Accident Study: Focus on Takeoff

On January 25th 2018, a Piper Lance had an accident at Marathon airport in the Florida Keys. It veered off the runway during takeoff and came to rest in some trees. It is not clear if it had broken ground or not but it appears that it rolled at least 1000 feet before getting into trouble.

Local News Report

Based on the news report I have created this image of the approximate track of the aircraft.


According to the news story above the plane caught a gust of wind as it lifted off. Wind gets a bit funny during liftoff

Here is the METAR from near the time of the accident:

METAR KMTH 251953Z AUTO 05018KT 10SM OVC047 22/16 A3019 RMK
           AO2 PK WND 06027/1854 SLP222 T02220161=

Quick quiz: If you are still rolling on the runway and a gust of wind blows from the left, how will the plane react?

The plane will want to turn left, into the wind. This is because the wind pushes equally on the surfaces of the plane, but the large vertical tail surface is far behind the main wheels, which will act as a pivot point.

Once airborne this is still true, but the wind will also push the plane as a whole to the right (causing a natural crabbing effect).

The passenger’s report makes sense in light of the METAR provided although it doesn’t explain why the wind wasn’t handled by correcting the controls.

The NTSB is on the job but we are left to speculate. Taking off in these conditions requires focus and a level of professionalism.

In this case, I am speculating that the runway centerline was being ignored. If this is the case the aircraft may have been lined up sloppily with the wide runway and during departure, the aircraft may have drifted steadily to the left. If the pilot was not correcting for this drift he may have found himself dangerously close to the edge of the runway at too high a speed to stop. Perhaps he tried to brake or tried to rotate to get out of the situation, but whatever the correction was, it didn’t quite work.

A pilot with a professional attitude would depart on the runway centerline and correct for drift to stay on the runway centerline through takeoff. This ensures a safe buffer with the edge of the runway and plenty of time to handle gusts.

IMPORTANT: Please read my disclaimer below about accident studies


This study and all accident studies are not meant to judge anyone, their actions, or their skills as a pilot. I do not claim to know what the pilot did or what he/she was thinking. The purpose of these accident studies is to better understand what causes accidents and how to avoid them. Comments and other points of view are always welcome as long as they are respectful towards everyone involved.