Moment of Decision Rejected takeoff, reconsidered
Airline flying is fairly cushy work many days, particularly at the major US carriers, using mostly reliable aircraft, a fairly robust support network, and nearly universal procedures that keep everyone on roughly the same page. Most airline pilots, by nature and long experience, are perfectly satisfied with the atmosphere of ordered boredom which normally occupies the flight deck. There are, indeed, very few situations that need 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 record of airline pilots causing disasters out of benign situations through excessively hasty action. There is an idiosyncratic phrase in common use at my airline:”Wind the clock!” It refers to older timepieces that needed daily twisting, and the notion is that, in most situations, a priest 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, clearly, a few counterexamples, breathtaking events that do need prompt corrective actions: motor failures at low altitude, microburst encounters or rejected takeoffs, such as. Because these”no-time risks” (in the parlance of my airline’s CRM program) happen so infrequently in contemporary airliners but require an immediate rote response, we regularly train about them in full-motion flight simulators. Even go-arounds, that aren’t emergencies but are certainly seldom-seen maneuvers which are rather simple to goof up, have become accent items during training, and our team briefings now include a refresher on go-around procedures. All but one of these aborts happened while I was in the right seat, essentially along for the ride on one of those few maneuvers that stay the captain’s distinctive domain.
My single high-speed abort was thanks to a priest who overreacted to a momentary door lighting, a significant no-no. I didn’t possess one rejected takeoff through six years in the left seat at my last airline, so I was somewhat amazed to find myself doing my first RTO as a new Boeing 737 captain this past August, with just over 100 hours in the airplane.
We were on the final leg of a yearlong excursion, flying out of Denver to New York, and we’d just picked up a jet by a team who reported that the No. 1 thrust-reverser light had illuminated during strategy. On the 737, this light may mean anything from a small glitch into an uncommanded reverser deployment. The regional mechanics appeared in the onboard diagnostics and cautioned that the light was a result of a temporary, spurious fault. The ship had no history of reverser issues. After clearing the fault and running the motor at idle, the mechanics could not replicate it, so they signed off the discrepancy. Half an hour later, we’d just started our takeoff run Runway 34L when the first officer, Clint, declared,”Master caution–looks like the reverser light came back on.” And closed the throttles, disconnected the autothrottles and then deployed the thrust reversers. The autobrakes delivered a noticeable jolt as they kicked , but it was a docile move; we never got above 45 knots.
A low-speed rejected takeoff involves quite a bit of cleaning work, including clearing the runway, communication with flight attendants, informing the passengers, conducting the post-abort considerations checklist, coordinating with shipment, maintenance control and local operations, taxiing back to the gate,conferring with technician ops (they handicapped and deferred the reverser this time), becoming re-dispatched and refueled, making multiple PAs, talking to anxious passengers, and phoning the duty pilot. I was fortunate to have a capable first officer who made my job much simpler; incidentally, Clint is one of nearly 2,000 pilots in my airline who will be furloughed by the time you read this, unless Congress intervenes. We pushed back an hour following our original departure and made up some time en route to Kennedy International Airport. Along the waywe talked about the abort and worked on our compulsory crew reports.
Normally, my trips are historical history as soon as I put the parking brake on the last leg, but I did ponder our low-speed RTO for several days. The choice to abort was the correct one, and we executed the rejectedtakeoff process and managed the aftermath very well. The delay itself was not a big deal as we were at low rate; the problem was that I hesitated because I was doing something that’s somewhat discouraged on the takeoff roll: diagnostic believing. First, they split the takeoff into low-speed and high-speed regimes; at my airline, the pilot tracking produces a callout at 80 knots to indicate that the transition. Next, they decided that high-speed aborts should be initiated to get only the most-serious emergencies, including engine failures, fires or severe wind shear. Aircraft manufacturers incorporated the”dark-cockpit” notion in their designs and inhibited non-severe caution lighting throughout the high-speed takeoff regime.
This is particularly relevant on the 737, which still doesn’t possess the crew-alerting system required of newer designs thanks to its original 1967 certificate –an issue that once more reared its head during the Max debacle. Diagnosis demands hunting round the cockpit for the offending error, perhaps craning your mind way back to take a look at the overhead engine panel where the thrust-reverser lights reside. So, at the start of every trip, I short my first officer,”Ahead of 80 knots, I’ll abort the takeoff for virtually any master caution light.” However, that is not exactly what I did. When the master caution illuminated, Clint immediately thought of this prior reverser fault, glanced up and saw that the light, and vocalized that the particular fault after announcing the master caution. He wasn’t in any way incorrect to do so. But rather than hearing”master caution” and initiating the abort, I heard,”Looks like the reverser light came back .” Those two moments were how long it took me to think:”Were we expecting that? No. It’s not deferred. It is probably the same spurious fault, however I can not guarantee . It’s a new and unknown occurrence. Abort.”
At 30 knots to a 16,000 -foot runway, these extra two seconds represented zero lack of safety. But what if the light came on in 75 knots on a brief, narrow runway with a feisty crosswind? Two additional seconds at full power would represent an important and undesirable addition of energy. The entire reason professional pilots try to do things the identical way every time is so we retain the custom patterns that assure the greatest margin of safety from the most marginal conditions.
Here is the thing: This wasn’t exactly an unknown threat. We knew about the boat’s recent maintenance history. I might have averted the hesitation(“mitigated the threat,” per my airline CRM gurus) by expecting and briefing the potential for a recurrence of the problem about the takeoff roll:”We have a current history with the No. 1 thrust reverser, and there’s a possibility that the fault light will come back on during takeoff. If this is so, before 80 knots, I will abort the takeoff; after 80 knots, I’ll continue.” This could have prepared me to do the right thing in a potentially odd situation. The main lesson I’m taking away from Your primary lesson I’m taking away from the incident is to improve my RTO decisionmaking by incorporating recent maintenance history into my abort criteria brieﬁngs.
There is a lesson here for general aviation pilots too, I think. We frequently speak about briefings in the context of multiple-pilot flight crews, as a means to make sure both pilots are on precisely the exact same page, however they’re equally a tool to make sure your own head is right. Briefings essentially pre-load a logic issue into your brain, predisposing one to track the variables, predict probable outcomes and execute the desired reaction. I encourage you to consider what the”notime” dangers are in your flying, brief the most relevant ones on each takeoff and approach/landing, and review the more general threats (electric fire, runaway electrical trim, open cargo door after takeoff) on a regular basis–perhaps prior to your airport of every month. I think you’ll find that the time and effort is a worthwhile investment in creating that critical moment of decision a little smoother when things don’t go as planned.