Launching on the Gauges

Many instrument takeoffs have resulted in disastrously short flights. Having the right pre-takeoff discipline makes for a safer departure.


On a recent IFR flight, climbing through 500 feet, I noticed the tach was low by 300 RPM. It had been normal just moments before when I checked it on the takeoff roll. Just as it really sunk in that something was amiss, Tower called to hand me off to Departure. I declined, asked to land immediately and alerted them to the abnormal condition. The discrepancy didn’t reappear on a second run-up, or ever since.

I was VMC at the time, but it got me thinking what I would have done had I been about to enter the clouds. I make a habit of having the return approach ready in case of emergency, but what if the bases are above the circle-to-land minimums? I could just circle and not risk an engine failure on the approach—except that I except that I usually don’t brief circling minimums before takeoff.

A failure so soon after rotation drove home that my prep for the instrument departure was incomplete, at best.

Don’t Hurry Up
The first rule is not to rush the departure process. Several years ago, one biz jet’s charter departure off of an uncontrolled field at night was so hurried by a demanding passenger that the plane’s attitude gyros had not completely spun up after a brief taxi and takeoff roll. The pilot lost control of the aircraft on the initial climb-out, with fatal results.

Pressure can be insidious. Picture yourself pressing up against an expiring IFR flight plan or a query by the controller, “Can you be ready at the end?” Rushing the departure could mean missing a critical checklist item or forgetting to set all the nav systems, among others. To avoid a diversion of attention on the climb-out, make sure all the pre-takeoff chores are completed, as well as anything else you can get out of the way. For example, when doing a short hop of a few minutes, use your cell phone prior to taxi out to get the destination ATIS.

After the taxi and run-up during which you’ve, of course, checked that the attitude and heading instruments are operational, a good addition to a standard checklist is a final check of “killer items.” I’ve compiled a list from my past sins of omission. It includes double-checking that the flaps are deployed and the speed brakes are not, hitting the autopilot disconnect switch, ensuring the DG is aligned with the assigned runway, and altitude squawk is chirping away. For some aircraft, ensuring the boost pump is on or off is critical.

Standard practice should include having an appropriate approach ready for a quick return. On a VMC day, that might be just a visual. When it’s a real instrument takeoff, have the approach already set up and the plate on your kneeboard. For those flying glass, appending the approach procedure in use for the departure airport to the end of a flight plan means that it is only a few screens away if needed.

Another often-missed check is that the altimeter reads within 75 feet of the departure runway’s elevation, not just the general field elevation back at the hangar. If it’s not within specs, it’s not legal or trustworthy. An expected take-off distance marker should also be identified. If weather is a concern, check that the XM info has updated or the radar has warmed since it was switched on.

Once cleared for takeoff, double-check that the heading bug is set and the heading matches the runway alignment. There are several checks that should be completed on the takeoff roll, including that full power is developed and the engine instruments are in the green. Prior to disappearing into the clouds, check that the attitude indicator matches the wing’s position relative to the available landscape. The earlier the better when catching a serious discrepancy. That gives you a chance for a visual return to the field or, at least, getting set for partial-panel prior to entering IMC.

What do the pros focus on when rotating 100 feet below the overcast? Speed and pitch. Once they get to V-rotate and start uphill, they set the pitch angle and peg it. The angle may increase slightly with acceleration, but the key is not to let it drop while putting up the gear or flaps or bringing back the power.

While a quick cross-check of the VSI and altimeter should confirm the climb, pitch and speed are the center of attention. Any reduction in pitch to pick up speed should only be done after reaching 500-1000 feet. A premature decision to accelerate accompanied by a momentary drop in the pitch angle could start a deadly descent (see sidebar).

Pegging the perfect pitch can’t be done if you don’t already know the right angle from prior takeoffs under varying conditions. After diving into the goo is no time to be trying to locate the best pitch angle based on your current speed, and the variance caused when the gear and flaps are being stowed. On your next flight with an instructor or safety pilot, simulate a 100-foot ceiling under the hood. Being on the gauges on a mock instrument takeoff is an excellent exercise to get the feel of the aircraft while on the gauges (or screen) in addition to building confidence. Having captured the precise sight picture of the pitch angle will boost your confidence on your next IMC departure.

Assess the Big Picture
Stepping backward in time a bit, it’s a good plan before even getting to the aircraft to create a mental picture of the towers and cranes within a few miles of the airport. Much has been written on these pages about obeying the Obstacle Departure Procedures (ODPs). They are required reading prior to your flight. What’s often glanced over, however, is what obstacles are in the vicinity of the airport were your aircraft taken off course or an immediate return arose.

In addition to the ODP and SID, check the “Additional Remarks” section of’s airport overview or the A/FD for protrusions around the departure field. A quick glance at the missed-approach procedure for your runway can also give some general guidance for a clear climb-out.

Although obstacles at the ends of runways are kept to a minimum, there is still a need to be aware that structures such as the glideslope antenna or lights may be hazardous if the climb-out is not executed properly.

Departure procedures are premised on an aircraft crossing the end of the runway at 35 feet AGL, climbing to 400 feet above the end before turning, and climbing at least 200 feet per nautical mile to its assigned altitude. That’s all unless a higher climb gradient is specified on those departures you already looked over. The real issue in there is if you turn back early and low on an emergency circle-to-land. Decide beforehand how high you need to be and which way you need to turn.

In addition to having a terrain picture in mind, updating the weather scene is also prudent. Do you have the latest info on where the cell you must avoid on departure is located? It could have moved significantly in just the time it took to taxi out. On icing days, it’s helpful to know the cloud tops. Many times the Tower can query a just-departed or landed aircraft for a report.

Get Help from Friends
While single-pilot IFR can be done safely, many pilots waste the resource of a capable pilot in the adjacent seat because they have not briefed the right seater on the game plan before the snap and assigned him some of the workload. For the pilot not flying to be of help, he needs to know what’s expected ahead of time. A quick discussion before start-up or after the run-up can fill the void.

Your friends can also help with the critical area of keeping current. If you can’t remember that high-workload feeling, it may be time to get under the hood. Get under the hood as quickly as possible after takeoff. It does a lot less good to put on the foggles after the autopilot is set at cruise than it does sliding them down five seconds after rotation.

Taking time to review your current IMC departure habits, and ensuring they provide a thorough pre-departure routine, will no doubt enhance your levels of competence and confidence. It’ll also ensure you don’t realize your takeoff planning was incomplete—just when you need that information most.

Mark Pestal is a Denver attorney and multi-engine commercial pilot. He flies a Mooney when he’s not reading NTSB reports.


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