Moment of Decision
Flying|December 2020
Rejected takeoff, reconsidered
Airline flying is pretty cushy work most days, particularly at the major US carriers, with largely reliable aircraft, a fairly robust support network, and nearly universal procedures that keep everyone on roughly the same page. Most airline pilots, by temperament and long experience, are perfectly content with the atmosphere of ordered boredom that normally reigns on the flight deck. There are, indeed, very few situations that require the Sully-esque nerves of steel and lightning-quick reflexes with which our species is sometimes credited. These attributes are in fact actively discouraged thanks to a long and distinguished history of airline pilots creating emergencies out of benign situations through overly hasty action. There’s an idiosyncratic phrase in common usage at my airline: “Wind the clock!” It refers to old timepieces that needed daily winding, and the idea is that, in most situations, a captain should be calm and collected enough to reach into their flight kit, fetch their trusty gold pocket watch, and leisurely begin winding it while thinking through their plan of action.

There are, of course, a few counterexamples, dramatic events that do require prompt corrective action: engine failures at low altitude, microburst encounters or rejected takeoffs, for example. Because these “no-time threats” (in the parlance of my airline’s CRM program) happen so rarely in modern airliners but require an immediate rote response, we regularly train for them in full-motion flight simulators. Even go-arounds, which aren’t emergencies but are certainly seldom-seen maneuvers that are fairly easy to goof up, have become emphasis items during training, and our crew briefings now include a refresher on go-around procedures.

I’ve experienced a small handful of “no-time” emergencies in 27 years and 14,000 hours of flying: a momentary engine failure in my Piper Pacer because of contaminated fuel, a partial loss of power in a Cherokee at low altitude, an electrical fire in a flight school light twin, smoke in the cockpit of a Horizon Air Q400, and perhaps five or six rejected takeoffs. All but one of those aborts took place while I was in the right seat, basically along for the ride on one of the few maneuvers that remain the captain’s exclusive domain. My sole high-speed abort was thanks to a captain who overreacted to a momentary door light, a big no-no. I didn’t have a single rejected takeoff during six years in the left seat at my last airline, so I was a bit surprised to find myself performing my first RTO as a new Boeing 737 captain this past August, with just over 100 hours in the airplane.

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