“JetBlue 1295, wind 240 at 8, runway 22R short and clear for takeoff,” came the instruction from the John F. Kennedy Airport tower.
“Clear for takeoff,” responded the pilots of JetBlue flight 1295.
As the Airbus A320 started its roll down the runway, the tower controller suddenly noticed an unresponsive Caribbean Airways jet crossing the same runway. “Caribbean 526 can you hold short 22 right,” requested the tower. “526 stop! JetBlue 1295 abort takeoff!”
Luckily the incident last weekend did not end in disaster—the JetBlue airliner braked to a stop, and there were no injuries. But it easily could have been a lot worse.
Richard Moore, a retired Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 Captain and certified flight instructor at Florida’s Spruce Creek Fly-In community, says that “High-speed aborts are really, really discouraged. Very rarely in a transport-type airplane is it a pretty ending.”
One example of a less fortuitous ending occurred on a September night in 2008. In Columbia, South Carolina, Learjet pilot Sarah Lemmon heard a disconcerting thump while on takeoff roll. Twelve seconds later, co-pilot James Bland abruptly called the tower and announced, “Roll the equipment—we’re goin’ off the end.”
According to the NTSB accident report, about one and a half seconds after Bland called V1—the maximum speed at which a pilot can abort a takeoff without causing a runway overrun—the cockpit voice recorders registered sounds of the tires beginning to split apart. Although the pilots were already past V1, they tried to abort the takeoff anyway—with deadly results. Both pilots and two of the four passengers were killed.
The NTSB investigation into the crash revealed two main causes—poor tire maintenance, which caused the problem in the first place, and the decision by the pilots to abort takeoff in spite of their training. According to aviation safety experts, these mistakes are all too common, in part because of inadequate training for aborts. Although airline pilots are trained for aborted takeoffs, there is an obvious deficiency in general aviation training, according to Moore.
That was certainly the case in the Columbia crash. Lemmon and Bland simply could not stop in time, with the amount of runway remaining. The Learjet erupted in a ball of flames from overheated brakes and skidded off the runway, travelled across a road, and crashed into an embankment. The two surviving passengers—former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and celebrity disc jockey “DJ AM,” Adam Goldstein—suffered second and third degree burns across their bodies.
According to Flight Safety Foundation, there are more than 6,000 “rejected takeoffs” (or RTOs) in the United States each year; on average, about four result in an overrun. RTOs are typically performed because of engine failures, air traffic control miscommunications, blown tires, objects or vehicles obstructing the runway, or various system warnings in the cockpit, according to the Dutch NLR Air Transport Safety Institute.
“It’s really important that if you decide to reject a takeoff or abort the takeoff that you do it before reaching V1,” says Anthony Brickhouse, an Associate Professor and Air Safety Investigator at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “V1 is basically your go/no-go speed. It’s calculated using various parameters, and it’s different for every aircraft.”
Commercial pilots are trained to make the go/no-go decision, and their skills are refreshed at regular intervals by simulator training, according to Moore.
“Most things that people abort for on a runway in a little airplane is like a door popping open, or a window coming open. And there’s really no reason for the abort,” he says. “They can fly very safely around the pattern with the door cracked.”
But many private pilots don’t realize this, and try to abort rather than taking off and going around.
“The word is out through various organizations, that if you have a tire or landing gear issue, instead of doing a rejected takeoff go ahead and get the plane off the ground, fly around, burn fuel, make radio calls, get emergency equipment on the runway, then come in and make an emergency landing,” says Brickhouse.
Training will certainly help, but making the right call in an emergency also requires quick judgment. As the NLR Air Transport Safety Institute puts it, “Looking through the eyes of the pilots, making a proper go/no-go decision is not always simple.”