07 - Engine Failure after Take-off

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Hello again everybody,

I don't know how many of us are members of Recreational Aviation Australia (RAA - formerly the AUF) and have seen the June & July 2004 issues of their magazine, Recreational Aviation, but they contained a couple of excellent articles on engine failure after take-off, entitled: How the Turn-Back can be FATAL. If you get the chance, I urge you to read each of them a couple of times, to be sure the lessons have sunk in.

In my (never humble) opinion, the most important point Mike Valentine mentions is ALWAYS to think in advance about what you will do when (not IF) your engine fails after take-off (say, up to 2,000 feet). Then have a specific plan of action in the forefront of your mind BEFORE ever opening the throttle.

Let me tell you how I do this, and it might give you some positive ideas. I first think about the weather (and, most importantly, the wind direction) the night before I intend to fly. Then, as I walk from my house to my car, I sniff the air, to see if the wind is blowing the way the met men said it would. That tells me which runway will probably be in use, so I have some idea of what terrain will be below me after take-off.

Then, while making that interminable, slow, dreary drive along the freeway, I can think a bit more about my engine failure plan. How heavy will I be today? What passengers and baggage, and how much fuel will I be carrying? That tells me my best glide speed, which is of course dependent on weight. Then, when my engine fails, I know I just have to push forward positively to the attitude that gives me this speed. I can do that instinctively and promptly, giving my eyes and brain time to look for a useable paddock.

Also during my drive to Serpentine (or Jandakot, or wherever) I can review the ground state. Is it baked hard, or wet and soft? That may dictate which fields I can use.

Is the wind straight along the runway, or does it come at an angle from one side? In which case, it would presumably be best to turn directly into wind if the engine quits at low level, or maybe downwind, to cover more ground, if it stops higher up. At what height should I make the transition from into-wind turn to downwind turn? When will I be high enough to make an abbreviated circuit? Should that be to the left (which might mean flying over hard-edged and fuel-filled hangars inhabited by soft and vulnerable bodies) or should I make my circuit to the right, perhaps over more open ground.

Might there be a fighting chance of landing on a different runway to the one I took off from? Which way would I have to turn? How high would I need to be?

These are all decisions we can have made and implanted in our minds before we even get to the airfield, although, of course, we might have to modify them a bit when we get there. Believe me, when your engine starts chugging and missing at 200 feet, or the vibration suddenly becomes so bad you cannot see, with no prior plan of action, your brain will freeze. But if you already have a plan, you just lower the nose and go straight into it, and things start coming good again.

Finally, please get it set firmly in your mind that if your engine so much as coughs during the take-off roll, or sounds wrong, or doesn't seem to be producing full power, or the aeroplane doesn't seem to be accelerating normally, or if an any other way you are uncertain that things are perfect, simply close the throttle and apply the brakes to stop and sort out the problem.

Believe me, as one who has been there only too often (with the soiled underwear to prove it) it is far better to be on the ground wishing you were up in the air, than..

Now, when I stall and flick into the trees after my engine fails on take-off, you can have a good laugh and say "He didn't have a plan. But I do!"


Bob Grimstead
SABC Safety Committee