Minimum Take-off Speed

There are a million variations in modern aviation ranging from Piper Cubs to the Space Shuttle. With that kind of diversity and the adventurous nature of most pilots, it is not surprising that competition has flourished.

From the first powered flights of the Wright brothers, aviators and aircraft designers have been obsessed with breaking records. Currently the 640 ton Russian Antonov is the largest aircraft that has ever flown and at more than 2500 miles per hour, the Lockheed SR71 is the fastest (at least that the military will admit too). But the records are not all reserved for those heavyweights. More and more electric powered aircraft are now moving past the prototype phase and the recent EAA AirVenture show at Oshkosh just hosted a competition for STOL or Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft. Modified bush planes were using less than 50 feet of runway to practically jump into the air.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, FAI is the world’s governing body for sports aviation and record keeping. They have categories for fastest and highest and time-to-climb, which is a race to gain altitude. There is one category they don’t have, however, and one at which we are becoming experts. Unlike the STOL aircraft that apply lots of horsepower to use up as little runway as they can, our job is to get into the air with as little speed as possible.

Our birds learn to fly in increments. They evolve from running behind us, flapping inutile wings, to flying the length of the runway with only one or two footfalls needed.


When they are strong enough to make abbreviated circuits around the pen, we attempt to stay as close to them as we can. It reinforces their instinct to follow us and gives them a chance to find the free lift our wingtips can provide.

Once our birds are mature and experienced flyers, they will cruise at around 38 miles per hour. But when they are young and climbing, they can fly much slower. We can slow our aircraft down to about 30 miles per hour before they stop flying. Below that it’s no longer fun, especially if we are low over the trees. Our birds can take two steps to get airborne but we use up a hundred feet of runway before we lift off. That puts us 50 feet ahead of them, while hoping they can catch up before they get discouraged and turn back. So the trick is to get into the air with as little speed as possible, and to hold the aircraft on the critical line between flying and falling.

There isn’t much call for a minimum take-off speed competition. It isn’t as exciting as a short take-off contest but the prize is better. They get a trophy and bragging rights, while we get surrounded by eager young Whooping cranes. It’s a spectacle beyond the reach of words and an honor more auspicious than the record book.

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  1. Ruth Mitchell August 16, 2014 6:36 am

    Wonderful perspective…….of the spirit of adventure for all pilots…and the special joy of flying with our beautiful Whooping Cranes soaring with you!!!!

  2. Nancy M August 15, 2014 2:05 pm

    Last paragraph says it all! WHOOP!!!

  3. Libby August 15, 2014 12:28 pm

    Love this column, Joe. So informative, and so winsome – and we get to see things from your perspective, your burdy perspective. Reminds me of much earlier times, when my dad (who built his runway) would take off in his Cessna 182 after an impossibly short ground run. It was because he knew it so well, and you know WRM International so well, you know just the trees that need to be cut…

  4. Rowland More August 15, 2014 12:20 pm

    Hi Joe
    When I was in Cannington and involved in the town heard about this with the Lishmans. Unaware that you were part of this, until I had talked to your brother Michael and wondering where you ended up after you moved.
    All the best!