The Impossible Turn
It’s the worst possible scenario. You’re taking off on a pristine Saturday morning for breakfast. Normal run-up. Perfect weather. Quick takeoff clearance, but within 400 feet of rotating you hear (and feel) the engine heave. Suddenly, it has breathed its last and all is silent. You have just experienced an engine failure on takeoff. Behind you lay 5,000 feet of perfectly smooth, government-laid, asphalt. Ahead of you…tall pine trees. Will you go back? Do you attempt “the impossible turn?”
The impossible turn is the emergency return to airport maneuver attempted when engine power is lost. The turn has been dubbed-” impossible”- and for good reason. It is dangerous; filled with energy management mishap potential. But it’s still attempted— why?
Today we will examine what to do if your engine fails on takeoff, the minimum altitude to make turns after takeoff, and why even after knowing the turn is impossible we still want to do it.
What happens if the engine fails on takeoff?
There is one maxim in aviation about engine failures that rings true at every altitude: The first thing you should do is— fly the airplane.
An engine failure at a low altitude (<1,000 feet AGL) can be just as survivable (or deadly) as one that occurs at 10,000 feet. The big difference between the two is time. If your engine quits at a low altitude your decision-making time window shrinks dramatically. As Chris says “gravity never lets up.” The most important thing is to not forget to fly the airplane.
This means that your first priority, even before figuring out what went wrong, communicating, or restarting the engine, should be keeping positive flight control of the plane. In short–don’t stall the airplane.
Most likely the airplane will be in a high angle of attack configuration and the sudden loss of power will increase the potential for a stall. You will fight your instincts and lower the nose to pitch for the best glide. Trim to help hold that airspeed.
Next comes the most critical part of engine failures on takeoff… picking the best field.
Minimum Altitude to Turn After Takeoff
As mentioned, the best field, technically, is the strip of runway immediately to your rear. But if you are below 1,000 feet AGL you should NOT attempt to return. Why?
First is the amount of time the turn itself takes. Remember from Angle of Attack’s Private Pilot Ground School that a standard rate (3 degrees/second) turn 180 degrees will take you 60 seconds. Factor in about 5-10 seconds of “shock” time, and it would take you over a minute to get back. Much too long given your altitude and lack of power. (For reference check out this segment on Power Off 180’s from Chris– it’s a tough maneuver to do even with altitude and time!)
But what if I try to turn back tighter?
Ok. If you tighten the turn, sure, you will cut down the time it takes to get back, but you will increase your stall potential dramatically. For example, FAA studies show the following increases in stall speed for a normal C172 in a turn.
Remember the airplane stalls at an angle of attack, not an airspeed. Airplanes in sharp turns with low power can enter into an “accelerated stall.” This is how a majority of impossible turns ends – a stall/spin.
So what’s the takeaway? Don’t do it.
If you are below 400 feet AGL your best option is straight. Hit whatever you are going to hit as softly as possible. As the legend, Bob Hoover would say “fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”
If you are between 500-1,000 feet AGL the FAA and others recommend exploring at least 10-60 degrees of possible deviation ahead of you.
At or above 1,000 feet becomes a judgment call. Even at this altitude, it’s still best to keep going forward, especially if there are fields/farmlands ahead. If you are somehow able to have enough altitude to make it back to the runway, remember you will now have a tailwind on landing… a cherry on top.
Engine Failure After Takeoff Checklists
Here are two quick references checklists the FAA recommends when facing an engine failure during the take-off phase of flight, check your own aircraft for emergency procedures prescribed.
A. Engine Failure During The Takeoff Roll
- Pull out the throttle;
- Brake firmly;
- Maintain runway heading;
- While the aircraft slows down, turn off the fuel, switch off the mags, and pull the mixture into idle cutoff to minimize fire risk;
- When there is a risk of passing the runway’s end or even running off the airfield entirely, swing onto the grass. Take firm avoidance action when obstacles are present.
B. Engine Failure After Takeoff:
- Immediately depress the nose and trim into the glide at optimum speed;
- Look through an arc of about 60 degrees left and right of the aircraft heading and select the best available landing area;
- Turn off the fuel and mags. Pull the mixture to idle-cutoff to minimize fire risk;
- If yours is a tailwheel aircraft, avoid the risk of turning over during the landing by retracting the gear (if applicable). It is better to leave the nose gear extended on tri-gear aircraft to absorb the first shock of arrival;
- Make gentle turns to avoid obstacles;
- When you are sure of reaching the chosen landing area, lower the flaps, in stages if necessary, but aim to have full flaps before touchdown. Do not allow the airspeed to increase;
- On short final, turn off the master switch and unlatch the cabin doors (to guard against the risk of being trapped in the cabin through the doors jamming);
- Resist the temptation to turn back to the field!
Why Do SO Many Pilots Attempt The Impossible Turn?
The impossible turn frequently makes headlines. And while it’s something you have been trained to scream “NOOO” in response to in flight school, it’s still attempted…why?
Two reasons. First is that a majority of engine failures are not “all or nothing” affairs. The most common type of engine failure is partial engine failure. This can easily lull a pilot into thinking “I can make it.” The problem is, engine failures start out partial and then frequently become total failures.
The second reason is a pilot’s overall fear of an off-airport landing. This is understandable. Why risk putting it in a field and destroying life/plane when I can just try to turn around? The truth is an off-airport landing is actually more survivable than you might think.
The best example of a pilot resisting the impossible turn urge?—Sully on the Hudson. If you watched the movie “Sully” you remember how the movie played up the notion that Capt. Sullenberger might have been able to turn back to LGA. That was a serious inquiry in 2009. Sully made the right decision. Turning back would have killed almost everyone on the plane and an unknown number on the ground.
A final word of advice on engine failures on takeoff: a proper pre-check makes prevention possible. Don’t slack off on your run-up in order to get in the air. If you hear something, stop and question.
If this subject terrifies or confuses you, check out Angle of Attack’s Private Pilot Ground School. Flying in Alaska, Chris and our team completely understand the dangers of off-airport landings and how you can make the best of the hand you’re dealt.
Michael Brown grew up flying on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, TN. He obtained his private pilot’s license in high school and has instrument and seaplane ratings. Michael graduated from Texas Christian University, where he founded the school’s flying club, with a double major in Business and Communications. He is currently a law student at Tulane University, studying transportation law. Michael was named the Richard Collins Young Writing Award winner and has had his legal writing recognized by the American Bar Association’s Air & Space Subcommittee. When he is not flying or studying, Michael enjoys riding his bike and cheering on his Atlanta Braves.
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