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In life all things are possible…that is unless you are trying to turn back to the airport after an engine failure on takeoff. And while there is a lot of debate as to if we should be calling it the impossible turn or just the impractical one, the NTSB continues to show fatalities resulting from these events year after year. So what are we to do? Well, we start by first acknowledging that today is the day that our beloved engine is going to fail us, and then develop a plan for what we are going to do when it does. Cue..the takeoff briefing.

Before I go on I must give a huge thanks to Jason Miller of The Finer Points. It was a video of his that got me started doing takeoff briefings years ago and I am now passing that on to my students as a CFI.

Benefits of performing a takeoff briefing

A good takeoff briefing covers a variety of areas such as runway incursion avoidance, emergency procedures, weather, and pilot responsibilities. By formulating a plan and discussing certain contingencies, we “arm” our brain with that information so that we can recall it more quickly should something happen. In the case of an engine failure on takeoff, the time to figure out what we are going to do is not after the engine has failed at 500 feet AGL, but while on the ground. Once we have the plan in place, should an emergency occur, we simply have to execute our plan.

Elements of a takeoff briefing

Every pilot has a different way of briefing the takeoffs and I encourage my students to develop a script that works for them. Your takeoff briefings, and how you perform them, will also change depending upon the specifics of a flight. How one would brief a takeoff in a multi-engine aircraft is going to be different than how I would flying the Piper Warrior. I even modify my briefing depending upon if I’m departing in VMC versus IMC.

So for my standard run of the mill briefing, I include the following elements:

Runway Verification/Crosscheck

Why do I include this?

This is important because we want to verify both externally (airport) and internally (instruments) that the runway we are about to depart from is the runway that we were assigned and/or are intending to use. This also serves as a final cross-check to ensure our heading indicator and our compass are in agreement. 

What do I like to say?

We will be departing runway 31. We will verify this via the airport signage as well as the heading indicator and compass prior to passing the hold short lines”

Runway Distance / Required Takeoff Performance

Why do I include this?

I include this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s to verify that I have taken the time to the current density altitude and calculate the takeoff and landing performance. I encourage my students to run these numbers before every flight, and I do the same. Not only is it a safety issue, but it’s also required under 91.103(b)

What do I like to say?

“Runway X is X feet. We need approximately X feet for our takeoff today” 

Identification of an Abort Point

Why do I include this?

This is a failsafe against an engine abnormality, takeoff performance being less than expected, or a variety of other issues that may not be immediately apparent. If you aren’t off the ground by your abort point, you abort. 

When it comes to picking a point, you want to pick an easily identifiable point on the airport surface that gives you both enough room for takeoff and enough room to safely abort should you need to. I like to use taxiways or intersecting runways when available, but any visible landmark will do.

What do I like to say?

“If we are not off the ground by the intersecting runway, which is the halfway point, we will bring power to idle and stop on the runway”

Engine Issue before Vr (Rotation Speed)

Why do I include this?

While it may seem redundant given the abort point, I like to again verbalize what the plan is should the engine give out prior to us lifting off the ground. 

What do I like to say?

“If the engine fails before Vr, we’ll stop on the runway”

Engine issue after Vr but below 1000ft AGL

Why do I include this?

This is the most critical time to have an engine failure. I like to use and encourage my students to use, 1000ft AGL because it’s an easily identifiable number on the altimeter and provides some buffer. I also teach to verbalize passing 1000ft AGL after takeoff as a confirmation that we can turn back to the airport should there be an engine failure. Obviously, the exact number you use will depend upon the airplane you are flying, what your personal abilities are as a pilot (practice this at a safe altitude to determine this!), and how proficient you are. A J3 Cub can make the turn back safely far lower than say a Piper Arrow. One other thing to include here is identifying any offsite landing options that are available to you off of your departure runway The higher tier subscriptions for ForeFlight have a 3D view that you can use to determine what roads, fields, or other options are available. You can also use Google Maps. 

What do I like to say?

“If the engine fails before after Vr, we will land on the runway if there is runway is remaining. If the engine fails above Xft AGL (X on the altimeter), then we will land straight ahead or 45 degrees off to one side. We’ll troubleshoot and declare if time permits”

Engine Failure above 1000ft AGL

Why do I include this?

Once we pass the “turnback” altitude, we have a few more options available to us.

What do I like to say?

“If the engine fails above 1000ft, we will return to the airport”

Establishment of PIC Authority and Responsibilities

Why do I include this?

Anytime you are in a multi-pilot environment (even during primary training), it is a good idea to establish who is going to be PIC in an emergency and what the responsibilities of the other pilot are. I’ll even do this with my passengers. For instance, I brief my wife that in the event of an emergency to pull out the appropriate checklists (and ensured she knows how to do that). 

What do I like to say?

“In the event of an emergency X will be the pilot in command. X will help assist by running checklists, declaring an emergency or insert any other noteworthy items here”

Weather Considerations

Why do I include this?

I like to include weather considerations as a part of my takeoff briefing, for both VFR and IFR flying. In particular wind and cloud layers (if IFR). I like to also brief and load an instrument approach for the return to the airport should that be needed if we are departing IFR and it’s currently IMC.

What to say?

“We will have a moderate left crosswind on takeoff. (if IFR) In the event we need to immediately return to the airport we will proceed direct X and shoot the X approach”

Putting It All Together

So an example of my takeoff briefing that I may give when flying with another pilot may sound something like:

“We are departing runway 36 today. We will verify we are at runway 36 prior to crossing the hold short lines via the compass, heading indicator, and airport signage. We need 2000 feet for our takeoff roll today and runway 36 is 5,000 feet. If not off the ground by the intersecting 9/27 runway, we will bring power to idle and stop on the runway. If the engine fails above Vr but below 1000ft AGL (which is 1,800 here today), we will land on any available runway and barring that land straight ahead or 45 degrees left or right. We will troubleshoot and declare only if time permits. There are a few fields and a highway off the departure end of runway 36 that we can use if needed. If the engine fails above 1000 feet we will return to the airport. In the event of an emergency, I’ll be the Pilot in Comand, but you will assist me with checklists and communicating with ATC. There is a right crosswind for the takeoff today, but otherwise no major weather considerations. Are there any questions?” 

It usually takes about a minute to get through, but it is a minute well spent. If I am flying by myself I still brief the takeoff the same way but I omit the PIC portion of the briefing. If I’m flying with passengers, I will include their portion of the briefing in the passenger briefing before starting the engine and then brief myself quietly. Even with passengers, it’s important to do the takeoff briefing, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to make an already anxious passenger more anxious by mentioning the word “engine failure” over and over. In those cases, I brief it quietly to myself.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of if you choose to do a lengthier briefing or keep it short and sweet, I hope that each pilot out there makes performing takeoff briefings a regular part of their pre-departure checklist. 

Finally, I ask that you do yourself a favor and really think about the briefing when giving it. Don’t just rush through it because your instructor says you have to do it. Really focus on the mindset of, “Today, this engine will fail”, because today is the day it just might. And when it does you now have a plan.

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