Failure of an airplane’s single engine shortly after takeoff is an event all pilots dread. When it happens, we’re low and slow. We lack the potential energy of speed and altitude, have little time to respond and few options. When such a failure happens, it’s natural—in some ways—for a pilot to want to be back on the runway he or she just used. It’s right there—behind us—and seemingly offers several solutions to our problems.
One thing the runway has going for it is, well, it’s a runway. We know it’s a perfectly good runway because we just used it. Another attraction is resources: There’s usually a maintenance facility or at least a mechanic who can set things right. If only we can make it back to the runway we just departed, this pesky engine failure will be okay.
One problem in making it back to the runway after an engine failure is simple math: We often don’t have the energy necessary to perform the turn(s) necessary to align the airplane with the runway and cover the distance back to it. We might have enough for one or the other, but rarely will we have both.
Yes, there are exceptions, including the guy a couple of years ago who happened to have a video camera running when his single engine quit. He made it back to an intersecting runway, but not the one he used for takeoff. Another problem with the turnback maneuver is it requires exacting performance from the pilot.
All of these points—and more—were the subject of Rich Stowell’s classic article in our January 2006 issue, “Turnbacks Reconsidered.” In it, Stowell related the results of a simulator-based study in which pilots attempted the turnback maneuver: “…successfully turning around after an engine failure on takeoff isn’t impossible; it’s just unlikely to have the desired result.” The best option is to simply “lower the nose of the airplane to its best glide attitude and land somewhere within an area extending outward at an angle between 45 and 60 degrees from either side of the runway centerline.” Here’s an example of what can happen when a turnback attempt fails.
On April 1, 2010, at 1253 Eastern time, a Beech B36TC Bonanza impacted terrain short of the runway at the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport (MGY), Dayton, Ohio, following a loss of engine power. The airplane was destroyed in a post-impact fire; the pilot and passenger were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed and an IFR flight plan had been filed. The flight departed MGY about 1250.
The pilot initially contacted Dayton Approach Control while he was on the ground at MGY. However, before a clearance was issued, the pilot returned to the ramp with a magneto problem. Thirty minutes later, the pilot again requested a clearance, which was issued at 1248. The flight was released for takeoff at 1249.
At 1251:11, the pilot informed ATC they were airborne and climbing through 1300 feet msl. But at 1251:46, the pilot stated he was “going to circle around for a landing” at MGY because a “compartment [had] come open.” At 1252:16, the pilot declared an emergency due to an engine failure.
Witnesses observed the airplane approach the airport from the west, with its landing gear retracted. They stated the airplane banked to the left in an apparent attempt to line up with a runway. The left wingtip struck the ground and the airplane impacted an open grass area south of the runway.
The debris path was oriented on an approximate 024-degree magnetic bearing. The main airplane wreckage, which consisted of the fuselage, engine, empennage and wings, came to rest about 179 feet from the initial impact point. No anomalies consistent with a pre-impact failure or malfunction of the airframe were observed.
Teardown examination of the engine revealed that the #1 (aft) main bearing had failed. Specifically, the right half of the #1 main bearing was fractured into five pieces. A portion of the right bearing was located under the left bearing. In addition, the lower, aft crankcase through-bolt was fractured near mid-length. Finally, the fuel pump drive coupling and the standby alternator drive shaft were fractured.
The FBO’s director of maintenance (DOM) met the accident pilot when he returned to the ramp with the rough magneto. The maintenance director got in the airplane and conducted a run-up. He stated the engine started without hesitation and went to 1200 or 1300 rpm. He conducted at least two magneto checks and the drop in engine speed was about 100 rpm, well within manufacturer’s limits. Engine operation was smooth the entire time.
The pilot reportedly commented to the mechanic that he had been idling for a long time and had not leaned the mixture. The DOM did not observe any issues with the operation of the engine or the magnetos during the time he was in the airplane.
Maintenance records indicated aluminum fragments were found in the filter during an oil change in July 2009. In response, the engine was disassembled and several piston pins were found frozen. The connecting rods were repaired and new cylinders were installed. The airplane was subsequently returned to service with no further issues noted.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include, “The complete loss of engine power due to failure of the No. 1 main bearing, and the secondary failure of a crankcase through-bolt and the fuel pump drive coupling. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s decision to attempt a return to the airport for a downwind forced landing, despite having an interstate highway and an open grass area short of the runway as available emergency landing sites.”
Engine failures happen all the time and unless injuries or aircraft damage occur in the aftermath, there is no reporting requirement. Thus, it’s impossible to know how poorly or well pilots handle them until an accident or incident occurs.
But the record clearly shows attempting to turn back to the airport is fraught with additional challenges, lack of training in the maneuver being chief among them. While that wide-open runway may be tempting, it’s best to find an unobstructed field, Interstate highway or other off-airport landing site, one you can easily make while keeping the airplane under control and which affords the opportunity for slow deceleration.