Soft/Rough-Field Takeoff and Climb

Takeoffs and climbs from soft fields require the use of operational techniques for getting the airplane airborne as quickly as possible to eliminate the drag caused by tall grass, soft sand, mud, and snow and may require climbing over an obstacle. The technique makes judicious use of ground effect to reduce landing gear drag and requires an understanding of the airplane’s slow speed characteristics and responses. These same techniques are also useful on a rough field where the pilot should get the airplane off the ground as soon as possible to avoid damaging the landing gear.


Taking off from a soft surface or through soft surfaces or long, wet grass reduces the airplane’s ability to accelerate during the takeoff roll and may prevent the airplane from reaching adequate takeoff speed if the pilot applies normal takeoff techniques. The pilot must be aware that the correct takeoff procedure for soft fields is quite different from the takeoff procedures used for short fields with firm, smooth surfaces. To minimize the hazards associated with takeoffs from soft or rough fields, the pilot should transfer the support of the airplane’s weight as rapidly as possible from the wheels to the wings as the takeoff roll proceeds by establishing and maintaining a relatively high AOA or nose-high pitch attitude as early as possible. The pilot should lower the wing flaps prior to starting the takeoff (if recommended by the manufacturer) to provide additional lift and to transfer the airplane’s weight from the wheels to the wings as early as possible. The pilot should maintain a continuous motion with sufficient power while lining up for the takeoff roll as stopping on a soft surface, such as mud or snow, might bog the airplane down.

Takeoff Roll

As the airplane is aligned with the takeoff path, the pilot should apply takeoff power smoothly and as rapidly as the powerplant can accept without faltering. As the airplane accelerates, the pilot should apply enough back-elevator pressure to establish a positive AOA and to reduce the weight supported by the nose-wheel.

When the airplane is held at a nose-high attitude throughout the takeoff run, the wings increasingly relieve the wheels of the airplane’s weight as speed increases and lift develops, thereby minimizing the drag caused by surface irregularities or adhesion. If this attitude is accurately maintained, the airplane virtually flies itself off the ground, becoming airborne but at an airspeed slower than a safe climb speed because of ground effect. [Figure 5-10]

Figure 5-10. Soft-field takeoff.

Figure 5-10. Soft-field takeoff. [click image to enlarge]


After the airplane becomes airborne, the pilot should gently lower the nose with the wheels clear of the surface to allow the airplane to accelerate to VY, or VX if obstacles must be cleared. Immediately after the airplane becomes airborne and while it accelerates, the pilot should be aware that, while transitioning out of the ground effect area, the airplane will have a tendency to settle back onto the surface. An attempt to climb prematurely or too steeply may cause the airplane to settle back to the surface as a result of the loss of ground effect. During the transition out of the ground effect area, the pilot should not attempt to climb out of ground effect before reaching the sufficient climb airspeed, as this may result in the airplane being unable to climb further, even with full power applied. Therefore, it is essential that the airplane remain in ground effect until at least VX is reached. This requires a good understanding of the control pressures, aircraft responses, visual clues, and acceleration characteristics of that particular airplane.


Initial Climb

After a positive rate of climb is established, and the airplane has accelerated to VY, the pilot should retract the landing gear and flaps, if equipped. If departing from an airstrip with wet snow or slush on the takeoff surface, the gear should not be retracted immediately so that any wet snow or slush to be air-dried. In the event an obstacle must be cleared after a soft-field takeoff, the pilot should perform the climb-out at VX until the obstacle has been cleared. The pilot should then adjust the pitch attitude to VY and retract the gear and flaps. The power can then be reduced to the normal climb setting. The pilot may then reduce power to normal climb setting.

Common errors in the performance of soft/rough field takeoff and climbs are:

  • Failure to review AFM/POH and performance charts prior to takeoff.
  • Failure to adequately clear the area.
  • Insufficient back-elevator pressure during initial takeoff roll resulting in inadequate AOA.
  • Failure to cross-check engine instruments for indications of proper operation after applying power.
  • Poor directional control.
  • Climbing too high after lift-off and not leveling off low enough to maintain ground effect altitude.
  • Abrupt and/or excessive elevator control while attempting to level off and accelerate after liftoff.
  • Allowing the airplane to “mush” or settle resulting in an inadvertent touchdown after lift-off.
  • Attempting to climb out of ground effect area before attaining sufficient climb speed.
  • Failure to anticipate an increase in pitch attitude as the airplane climbs out of ground effect.