by Thomas P. Turner
Pilots justify the cost and complexity of twin-engine aeroplanes for many reasons—payload, speed and cabin size among them. But the primary reason pilots cite for moving from singles into multi-engine aeroplanes is the powerplant redundancy … the ability to fly out of an engine failure to an otherwise normal landing. The extreme reliability of turbine powerplants makes it a reasonable expectation that even a full-time turboprop pilot can fly his or her entire career and never experience a powerplant failure.
Yet, in any aircraft, single-engine or twin, piston, turboprop or jet, there is still a chance you’ll need all your skills on any given take-off.
A Beechcraft King Air B200 was departing Wichita, Kansas, USA on 30 October 2014. The solo pilot was on a tight schedule to deliver the aeroplane to a maintenance provider about 600 kilometres away. Immediately after lifting off, he called the tower reporting loss of power on the left engine. The aeroplane turned left, toward the left engine, about 120° of heading change before impacting in a fiery crash into a simulator training facility located at the airport. The pilot and three people in a Cessna Caravan simulator died in the intense fireball that resulted. Two additional people in the simulator bay suffered extensive, life-changing burns; four others in the facility endured less serious injuries.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report states the King Air never got more than 120 feet above ground before descending, nearly wings level but in enough of a slip it was noticed by witnesses on the ground. The landing gear remained extended. The NTSB’s final determination of the cause of the crash is:
The pilot’s failure to maintain lateral control of the aeroplane after a reduction in left engine power and his application of inappropriate rudder input. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to follow the emergency procedures for an engine failure during take-off, which included retracting the landing gear and feathering the propeller. Also contributing to the accident was the left engine power reduction for reasons that could not be determined because a post-accident examination did not reveal any anomalies that would have precluded normal operation and thermal damage precluded a complete examination.
The King Air 200 is equipped with an autofeather system that automatically feathers a propeller if its associated engine suffers a loss of thrust. The emergency procedures checklist calls for delaying retarding the power lever (‘throttle’) until after the propeller automatically feathers. The aircraft is also equipped with automatic rudder boost to assist with directional control in the event of loss-of-engine thrust. Both systems are required to be on for take-off; investigators were unable to determine whether the systems were on and operable because of the extent of damage. The pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate and had completed simulator training and a type rating checkride on the similar King Air 300/350 about six weeks before his final flight.
PUSH and HOLD
However unlikely, engine failure on take-off is always possible. If you’re prepared, there is no immediately decision to make at the specific moment the failure occurs. Firstly, you react. The time to make decisions comes (shortly) later.
If partial or total engine power is lost just after take-off, you have two immediate things to do:
- PUSH forward on the controls to maintain the proper airspeed and angle of attack, and
- HOLD heading with rudder to keep the wings level.
In a multi-engine propeller aeroplane, you PUSH to attain the proper attitude for VYSE (‘blue line’) speed. The proper attitude assures sufficient airspeed over the control surfaces to prevent a VMC (‘minimum single-engine control speed’) roll toward the ailing engine and loss of control. In all aeroplanes you PUSH to lower angle of attack. In a single-engine aircraft, aim for what looks like the short field final approach attitude. One of the best ways to prepare for engine failure on take-off in a single is to practice short-field landings frequently, so you can visualise the correct attitude and practice the landing flare.
Meanwhile, you need to aggressively HOLD heading with rudder. Displaced ailerons alter the wing’s angle of attack, and since almost all aeroplanes have asymmetric aileron displacement—they deflect downward to a much greater angle than they deflect upward—the aileron-induced angle of attack will be different on one wing compared to the other. This difference can aggravate a stall if the angle of attack becomes critical on one wing while the other wing is still generating significant lift. It’s good practice to hold ailerons neutral during all stall practice, so you’ll have this aileron-neutral/level wings with rudder response ingrained should you need it.
If you do just these two things: PUSH to the proper attitude and HOLD heading with rudder—in other words, fly the aeroplane—you’ll have the time to continue with the correct emergency procedure. If you do not do these two things, swiftly and correctly, you have lost command of the aircraft. Loss of command of the aircraft is the first stage of loss of aircraft control. I wrote about PUSH and HOLD in greater detail, including the very real issue of delayed pilot reaction time due to what’s called the ‘startle effect’ of an unplanned occurrence, in Push and hold in Flight Safety Australia in 2016.
The bold print
With angle of attack, airspeed control and directional control established, the next step is to complete the immediate action steps of the appropriate emergency procedure. Your required actions are well defined by flight manual emergency procedures checklists. That means you have only a few things to train for—you don’t have to make it up as you go.
In most emergencies, there are just a few critical actions you must take to avoid immediate catastrophe. You’ll be busy flying the aeroplane and won’t be able to pull out a printed checklist—you’ve got to know the immediate action steps from memory and practice them often enough so you can do them while focused on aircraft control. Most large aircraft print the emergency action steps in bold print on emergency checklists. Do these things from memory to handle the immediate threat, then as time permits, reference the printed checklist to finish up less critical items.
What if your aeroplane’s checklists don’t list any steps in bold font? Spend some time looking at each checklist and decide what steps you think need to be accomplished to avoid injury, ensure aircraft control, and obtain maximum available performance. Mark those checklist steps and practice using them until you can do them from memory. Then refresh yourself with practice now and then. Reviewing emergency checklists and identifying which steps are your personal bold print items is a great exercise to do with an instructor as part of your next recurrent training or flight review.
The NTSB uncovered another fact in the investigation of the King Air crash: the pilot was taking medications that are disqualifying for a pilot medical certificate. He failed to report this to his aviation medical examiner and did not ground himself. It’s easy to read the medical portion of the report and dismiss it, telling yourself, ‘I’d never do that.’ Yet the NTSB does not cite medication as a factor in the probable cause, instead noting his failure to accomplish basic steps of the emergency checklist. But was the pilot impaired?
Before every take-off ask yourself: am I impaired? What factors exist right now that might prevent you from PUSHing and HOLDing if power is lost immediately after take-off, and hold those inputs while you perform the memory steps of the emergency checklist? What’s the state of your:
- Time in type. Have you flown this make and model of aeroplane a lot? Have your flown it so much you’re tempted to be complacent? Do you have a lot of experience in this specific aeroplane? Do you fly lots of different aeroplane types, which might cloud the type-specific lightning response required to handle an emergency?
- Recency of training. You may have a lot of point-to-point time in this aeroplane, but when was the last time you practiced emergency procedures? Could you pass the practical test for the pilot certificate and ratings you hold in this aeroplane today?
- Health and medications. Do you have a medically disqualifying condition? Are you taking any over-the-counter medications that could affect your coordination, memory or decision-making? Do you feel ‘under the weather’?
- Fatigue. When was the last time you got an uninterrupted, eight-hour sleep? How long has it been since you got out of bed on this day? How long will it have been since your alarm clock rang when you shut down the engine(s) at the end of your flight? Do you feel well rested and alert?
- Personal stress. Are you under pressure to make this trip now? Are there external issues that might affect your performance and decision making? Do you find yourself focusing on family issues or job deadlines, or the presentation or big deal you hope to make at the end of your upcoming flight?
- Environment. Are you taking off into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), low visibility or night conditions? Are there significant obstacles off the end of the runway or along your departure route? Is the departure ATC frequency likely to be crowded and fast-paced, making it difficult to make and receive calls? Is there a strong crosswind component and/or low-level turbulence?
- Mindset. Are you using your checklists thoroughly, or are you rushing through or relying on memory? Are you thinking about the possibility something could go wrong every time you get ready to take-off?
Any of these factors can impair your response to an emergency as they may have in the King Air crash. Quickly evaluate yourself on these impairment factors before every take-off … and be ready and willing to ground yourself until you have those factors under your control.
The King Air pilot had no idea he had about two minutes to live when he advanced the power and began accelerating down Wichita’s Runway 1R on that clear October morning. Your actions and decisions during the first two minutes of every flight, done right, will ensure you, your passengers and everyone under your aeroplane have the best chance of survival in the unlikely—but always possible—event of an engine failure. Knowing how far to PUSH forward and HOLD heading at the first sign of engine trouble after lift-off, and regular practice of the ‘bold print’ of the emergency checklist, makes it possible to confidently push the throttle(s) forward and fly.