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Aircraft Performance: Takeoff Distance

Today we’re talking about takeoff distance. The majority of pilot-cause aircraft accidents occur during the takeoff and landing phase of flight. Therefore, a pilot must be familiar with all the variables that can influence aircraft performance during these critical phases. This post is excerpted from the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

The minimum takeoff distance is of primary interest in the operation of any aircraft because it defines the runway requirements. The minimum takeoff distance is obtained by taking off at some minimum safe speed that allows sufficient margin above stall and provides satisfactory control and initial rate of climb. Generally, the lift-off speed is some fixed percentage of the stall speed or minimum control speed for the aircraft in the takeoff configuration. As such, the lift-off will be accomplished at some particular value of lift coefficient and AOA. Depending on the aircraft characteristics, the liftoff speed will be anywhere from 1.05 to 1.25 times the stall speed or minimum control speed.

To obtain minimum takeoff distance at the specific lift-off speed, the forces that act on the aircraft must provide the maximum acceleration during the takeoff roll. The various forces acting on the aircraft may or may not be under the control of the pilot, and various procedures may be necessary in certain aircraft to maintain takeoff acceleration at the highest value.

The powerplant thrust is the principal force to provide the acceleration and, for minimum takeoff distance, the output thrust should be at a maximum. Lift and drag are produced as soon as the aircraft has speed, and the values of lift and drag depend on the AOA and dynamic pressure.

In addition to the important factors of proper procedures, many other variables affect the takeoff performance of an aircraft. Any item that alters the takeoff speed or acceleration rate during the takeoff roll will affect the takeoff distance.

For example, the effect of gross weight on takeoff distance is significant and proper consideration of this item must be made in predicting the aircraft’s takeoff distance. Increased gross weight can be considered to produce a threefold effect on takeoff performance:

  1. Higher lift-off speed
  2. Greater mass to accelerate
  3. Increased retarding force (drag and ground friction)

If the gross weight increases, a greater speed is necessary to produce the greater lift necessary to get the aircraft airborne at the takeoff lift coeffi cient. As an example of the effect of a change in gross weight, a 21 percent increase in takeoff weight will require a 10 percent increase in lift-off speed to support the greater weight.

A change in gross weight will change the net accelerating force and change the mass that is being accelerated. If the aircraft has a relatively high thrust-to-weight ratio, the change in the net accelerating force is slight and the principal effect on acceleration is due to the change in mass.

For example, a 10 percent increase in takeoff gross weight would cause:

  • A 5 percent increase in takeoff velocity.
  • At least a 9 percent decrease in rate of acceleration.
  • At least a 21 percent increase in takeoff distance.

With ISA conditions, increasing the takeoff weight of the average Cessna 182 from 2,400 pounds to 2,700 pounds (11 percent increase) results in an increased takeoff distance from 440 feet to 575 feet (23 percent increase).

For the aircraft with a high thrust-to-weight ratio, the increase in takeoff distance might be approximately 21 to 22 percent, but for the aircraft with a relatively low thrust-to-weight ratio, the increase in takeoff distance would be approximately 25 to 30 percent. Such a powerful effect requires proper consideration of gross weight in predicting takeoff distance.

The effect of wind on takeoff distance is large, and proper consideration also must be provided when predicting takeoff distance. The effect of a headwind is to allow the aircraft to reach the lift-off speed at a lower groundspeed while the effect of a tailwind is to require the aircraft to achieve a greater groundspeed to attain the lift-off speed.

A headwind that is 10 percent of the takeoff airspeed will reduce the takeoff distance approximately 19 percent. However, a tailwind that is 10 percent of the takeoff airspeed will increase the takeoff distance approximately 21 percent. In the case where the headwind speed is 50 percent of the takeoff speed, the takeoff distance would be approximately 25 percent of the zero wind takeoff distance (75 percent reduction).

The effect of wind on landing distance is identical to its effect on takeoff distance. The figure below illustrates the general effect of wind by the percent change in takeoff or landing distance as a function of the ratio of wind velocity to takeoff or landing speed.

Effect of wind on takeoff and landing.

Effect of wind on takeoff and landing.

The effect of proper takeoff speed is especially important when runway lengths and takeoff distances are critical. The takeoff speeds specified in the AFM/POH are generally the minimum safe speeds at which the aircraft can become airborne. Any attempt to take off below the recommended speed means that the aircraft could stall, be difficult to control, or have a very low initial rate of climb. In some cases, an excessive AOA may not allow the aircraft to climb out of ground effect. On the other hand, an excessive airspeed at takeoff may improve the initial rate of climb and “feel” of the aircraft, but will produce an undesirable increase in takeoff distance. Assuming that the acceleration is essentially unaffected, the takeoff distance varies with the square of the takeoff velocity.

Thus, ten percent excess airspeed would increase the takeoff distance 21 percent. In most critical takeoff conditions, such an increase in takeoff distance would be prohibitive, and the pilot must adhere to the recommended takeoff speeds. The effect of pressure altitude and ambient temperature is to define the density altitude and its effect on takeoff performance. While subsequent corrections are appropriate for the effect of temperature on certain items of powerplant performance, density altitude defines specific effects on takeoff performance. An increase in density altitude can produce a twofold effect on takeoff performance:

  1. Greater takeoff speed
  2. Decreased thrust and reduced net accelerating force

If an aircraft of given weight and configuration is operated at greater heights above standard sea level, the aircraft requires the same dynamic pressure to become airborne at the takeoff lift coefficient. Thus, the aircraft at altitude will take off at the same indicated airspeed (IAS) as at sea level, but because of the reduced air density, the TAS will be greater.

The effect of density altitude on powerplant thrust depends much on the type of powerplant. An increase in altitude above standard sea level will bring an immediate decrease in power output for the unsupercharged reciprocating engine. However, an increase in altitude above standard sea level will not cause a decrease in power output for the supercharged reciprocating engine until the altitude exceeds the critical operating altitude. For those powerplants that experience a decay in thrust with an increase in altitude, the effect on the net accelerating force and acceleration rate can be approximated by assuming a direct variation with density. Actually, this assumed variation would closely approximate the effect on aircraft with high thrust-to-weight ratios.

Proper accounting of pressure altitude and temperature is mandatory for accurate prediction of takeoff roll distance. The most critical conditions of takeoff performance are the result of some combination of high gross weight, altitude, temperature, and unfavorable wind. In all cases, the pilot must make an accurate prediction of takeoff distance from the performance data of the AFM/POH, regardless of the runway available, and strive for a polished, professional takeoff procedure.

In the prediction of takeoff distance from the AFM/POH data, the following primary considerations must be given:

  • Pressure altitude and temperature—to define the effect of density altitude on distance
  • Gross weight—a large effect on distance
  • Wind—a large effect due to the wind or wind component along the runway
  • Runway slope and condition—the effect of an incline and retarding effect of factors such as snow or ice

More on Thursday from our CFI.

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