, or smell right. “Abort early, abort often” we sometimes say in the military training circles.
Remember, going Ferrari speeds on the ground with three little wheels, brakes, and tires near the departure end of the runway is risky stuff. Always aviate, navigate, then communicate…in that order, and based upon where you are at in this phase of flight - the aviate step is really the only thing you should be doing.
2. Know your TOLD
We need to take a deep look into what we in the military call TOLD (Takeoff and Landing Data). That might be the subject of an entire other article, or even a book, but you owe it to yourself to thoroughly understand TOLD for your aircraft and specifically how to make the Go/No-Go decision.
In single engine aircraft in the USAF we have something called Refusal Speed (RS). Refusal Speed is the maximum speed that the aircraft can attain on takeoff, then call for an abort (refuse the takeoff), and stop in the remaining runway. We calculate and brief a RS on every takeoff. Refusal speed is essentially a go/no-go decision maker number. If I'm below this speed and I have a problem, I can abort safely. If I am beyond, or faster than this speed, I don’t have the option for an abort anymore…I must continue to takeoff as an abort now would put me off the departure end of the runway surface. Make sense?
In some cases, on some runways, RS can be well past takeoff speed. Imagine a Cessna 152 taking off from Edwards runway 04R/22L which is 15,000 feet long. The little Cessna could takeoff, fly for nearly one minute and then still land safely in the remaining runway distance. For him, on that runway, his theoretical refusal speed might be well over 300 KIAS (obviously not reachable for the Cessna, but you get the point).
We don’t compute refusal speeds in GA. In fact because our takeoff rolls are so short relatively, it’s almost moot. But a way to calculate a Go/No-Go decision is needed, and our performance charts don’t often provide this important number. We’re all a bit like the little Cessna in that regard. Where it becomes critical is on shorter runways or when it’s hot, or the aircraft is heavy.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a refusal speed for your GA steed? The top speed you can attain and still stop in the remaining runway. In GA, we’re somewhat blind to this important and most useful feature found in bigger single engine aircraft. (Keep reading, I'll show you a tactic on how to develop this for your bird).
One additional (and critical part) of this RS discussion is first knowing that this (and any) arbitrary number in the performance charts is correct to begin with. What I mean is, how does a pilot even know if his aircraft is accelerating down the runway “with book speed?” How do you know that you are actually performing like the charts predict you are? For example, your charts say you should have a 900 foot takeoff roll today, at this wind, weight, and temperature. But how do you know your aircraft is performing “as advertised?”
Knowing this “engine performance” factor is critical in your TOLD. We call it Acceleration Check speed, or simply “the accel check.” Think about it like this. You’re rolling down the runway on takeoff, things seem great, but unbeknownst to you, your engine is only producing say, 50% thrust or horsepower. You might eventually reach that refusal speed, and liftoff speed, but it will take you a mile or more to reach that velocity. By then, you could be off the departure end of the runway, still not airborne, and yet below RS.
You, the pilot, need some way to validate that your engine is producing “book power” or all that refusal speed nonsense goes out the window. If you think about it, ALL your TOLD numbers, climb charts, cruise figures, etc are predicated on the fact that your engine is “normal.”
We use an Accel Check Speed in the Viper, and in single engine aircraft in the USAF. Here’s how it works. The Viper charts say that 1,000 feet past brake release we should be going 100 KIAS (on this given day, with this particular weight, and in this scenario). If I pass the “eight board” (9,000 foot runway) and I see 100 KIAS, I’m good. My TOLD is valid and my RS is valid and all my other assumptions for this takeoff are valid. My engine is “normal.” Cool.
But If I’m passing the eight board and I only see 90 (or less) KIAS…something is wrong. At that point I abort the takeoff. An abort at relatively lower speeds is far better than later or with less runway remaining. Does that make sense? Accel check speed is a check speed, at a certain check distance. And it’s sole purpose it to validate engine performance, thus validating the rest of your performance charts.
You might be able to determine what an appropriate Accel Check speed is for your aircraft, and use it on every takeoff. If you are taking off from a high DA airport and don’t lean your NA bird correctly, you can catch an underperforming engine early. Or if you fear those tall trees at the departure end with a full load of fuel and folks, knowing a baseline for adequate (and correct) performance for your bird is paramount. A way to validate your engine performance early in the takeoff run, would be extremely smart.
We commonly don’t have refusal speeds and acceleration check speeds in GA aircraft (as they are not typically provided by the manufacturer via actual testing). The March 2103 Cirrus SR-22 Information Manual, Performance Data section even states “Computed performance data in this section are based upon data derived from actual flight testing with the airplane and engine in good condition and using average pilot techniques.” They are basically saying the same thing…the engine and airplane are normal, and all your performance data is based on that.
One simple TOLD technique for us in GA that mimics an Accel Check speed, and a Refusal Speed is to ensure you reach 70% of your takeoff speed by the time you are halfway down the runway. This is sometimes called the 50/70 rule. And it works!
I actually have a mark I made with a piece of tape on my airspeed indicator at my typical 70% speed, and I always figure out what the runway markings or distance remaining markers should say at halfway down the field, and ensure I hit my 70% speed by that point. It’s a check speed, at a certain check distance. And because we don’t have a reliable method to figure an Accel Check speed in our aircraft, this method is perfect, applies on all runways, and should occur quite early in your takeoff roll.
Checking your performance on the takeoff is critical to identifying an engine emergency early, and it’s easy to do. Just ensure you do it every time, like we do in the F-16, T-38, and like the majors do as well.
I know this was a long discussion, but it’s vitally important. Know your TOLD.
3. To Taxi or Not To Taxi…That is the Question
You’ve successfully landed with a problem, or emergency and stopped on the runway. Or maybe you aborted a takeoff and got it safely stopped on the runway. Great job! Now what? Do we taxi back to the hangar?
In the USAF we have a common phrase that we use when discussing various EPs and EP scenarios. We use this phrase to “sanity check” the outcome of our thoughts or proposed plan. The phrase is “what would the line on the accident review board results read, if I continue to do this?” Here’s how it works.
Picture a perfect landing with a brake failure, you somehow get the thing stopped safely and all is good. Now the decision to continue to taxi the aircraft clear of the runway, with a brake failure, looms. What do you do?
Ask your self what the accident board would say, or what their writeup would read and you’ll gain some clarity.
“Mr. Buster, the mishap pilot (PIC), successfully landed his Bonanza with a brake failure. Following the successful landing, while attempting to taxi with no brakes, he lost control of the mishap aircraft and entered a ditch on the side of the runway, causing a prop strike, engine damage, undercarriage damage…. etc.”
Get it? You can also apply this sanity check phrase to other aspects of your daily flying. When you find yourself asking “Do I really have to sump the tanks? Should I accept an intersection departure when it’s hot and the airplane is heavy? Should I fly under that bridge?”
Ask your self what the accident board’s writeup might look like following your question, and you’ll immediately know the answer.
As far at taxiing clear after landing or aborting with an emergency, that is a typical question that I see many many USAF students struggle with in T-38s and in the F-16. If you have an engine failure, well that decision is made for you already…you’re not going anywhere. But what about a rough running engine, or low oil pressure, or some other engine anomaly? I’m not saying you shouldn’t taxi clear, but the sooner you get the engine shut down, the less damage that you might inflict on the suffering motor. You also don’t know what is going on up there in the cowl, maybe there is a fire, or soon to be a fire. Shutting things down as early as practical during any engine anomaly is smart business.
We sometimes teach that if you have to push up the power (with an engine anomaly) to move the airplane on the ground, that you are probably doing it wrong.
Another consideration is any kind of brake failure or brake issue, a blown tire, or any kind of steering difficulty. The USAF actually has a safety rule on these sorts of things for most aircraft. It says “don’t move the aircraft.” Simple.
If you have a problem with controlling the aircraft on the ground, get it stopped and leave it. You don’t want to inflict more harm, and honestly, it’s not like you're on the deck of an Aircraft Carrier where low fuel aircraft are on short final and you need to get out of the way. Other local aircraft can land on other runways, divert, or even land on taxiways (with tower approval) in an emergency.
Think about how stupid you’re going to feel (that line in the accident board’s findings again) if you decide to taxi clear of the runway with a flat tire/brake failure/steering problem and lose control of the aircraft…just to allow that other GA single behind you (with probably four hours of fuel on board) to land, or do a touch and go.
It’s your call, but I’m airing on the conservative side. That has done me good for a career in the USAF and 2,000+ hours in fighters.
Here's a video of a Cessna landing with a flat right tire. They did a great job!
Top Photo credit Flying Magazine
Nate "Buster" Jaros
What is Engine Out? Relevant aviation topics, key safety techniques, war stories, and pilot tips from Fightersweep writer and the author of Engine Out Survival Tactics, Fighter Pilot Tactics for GA Engine Loss Emergencies.
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