The morning of Feb. 4, 2015, was drearily normal in Taipei. With the sky blanketed in low clouds, pushed by a moderate breeze, the day was neither hot nor cold, neither stormy nor fair. For many of the passengers that filed aboard TransAsia Airways Flight 235 at Songshan Airport, the journey ahead promised to be similarly workaday: not a jaunt to some exotic clime, but an hour-long puddle-jump across the Taiwan Strait to the city of Kinmen, where many of the passengers had family and work obligations.
At the front of the plane, 42-year-old captain Liao Chien-tsung and 45-year-old first officer Liu Tzu-chung strapped themselves into their seats and ran through their pre-flight checklists. Shortly after 10.30 a.m. the last of the passengers settled into their seats and the cabin crew closed the doors. As the plane started to move, passenger Lin Ming-wei had a hunch that one of the engines sounded funny, and requested that he, his wife, and their 2-year-old son be seated on the right side of the aircraft.
With practiced efficiency, Liao guided the ATR 72-600 along the network of taxiways to Runway 10. After receiving permission to take off, he rolled forward and swung the plane over the centerline. Engine throttles full forward, the twin turboprop engines roared and shook as each machine’s quadruple blades chopped the air. Liao released the brakes, and the plane leapt forward. The airspeed indicator slid past 116 knots as the plane’s nose, then main wheels, lifted from the runway.
This moment—when a plane transitions from ground vehicle to air vehicle—is the most critical in aviation. It is the part of each flight when a plane has the least altitude, is moving the slowest, and carries the heaviest mass of fuel. Given how much happens in a short span of time, it’s also the most mentally demanding. As Liao felt the seat press into his back, his eyes flitted from the instrument panel to the runway and back. Simultaneously he had to keep the plane centered on the runway, monitor its speed and acceleration, pay attention to the radio, and keep alert for signs of malfunction.
Normally this critical phase is over within a few minutes. But every once in a while something goes wrong. For TransAsia 235, that day was today.