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From the Desk of the Safety Office


Michael May, Standards Officer WVFC


The Takeoff Briefing

One of the last things that most pilots do before taking the runway to depart is recite an emergency briefing for an engine malfunction either during, or shortly after, the takeoff roll. The generic version goes something like this: “If we don’t have xx airspeed by the midpoint of the runway we abort. If the engine quits before rotation we abort. If we lose the engine before xx altitude we pitch for glide and land straight ahead.” There are many variations to this but this is a very common version that gets recited countless times a day around the country. Most of us struggle through this briefing while we’re learning (much like we struggle on the radio), and then spit it out without a second thought once we’ve gotten the script memorized.

Since many of us recite this briefing from memory, I think it’s worth diving a little deeper into the logic that’s behind the briefing. Take a moment to ask yourself if you really stop and think about what you would do in the event of an abnormality at low altitude when you’re getting ready to take off. Do you adjust your briefing for different airports, runways, or terrain? Or is it the same statement rattled off every time, no matter the environment? Here’s another question: How often have you practiced engine failures shortly after takeoff in training? I’m certain that I’ve never met anyone that has claimed to be proficient at this, and since direct training is not practical its all the more reason to have a good briefing.

The rule-of-thumb that the FAA recommends when deciding to abort a takeoff is based on airspeed. If you haven’t reached 70% of your rotation speed by the midpoint of the runway it’s time to abort. This works pretty well at PAO and SQL, but not so much at longer runways. Consider taking off from runway 30L at SJC. The midpoint of that runway is over a mile from the starting point, and I can’t imagine any of us would still be attempting a takeoff if we hadn’t reached 40-50 KIAS (depending on the airplane type) long before we were 5500 feet down the runway. How many of us still recite the standard briefing anyway though?

What about the elements that come after the plane is airborne? This part of the briefing has more than one purpose. It’s meant to have and review an escape plan should the need arise, but it’s also meant to remind you that returning to the airport below a predetermined altitude, while tempting, is not a viable option in most cases. But what if the terrain straight ahead doesn’t lend any good alternatives? Taking off on Runway 30 at SQL comes to mind when thinking of this scenario. Straight ahead puts you in the lobby of the Oracle building, or in one of the many warehouses or neighborhoods that surround it. Not exactly a great option either.

You may be noticing that I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the briefing but giving few answers. If the answers were consistent or easy then the takeoff briefing wouldn’t be important, and that’s why a well thought out briefing that is relevant to the airplane, the runway, and the conditions is far more useful than one that just recites a canned statement from memory. The first minute after beginning the takeoff roll is one where the airplane and its occupants are the most vulnerable. Safety margins (airspeed and altitude) don’t exist yet, and options are extremely limited. It is one of the very few emergency scenarios in aviation that is measured in seconds, and it is not the place to realize that the takeoff briefing doesn’t apply to the situation. While having an engine failure shortly after takeoff may be unlikely, making sure you correctly identify the few options that you do have before you begin your flight requires very little effort. Should the unlikely occur you will be glad you did.