Takeoff Emergencies
Flying|October 2021
Segment your departure and climb for safety.
Russ Still

Imagine this: It’s a beautiful VFR day, and you are launching on a two-hour flight to visit friends. Your aircraft is a typical small airplane with a single-piston engine. At your initial position on the runway, you apply full power, and the takeoff roll begins. At that same instant, a countdown starts. For the next 90 seconds, you are at a highly increased risk for an accident. In fact, it may be one of the most dangerous parts of your entire flight.

The numbers change from year to year, from one report to another, but they generally agree. Roughly 20 percent of airplane accidents occur during the takeoff and climb-out phase. It is a deceivingly short period— one that leaves many pilots vulnerable and unprepared.

Your hypothetical flight will last two hours. The first 90 seconds of that time, which is less than 1 percent of your total flight, is where two of every 10 accidents occur. That departure now takes on a different character. But you don’t have to blithely accept the odds. You can easily stack the deck in your favor. All that is required is some simple planning using a specific framework.


When the takeoff power goes in, the clock starts running. You have entered the departure profile. This phase of flight lasts roughly 90 seconds and is comprised of four distinct segments. Each presents a unique scenario with its own risks and mitigations.

The Takeoff Roll: The takeoff roll lasts roughly 15 seconds in most single-engine airplanes. The aircraft is on the runway surface and is accelerating to rotation speed.

Rotation/Runway Remaining: At rotation, the short climb phase with the runway remaining begins. In most airplanes, on most runways, this period also lasts about 15 seconds. After that, there is no remaining runway ahead and the initial climb begins.

Initial Climb: This is the most dangerous segment of the takeoff profile. During this period, approximately 60 seconds in duration, the airplane is relatively low to the ground in a climb configuration. Neither time nor glide distance is in your favor. A loss of thrust here carries the highest degree of risk.

Departure Climb: The initial climb segment ends when the aircraft has reached a previously selected altitude that we’ll call “the decision height.” This is where the departure climb begins. Increasing altitude creates reduced risk.

It is important to reiterate that each of the departure profile segments carries different risks and requires different mitigations. There are two key points that will massively reduce your risk during the entire departure profile: First, understand the four segments and scenarios, and second, adhere to a carefully planned safety briefing performed immediately before takeoff.

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