January 2000 Issue

Turning Point

Much-discussed turnback maneuver needed a real-life look

Really enjoyed “The Impossible Turn” [Proficiency, November]. Many have discussed this issue, but few have actually tested it. There are so many GA issues that are heatedly debated, but never researched like you did. I know I’ll be testing the teardrop technique soon in our plane. Maybe this could become a regular feature of Aviation Safety, testing GA planes performance in difficult/risky real-life maneuvers.

-Andrew Doorey
Via e-mail

Flying is full of difficult real-life maneuvers and decisions your student texts never mention. We’ll do what we can to increase the tools you have to cope with risky situations successfully.


One Altitude Doesn’t Fit All
I enjoyed your article on making turns back to the runway in response to an engine failure after takeoff. Of course, the physics of the situation have a little to do with your altitude and everything to do with your climb and glide rates. If you climb at an 8 degree angle and descend during the glide at a 10 degree angle, you’ll never make it back no matter how high you have gotten when the power stops.

Yes, there is a minimum altitude above the ground required to make the teardrop turn back to the runway, but that is simply a prerequisite for attempting the turn, not an indication that you will make it to the runway, or even the airport.

If I takeoff in my Piper Arrow II on a cool winter morning and no passengers, I will attain the 750 feet necessary for the turn prior to crossing the airport perimeter fence and could easily turn around and hit a runway or taxiway. If I takeoff from the same airport on a hot July day with the seats filled, I won’t get to 750 feet agl until I am miles from the airport. It would be impossible to return under those conditions.

I suggest that a better tactic would be to experiment, as you did, to determine that altitude required for any particular airplane to make the turn, and also what climb rate is required at Vx so that the airplane’s climb angle exceeds its descent angle, when gliding, by enough margin to provide that altitude. In other words, I might determine that I will need 750 feet agl and a climb rate of at least 800 feet per minute at 75 knots in order to make it back. If either of those numbers falls short after leaving the runway, I know that I cannot make it back to the airport without power.

-Michael Gibbs
Phoenix, AZ

In fact, the situation is even more complicated. Wind speed, wind direction and runway length also play big roles in whether you can make it back to the airport successfully, as does your course after takeoff. In our testing we assumed a worse-case scenario of a runway heading departure. Turning on course in either direction will make a turnback easier. You hit the nail on the head when you say you need to test the maneuver in the particular airplane you fly. It’s a challenging maneuver and the test will convince a lot of people that landing off airport may not be so bad after all.


Sometimes ‘Impossible Turn’ Really Is
“The Impossible Turn” hit very close to home. I had a friend die June 1, 1998, trying to do the impossible turn. This fellow, 38 years old, had flown with Eastern Airlines before it folded. He was an excellent pilot, CFII, with many hours in all kinds of different aircraft. At the time of the accident, he was practicing banner pick-up in preparation to opening a business.

He came in for one low pass to judge distance. On his second pass he got too low and the rope caught in the prop and wrapped around between prop hub and engine. He lost most of the power. He managed to climb to about 150 feet and then attempted the impossible turn. He stalled and crashed into the trees at the left of runway. He died several hours later.

He and I had discussed flying a lot. Only a week earlier we sat on my patio and discussed the impossible turn.

The bottom line is that the urge to get back to the runway is extremely strong and very hard to overcome.

-Melvin McVey
Ocean Springs, Miss.

Stalling in such a turn is very dangerous because there’s not enough altitude to recover to controlled flight. That’s one reason we recommend practicing the turn at altitude. A steep bank and slow airspeed is not a combination to employ lightly. As we said, this is a high performance maneuver and should be practiced with caution. It’s also a useful tool if you can use it correctly.


A Little More Time, but Same Dilemma
I am an instrument-rated pilot flying a Commander 112-TC and I read your magazine religiously, continuously finding interesting and helpful items that make flying safer and more fun. I read with great interest your article on engine failures soon after takeoff.

Last week I took off from runway 8 at my home field, Ft Lauderdale Executive, and was cleared to 500 ft to transition south through FLL Class C airspace on my way to Key West, only to have my engine stop just over the beach. I had just leaned the mixture back for the short cruise at low altitude when my engine quit. I was able to restart the engine by pushing the mixture back to full rich but it stopped for a second time about a minute later.

Again I was able to restart the engine with the mixture, which at this point I decided not to touch again. At full rich and full RPM on the prop, the engine was generating about one-third power and running rough. I was in contact with FLL tower and requested immediate return to FXE. Executive is only about 4 miles inland from the beach, but those few miles are basically downtown Ft Lauderdale, which does not have too many safe open areas to put down a crippled airplane.

FXE tower cleared me for anything I wanted to do after I gave them a quick appraisal of my precarious situation. I elected not to try an approach to 26 because of the tall buildings at that end of the runway, but instead limped along the runway and at the approach end of 8 turned about 140 degrees toward the runway. I basically made a “dead stick” landing with the engine sputtering on idle only to quit totally as I rolled out. The problem with the power turned out to be a snapped throttle cable which coiled up and jammed in an idle power position.

I learned several things from this that your article mentions and are worth reinforcing.

1. ATC is a friend, even though they can be busy and sometimes seem to make things tougher than they need to be.

2. Know your own airplane and every detail of its performance. My plane has landing gear that impart significant drag on the plane, so I left it up until the last moment. I did not take a downwind landing because I knew if the plane sank a little, I would end up on some guy’s desk on the 10th floor of an office building. Practice emergency situations and alternatives in your own plane so you don’t have to think of every last detail when your heart is in your throat.

3. Forget about squaring off patterns and 90 degree angles. Head for the numbers and then straighten the plane out over the runway if you still have the airspeed.

4. As you suggest in your article, watch the airspeed above all, there is no power to recover from a stall.

5. Remember the days of practicing slow flight in a C-150? Practice it in your own airplane, you never know when you will need to fly slow and be able to handle a squirrelly plane in an emergency situation.

Thanks for continuing to generate interesting and helpful articles.

-Ken Stahl
Weston, Florida

Congratulations on your successful outcome. Runway 8 at FXE is a perfect example of the kind of situation where the conventional “land straight ahead” doesn’t hold much water.


Crosswind Mystery Solved
I read with great enthusiasm Raymond Leis’ article on crosswind landings [Proficiency, October]. As a newly certified private pilot, I am anxious to do whatever I can to improve my landings. I had my chance to do some crosswind landings this morning using the crab method, versus the crossed control method I learned as a student pilot. I am proud to say that I made several beautiful landings by holding the crab until the last possible second. Ray sold me. Please extend to him my thanks.

-Jim Rottman
Via e-mail


When Is a Backup Not a Backup?
In “A Graceful Exit” [Airmanship, November] you raise the issue of using a handheld radio as a backup to the airplane’s built-in transceivers.

I am a student pilot about to take my practical test, and during my first solo cross country, I experienced a partial radio failure in class C airspace. Specifically, my only transmitter was bad on certain frequencies. The receiver worked fine, and I’d flown from Longmont, Colo., into Colorado Springs, landed and taken off again without realizing that the radio had a problem. I discovered this unfortunate fact when I was unable to contact Springs Departure after handoff by the tower.

I was carrying a handheld radio and tried it when I was about 10 miles south of Springs tower. Even that close, I was unable to raise Departure control. I could hear Departure calling me, and heard a 727 advise Departure that they could hear me “breaking up badly.” At about this point I tried the tower on the ship’s radio and it worked fine on that frequency.

When I got home, I discovered the manufacturer says that mounting the antenna inside the cockpit of a metal airplane would result in a useful range of “a couple of city blocks.”

It seems to me that a handheld is of little or no significant value as a backup in the cockpit unless it can be connected to a properly installed external antenna.

The manufacturer said that if you hold the antenna near a window, you have a better chance of getting the signal out to your target. Clearly that’s a difficult maneuver while flying.

-Simon Roberts
Via e-mail

You bring up an important shortcoming in handheld radios. As we’ve said before, an external antenna is mandatory for any serious use of a handheld radio, although renters can save a few bucks by getting clearances before the Hobbs meter starts. The bottom line is that, if you rent a plane or don’t want to mount an external antenna, you’re probably better off boning up on your NORDO procedures and, in a real emergency, dialing up the controller on a cell phone. For backup navigation, however, a handheld GPS works fine even if you just toss the antenna on the glareshield.


Stanley Lord Besmirched
I enjoyed Paul Bertorelli’s article “The Myths of Ditching” [Airmanship, October]. I found it very interesting, as I now live in Florida, with its many lakes. I do want to comment on one item, in which you said “Stanley Lord, by the way, was the captain of the Californian, a vessel that never quite deduced that blazing white rockets fired by the Titanic meant, ‘I’m sinking.’” I’m a commander in the U.S. Navy, and I can tell you that then, as now, white rockets do not mean distress. Red rockets or flares signal the need for assistance.

Californian is often mentioned in accounts of the tragedy because she was the closest ship, and in a position to see the white rockets. In those days, however, it was not uncommon for rockets to be used for entertaining the passengers. As far as the Californian could tell, 20 miles away, this was simply another ocean liner having a party.

Many tragedies, like the sinking of the Titanic, do not hinge on a single mistake. Not having red rockets aboard was just one of the many things done wrong. It is clear that Mr. Bertorelli knows aviation, but maritime operations he does not know. Aviation Safety owes Stanley Lord an apology.

-Richard Plumber
Jacksonville, Fla.

Paul Bertorelli replies: Good grief. Not only do I have to stomach the countenance of Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of every teen magazine in the known universe, now I have to apologize to the long dead Stanley Lord, too? Lord’s role in Titanic sinking will be debated until the end of time but I have to admit, the white-rockets-as-entertainment argument is one I haven’t heard. The regulations of 1912 clearly say that a rocket of any color at night is a distress signal. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.