Aborting a Flight — Either on Takeoff or in the Sky — Can Be One of Aviation’s Most Difficult Decisions
Mention the word “abort” to a pilot, and you’ll immediately summon visions of every pilot’s nightmare — an engine failure on takeoff. The airlines have rigid rules for handling that problem; general aviation should have the same rules, but it usually doesn’t.
Airlines must deal with balanced field lengths, ref speeds, and a number of other constraints that can practically make any decision for them. That doesn’t necessarily make those decisions easier, but it at least tends to quantify the choices in hard and fast parameters. Airline crews drill every six months during recurrency checks on all possible emergencies and use sophisticated simulators to protect them from harm. Personal airplanes operate with a different set of rules.
All airliners fly behind at least two engines, while the vast majority of general aviation machines are singles. That obviously means any malfunction should demand an abort— unless that’s absolutely impossible. Even if we do fly twins, we’re sometimes operating from short runways in adverse conditions, situations where the decision to go or to stop can be extremely difficult … or not. Sometimes the decision to abort isn’t a matter of choice.
A Sub-Prime Example
I was bringing back a Cessna 421 from Subic Bay, Philippines, to Oakland, California, more than 10 years ago. The airplane was an old friend. I’d delivered it to Subic only three years before, but the diminishing supply of avgas in Indonesia and the Far East convinced the owners to trade up to a King Air.
The legs to Guam, USA, and on to Majuro, Marshall Islands, had gone without too much difficulty, and I’d overnighted in Majuro in preparation for the long, 2000-nm leg up to Honolulu.
At 7:00 the next morning, I was sitting in the airplane, ready to fly. Majuro’s only runway slices are along a rare, straight section of the narrow island. The ring atoll is only about an eighth of a mile from lagoon to Pacific, and runway 7/25 has beach on both sides, no more than 100 yards from the centerline. If you lose directional control left or right, there’s a good chance you’re about to get the airplane wet.
I lined up on Majuro’s runway 7, pushed up the power and watched the needles rise to the red lines. I released the brakes, and the 421 began to roll down the 7,900-foot concrete strip with the acceleration of an ice cream truck. Speed with the heavy overload of 350 gallons of ferry fuel eventually managed to reach liftoff, and I eased the big Cessna off the ground and struggled for altitude.
I was just reaching for the gear handle when the left engine suddenly lost power. The airplane pulled hard left, and the port wing dropped toward the sand. I chopped the right throttle, managed to level the wings, slammed the 421 back onto the concrete and stood on the brakes as the runway end fence loomed straight ahead.
The twin Cessna finally screeched to a stop a short distance from the fence, with two flat-spotted tires and burned out brakes trailing smoke. I was able to turn off at the end onto the northwest ramp, but unable to taxi as the left engine, though still running, was unresponsive to the throttle, and the brakes were pretty well fried.
It turned out the left throttle linkage had snapped immediately after takeoff, probably a result of three years of corrosion in the salty, humid air of the Philippines. I don’t usually deal in what ifs, but I couldn’t help speculating what would have happened had the linkage waited another 10 seconds to break. By that time, I would have been out over the water. At 1,400 pounds over gross, the 421 would have stood no chance of flying on the remaining engine.
Making the Decision
In this case, the abort was my only choice, but some instances may not seem so clear cut. Back in the 20th century, Cessna used to build a centerline thrust twin called the Skymaster. The design was intended to eliminate the minimum control speed (Vmc) associated with asymmetric thrust and improve the chances of surviving an engine failure.
There was one problem, however: the rear prop was a “pusher” mounted on the aft fuselage, out of sight and (often) out of mind. That meant some pilots would try to save a little fuel by taxiing on the front engine only. (You couldn’t taxi on the rear engine alone for more than a few minutes, as without ram air or the front prop turning, the aft engine would overheat in a hurry.)
Most pilots were smart enough to abort when full throttles didn’t produce normal takeoff power, but incredible as it may seem, some Skymaster aviators would forget to start the aft engine — or to restart it if it had idled out — and initiate takeoff with only the front mill running.
It might seem impossible not to notice that the airplane wasn’t accelerating properly, but several pilots still blundered off the end of runways wondering why their shiny Skymaster wasn’t accelerating very well. Cessna solved the problem by placing the world’s largest alternator-out light on the panel to indicate that one or both alternators weren’t on line. Cessna also modified the takeoff checklist to require leading takeoff power with the rear (right) throttle first. If there was no response, fill in the blanks.
The more typical problem of determining when to abort a departure is usually a fairly simple decision. In a single, ANY anomaly that affects the airplane’s ability to lift off and climb or distracts the pilot should be cause for retarding the power and aborting the takeoff — assuming there’s adequate runway remaining. In addition to the obvious loss of partial engine power, that includes an electric fuel pump that’s inop, a door or window that pops open, flaps that refuse to retract or extend properly, a seat that won’t adjust, an oil filler cap that’s not properly tightened, the odor of electrical smoke in the cockpit and like that.
This isn’t to suggest that many of these problems can’t be dealt with in the air. The difficulty is that takeoffs are perhaps the most demanding segment of flight and require your undivided attention. If you have the option of handling these difficulties on the ground, you’ll be less liable to become distracted and perhaps fly the airplane into the ground.
The Other Scenarios
Unfortunately, not all aborts are associated with takeoff, though problems during departure may be the most critical. Perhaps the more difficult decision is related to aborting a flight already in progress, and performing a precautionary landing. This could be a result of adverse weather, poor fuel planning, or a number of other circumstances. If there’s an airport nearby, the choice is simpler, as there’s little chance of damaging the airplane. The problem arises when you’re forced to consider an off-airport landing with a perfectly good airplane under you.
I made one of those in Alaska 30 years ago because of a stupid weather call. I had plenty of fuel, and the new Mooney’s engine was running perfectly, but the ceiling/visibility was rapidly deteriorating toward zero/zero. At the time, I was doing what Alaskan pilots do all too often — scud running. The scud simply got lower than I expected.
Fortunately, there was a convenient straight stretch of highway nearby and no traffic in sight. Landing on a highway is legal in Alaska (provided you don’t hit anything), a benefit not shared in most states. I taxied the airplane to a wide spot, shut down, tailed it as far off the road as I could, and settled in to wait out the weather. An Alaska Highway Patrol officer stopped to check out the new Mooney. He hung around and talked airplanes for a while before he got a call and went on his way with a smile and a “Be careful.”
But let’s say you’re basically out of options. You’re faced with an off-airport landing, and there’s a good chance you may damage the airplane in the process. That’s a tougher call. Do you continue in inclement weather and take your chances or do you do the best you can with whatever’s below?
Unfortunately, too many pilots choose to continue on the premise that things are bound to get better. Bad idea. In keeping with Murphy’s Law, things are more likely to get worse.
Watching Your Fuel
Another typical scenario is the pilot who runs his fuel reserves too tight because of poor planning or unexpected winds. (The rule is: Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to result in stronger headwinds.) Then, they must decide whether to make a controlled precautionary landing at a preselected site while power is still available or be forced into accepting a power-off landing at whatever semi-flat location they can reach within gliding distance.
A single engine instrument readout shouldn’t necessarily be a reason to consider a precautionary landing. A high or low cylinder head temperature, unsupported by any other abnormal instrument indication, may not be enough to justify aborting a flight.
The bad news about a precautionary landing is that you may damage the airplane or perhaps even suffer some injuries. That possibility alone tends to discourage some pilots from aborting a flight, simply because they’ll have to answer questions later and perhaps admit they made a mistake. Pilots are a proud bunch, and serious mistakes that might result in a bent airplane or an FAR violation aren’t part of the profile.
The good news is that landing before the situation becomes too critical may provide the benefit of time. If the weather is deteriorating rapidly and you need to put the airplane on the ground now or risk hitting an unseen mountain, you may have few options. If a lack of fuel dictates a precautionary landing, however, you may have the option of examining several possible emergency sites before choosing one. You’ll also have the relative luxury of preparing the cockpit for the touchdown, e.g., securing loose items, ensuring that seat belts and shoulder harnesses are firmly fastened, popping the door in the flare, etc.
Dozens of books have been written on how to land off-airport, and we won’t attempt to summarize them here. What happens after you make the decision to abort a flight depends upon dozens of factors — not all of which you can control.
If you do decide to abort any portion of a flight, you’ve probably made the right decision. Better to err on the side of safety than continue on and make a bad situation worse.