"What'll you do if the rope breaks below 100 feet?" asked my glider instructor Jim as we prepared to take a tow at Crazy Creek gliderport in Middletown, California. We'd completed the rest of our pre-takeoff checklist and now just needed to consider our abort plan.
"I'll land in that open area next to the big tree over there," I answered, reciting the gliderport's standard procedure.
"OK, and how about between 100 and 200 feet?" he asked.
"I'll put it down in the field across the road," I said.
"Good. And above 200 feet?"
"Get the nose down, make a steep turn into the crosswind, and land back on the runway."
"OK, let's go," Jim said. I waggled the rudder to signal the tow pilot and soon we were off.
Because they have no engines, glider pilots must plan for "engine failure" on takeoff, in the form of a broken tow rope, as a matter of routine. Because of their excellent glide performance, though, gliders typically require only about 200 feet of altitude to make a successful turn back to the runway, unlike airplanes which need a lot more (see last week's post).
In airplane flying, we're taught a similar practice to the drill I learned in gliders: always have an abort plan in case of engine failure on takeoff. But if we're honest with ourselves, I think most pilots will admit that we tend to get a bit lax about this. I've certainly been guilty of this myself and I've recently been doing some soul searching about it.
It's true that modern aircraft engines are extremely reliable, so the chances of engine failure are very slim, but the consequences could be grave. The fact is that the initial climb after takeoff is the most vulnerable phase of flight. To maneuver an airplane for a safe landing requires sufficient altitude or airspeed, but right after takeoff we don't have much of either to spare.
Early in our flight training, we're taught not to make any turns if the engine quits at low altitude. The usual admonition is "land straight ahead regardless of obstacles." This is important because of how much altitude is lost in turns due to the reduction in the vertical component of lift. As we gain a bit more altitude, we can consider turns of a few degrees left or right, but most airplanes lose a surprising amount of altitude making even a 90 degree turn. It's also extremely important to push the nose down to maintain flying airspeed, and many pilots have stalled, spun, and crashed by failing to do this. When the airplane is trimmed in a climb attitude when power fails, the airspeed decays quite rapidly unless you push! (See Engine Out! from last month.)
Assuming we maintain flying speed and keep control of the airplane, we still need to put it down safely, and that's where the abort plan comes in. At our home airport, we can thoroughly scout the surrounding area ahead of time for possible emergency landing areas, taking into consideration gliding distance, landing ground roll, and obstructions.
When arriving at an unfamiliar field, the usual recommendation is to survey the surrounding area from the air looking for suitable emergency landing areas. This is a great idea in principle, but approach and landing are particularly high-workload phases of flight. I generally find it's hard to spare enough attention for such a survey. These days when planning a flight to a new field, I use Google Earth to survey the area ahead of time. This is helpful not only for emergency planning, but also for considering the surrounding terrain in planning a normal approach, landing, and departure.
In terms of piloting technique, I like to practice coordination so I can get maximum glide performance when I need it, forward slips to shed altitude when I need to get down quickly, and short-field landings. Most small airplanes can land quite short with careful airspeed control. Even my club's A36 Bonanza, a relatively "hot ship" for its size, can easily land with a ground roll of less than 1,000 feet.
I'm chagrined to admit it, but I haven't been thorough enough in my abort planning in all the years I've been flying out of San Jose International Airport. I'm going to change that! It's especially important considering the dense urban development that surrounds the field. I want to have specific landing areas in mind before I need them, just like I used to have in my days flying gliders at Crazy Creek.
"200 feet," I called out to Jim as the glider climbed through our minimum turn-back altitude and I breathed my usual quiet sigh of relief. It was already shaping up to be a great flight.
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