10 Tips for Safer Takeoffs and Landings
#FlySafe GA Safety Enhancement Topic
Every flight begins with a takeoff and hopefully ends with a successful landing. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. According to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident data, a group of 1,300 recent general aviation accidents included 180 accidents that occurred during the takeoff phase of flight, and 440 during the landing phase. These two categories account for nearly half of the total in the accident set. To help pilots improve their takeoffs and landings, here are ten tips to consider before your next flight.
Takeoff Tip #1 — Know Your Airplane
It all starts with knowing your aircraft, its performance parameters, and the required research to determine what sort of takeoff (and landing) performance you will get. First, make sure you perform a weight and balance check. Weight and balance calculations will tell you whether your aircraft is within acceptable limits and will yield a takeoff weight that, along with runway length and a number of other factors, will result in expected takeoff and climb performance.
Speaking of climb, you’ll want to know your best angle (Vₓ) and rate of climb (Vᵧ) speeds. Multi-engine pilots will need to know their minimum control speed with the critical engine failed (Vₘ𝒸), and best single-engine climb speed (Vᵧₛₑ). You should also be aware of your rotation point and lift off speed. By documenting these numbers and then comparing them with your actual performance, you will be able to create predictable expectations.
Takeoff Tip #2 — Know Your Airport
Knowing your airport’s field elevation, temperature, and humidity numbers will enable you to calculate density altitude. Density altitude (pressure altitude corrected for temperature, or, the altitude where the aircraft “thinks” it’s at) is essential to takeoff planning because it is directly related to aircraft performance. Knowing wind speed and direction will allow you to decide which runway to use and to calculate your takeoff distance.
Also know your runway, including length, composition, slope, and contamination level, as these all can impact your takeoff performance. In fact, knowing runway lengths for airports you intend to use is specifically listed as a required preflight action in 14 CFR section 91.103.
Finally, factor in any departure obstacles and terrain along your departure path, and identify forced-landing opportunities near the airport. This planning will help immensely in the event your aircraft has a problem and you need to carry out a forced landing.
Takeoff Tip #3 — Know Yourself
Accurate assessment of your health and well-being are essential to safe flight. Knowing how prescription and/or over-the-counter medications may affect you while flying is essential of course. But, just as important is understanding the conditions that require these medications.
In order to function safely in the air, you also need adequate rest. The effects of fatigue are magnified while flying. Is there any pressure to complete your flight? If so, that can add to pressures external to the flight itself. A little stress is healthy, but a little too much stress can be deadly. Wise pilots take this into account and develop “Plan B” alternatives for times when too much is riding on completing the flight. Waiting for better weather, more rest, adding another pilot or flight instructor, and even back-up commercial travel plans, are all useful strategies to employ.
Finally, pilots must have an accurate assessment of your performance in the aircraft and the environment you’re flying in. Pilots who participate in regular proficiency training, like the FAA’s WINGS Program, are generally better equipped to cope with flight challenges.
Consider using the I’MSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotions) checklist before each flight to determine your fitness to fly.
Takeoff Tip #4 — Plan Your Takeoff
Plan each takeoff, particularly those from unfamiliar airports. Each takeoff should include “Go/No-Go” criteria based on a power and instrument check early in the takeoff roll. A good plan takes into account the departure path or procedure, as well as actions to take following power loss before and after rotation. Ground roll vs. available takeoff distance must be calculated, as well as rotation point and speed.
Here’s some rules of thumb to consider when planning your takeoff:
- If you have a fixed pitch prop, add 15% to your calculated takeoff distance for each 1,000 foot increase in density altitude, up to 8,000 feet.
- For constant speed props, add 12% per 1,000 feet of density altitude, up to 6,000 feet.
- (50/70 Rule) When planning takeoff from short unobstructed runways, establish a landmark at 50% of your calculated takeoff distance. When reaching that landmark, you should be at 70% of your rotation speed. If not, abort the takeoff and reduce weight or wait for more favorable wind and temperature conditions.
- (30/70 Rule) If you must clear obstructions on takeoff, you’ll need to have 70% of your rotation speed by the time you’ve traveled 30% of your available takeoff distance.
Takeoff Tip #5 — Brief Your Takeoff
Vocalize your plan even if there’s no one to hear it but you. It’s the best way to review your expectations and prepare for emergencies. Note the runway you’ll use and the aircraft takeoff configuration. There will be several Go/No-Go decision points. You’ll do an instrument check to confirm power and airspeed indications. Describe your departure path and note what you’ll do in case of a power loss before rotation. State your rotation, lift off, and climb speeds, followed by what you’ll do if power is lost in the climb and where you’ll go if you have to carry out an off-airport landing. Your brief should sound something like this:
This will be a flaps up takeoff on runway two five at Wiscasset. If initial power and acceleration are OK, we’ll proceed to our 50/70 check point. If there’s power loss prior to rotation, we’ll maintain control and stop on the runway. We have a left crosswind from 230 at 12 knots. We’ll rotate at 55 knots, then accelerate to Vᵧ which is 78 knots and fly the extended runway center line to 1,500 feet and clear of the pattern. We’ll then turn left on course and accelerate to cruise climb of 90 knots. If we lose power prior to 1,500 feet, we’ll fly at best glide speed of 65 knots and land straight ahead.
Landing Tip #1 — Know Your Airport(s)
This tip looks a lot like a takeoff tip #2, but with some important differences. When taking off, we only have to plan for one airport. However, landing may involve more than one airport. If we’re flying by instrument flight rules (IFR), we may have one or more alternates to consider and even visual flight rules (VFR) airports become untenable from time to time. Field condition information may be great, or it may fall short of that. It’s reasonable to commit to landing at an airport that’s paved, unobstructed, well-marked, and has a visual approach slope indicator (VASI), but others could be quite different. It could have obstructions or runways with dubious composition and condition. The availability of airport services is also something to consider. If your landing leaves the airplane in a less than serviceable condition, you may be stuck there for a while.
Landing Tip #2 — Know Your Airplane
As with Takeoff Tip #1, you’ll want to be intimately familiar with all of the appropriate approach, flap, and gear speeds, as well as your climb speeds in the event of a go-around. Reviewing the performance charts will give you expected landing performance data. A convenient rule of thumb is to add 50% to your expected landing distance. If you fly with precision, you’ll never have to use it. But if something like a contaminated runway or decreased braking capability crops up, you’ll have more runway to deal with it.
Landing Tip #3 — Fly the Pattern
At a non-towered airport, flying the published pattern is the best way to maintain an orderly, predictable traffic flow. Be aware that patterns altitudes and patterns themselves are often different for airplanes and helicopters. Standard patterns make all turns to the left, but there are plenty of non-standard right-hand patterns out there, so make sure you know to go with the flow.
Finally, look and listen for other aircraft in the pattern and be sure to broadcast your position and intentions. Pay particular attention to aircraft on final in front of and possibly behind you. Aircraft on instrument approaches may be landing straight in, so see and avoid is the order of the day for all parties.
For more on pattern precision, see our previous FlySafe topic.
Landing Tip #4 — Fly a Stabilized Approach
As with takeoffs, it’s a good idea to brief your approach and landing plan. Just vocalizing what you expect to see and do will make it easier to stay ahead of your aircraft. Approach and landing briefings will also help you to recognize when things aren’t going according to plan and when a go-around or missed approach is in order.
Once established on final approach, it’s essential to maintain speed and glide path. Maybe the runway you’re using is 10,000 feet long, but you should still maintain a glide path that will result in touching down in the first third of the runway. To help build precision, pick a runway stripe and try to land on it every time without adding power. Many runways are served with approach path indicators, like a VASI. It’s a good policy to follow the guidance of electronic and/or visual glide slope information when it’s available.
For more on stabilized approaches, see our previous FlySafe topic.
Landing Tip #5 — Be Prepared to Go-Around
If you included go-around and missed approach procedures with your approach and landing plan, you’ll be way ahead of the game should something crop up. If you’re always prepared for the eventuality with pre-briefed missed approach criteria, you won’t waste time deciding whether you need to go-around or not.
Additional Tips on Collision Avoidance
When operating at or near non-towered airports, here are three things that will help minimize the potential for a close encounter of the worst kind:
- Be Predictable — fly published patterns and use standard exit/entry procedures
- Be Aware — look and listen for traffic in and near the airport
- Be Proactive — announce your position and intentions on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency
Another helpful resource for mid-air collision avoidance is the GAJSC’s mid-air collision (MAC) report. The report helps uncover areas of potential MAC risk at 50 U.S. airports using color-coded heat maps to depict the location and frequency of five different event types: Level Flight, Climbing Into Traffic, Descending Into Traffic, Parallel Approach, and Helicopter. Download the PDF report here.
🛩️ FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, Chapter 6 — Takeoffs and Departure Climbs (PDF download)
🛩️ FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, Chapter 9 — Approaches and Landings (PDF download)