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Engine Failure Takeoff Continued

By: Frank Armstrong

By: Frank Armstrong, CFP®, AIFA®

Many of you know that in a previous life I was an Air Force Pilot flying KC-135A Air Refueling Tankers. We all sometimes referred to the KC-135A as the world’s fastest tricycle because it was woefully underpowered and an 11,000 foot take off roll was standard.

Years after it occurred, a friend of mine told me the following story about himself on one of his first missions as a brand new co-pilot. I’m sharing it with you now because the incident has important lessons for investors as well.

The Aircraft Commander that day was a crusty Lt. Col. with over 20 years of flying under his belt. It was hot, and the tanker was heavily loaded. About halfway down the runway it reached its critical engine failure speed, after which it was going too fast to abort in the remaining runway. The crew was committed. They were going flying even if an engine failed while it was still on the runway.

hortly after that a loud bang, fire light, high temperature gauge and reduced power indications revealed a fire on the number 4 engine. Acceleration slowed, but with just a few feet to spare, the aircraft ever so slowly lumbered off the end of the runway into the air. The Aircraft Commander asked for gear up which would greatly improve the airplane’s anemic climb rate.

The co-pilot instead responded with a voice suddenly an octave above normal, “Shut down number 4 Sir?” and reached for the throttle.

The Aircraft Commander protected the throttles with his right hand, shook his head, and in a low, slow, steady, calm and reassuring voice said: “Let it burn, Son.”

The message couldn’t have been clearer: This is not an emergency, this is a controllable incident. Hasty action can certainly turn an incident into a disaster, but we are not going to do that today, are we? So, let’s do what we are trained to do in an orderly manner.

While an engine failure on the runway past abort speed fully engages the crew, there is an adequate safety margin so that everyone should live to fly another day – if they do everything right.

Boeing had thoughtfully placed the engines on pods several feet below the wing where it could burn and even fall off without endangering the aircraft. The important thing was to keep your wits, fly the airplane, clean it up, and then shut down the appropriate engine in an orderly manner. More than one crew has been killed when they shut down the wrong engine! Panic and haste are a very bad combination when sitting on 189,000 lbs of jet fuel in an aluminum tube at 170 knots just a few feet above the ground.

The urge to do something – even the wrong thing – in a perceived emergency can be overwhelming, and it can kill. Situational awareness, discipline and training turned this incident into just an interesting story told around the officer’s club bar.

The current market decline has us all fully engaged. It’s fully predictable that the market will take such dives from time to time. Like engine failures on takeoff, we know that it is rare, but it will happen sometime. We just don’t know when. How we react determines if we reach our financial objectives. The financial equivalent of shutting down the wrong engine is to flee to cash after a market decline.

The Strategic Air Command’s primary emergency procedure was drilled into every aircrew: “Stop! Think! Collect Your Wits!” Good advice for investors, too.