Turnback on Takeoff

Even a positive approach to emergencies reveals you probably cant make it back to the runway


The word emergency comes from the classical Greek, Emergos, meaning lets get out of here. Consider Icarus, the pilot who disregarded the service ceiling limitation on his Daedulus Skycoupe and failed to handle the subsequent forced landing by foolishly attempting a turn back to the island of Crete. Icarus perished because he had no plan to get out of there.

Three thousand years later, experienced pilots still take off with little thought of engine failure. Maybe thats because engines are fairly reliable and such a tiny portion of a flight is spent in the climb.

Still, depending on the type of aircraft, as many as 20 percent of emergency landings originate in the takeoff and climb phase. Of those that actually crash, 13 percent include fatalities, according to the 1996 Nall Report. Numerous factors determine survivability, including impact speed and weather conditions. Notably, those at great risk are pilots of single engine, fixed gear airplanes, who stand the best chance of surviving a crash due to low impact speed but suffer most from the panicky turn back to the runway.

Prevention is the best plan and a thorough preflight ritual will spot the threat posed by high density altitude or a missing oil cap. Even so, power loss can happen without warning, meaning a well-rehearsed engine-out plan will help prevent panic. To reduce fear and change our attitude toward engine failure, well refer to dead stick landings to an emergency field as power-challenged approaches to non-traditional landing sites. Its still the 1990s so, hey, lets be positive about emergencies.

A good emergency shouldnt waste our time. In keeping with that philosophy, an engine failure – sorry, power-challenge – on takeoff leaves the pilot with very little time to screw up. If a single engine airplane sinks/glides at 1,000 fpm, and the engine warranty expires at 500 AGL, that leaves 30 seconds for decision making and remedial action.

The FAA warns that the average pilot needs four seconds to react. Weve done the math, and 26 seconds remain to establish the glide, pick a landing site ahead and execute the touchdown. Clearly theres no time for worry.

Instead, picture a 60 degree arc on each side of the nose (120 degrees full arc from left to right). Your landing spot is somewhere in that arc. Granted, the runway behind you is far more inviting than the subdivision ahead, but there is one major factor that argues in favor of going straight. Pointed into the wind your ground speed is relatively slow. A Cessna 172 with a head wind should land around 40-50 knots. Thats slower than the skateboarders in the Wal-Mart parking lot youve chosen for touch down. Youll walk away. And although your insurance company may have to buy few shopping carts, thats their problem.

Thirty seconds of glide time is brief but does allow a little time for trouble shooting.

Engines need fuel, spark and air to run. Fuel starvation is often pilot-induced and solved by switching tanks. Turn on the auxiliary pump. For spark, check the magneto switch. Attempt a restart. Carburetor ice can form during taxi and, if not detected on run-up, will degrade climb power. Carb heat is the textbook answer, but if the engine is already dead, it wont produce heat and wont melt the ice.

Often the engine isnt dead but merely napping. Partial power might be cured with a mixture adjustment. A touch of primer might nurse a faltering engine long enough to make it safely back to the airport. But watch out. A temporary burst of power might entice you away from a good landing site only to have the engine fail again before you reach the airport. Perform your emergency checklist by feel so your eyes can watch terrain, airspeed and coordination. Above all, never stop flying the airplane.

Landing on a highway may be unavoidable and is okay provided its not a toll road (fumbling for change is a distraction). If traffic is anything other than light, its not fair to drivers to just drop in on them. But if traffic allows, land with traffic and signal all turns. Drivers who see a plane descending over their windshield will, hopefully, slam on the brakes as they reach for the video camera.

Be ready to go under, not through, power lines and overpasses. Once down, exit the aircraft immediately. If your power challenge was due to anything other than fuel exhaustion, the threat of fire is real. Turning off fuel and electrical switches might reduce the threat but dont let it distract you from the approach. Maintain airspeed or nothing else matters. Casually ask a passenger to prop a door open. Luckily with the engine out, the cockpit will be quiet so you wont have to yell. Act like you do this all the time.

Even with a positive approach toward engine failure on takeoff, there will still be a huge temptation to turn back toward the runway. Consider some more numbers. Lets say the engine quits at 1000 agl. That leaves about a minute to fly.

A standard rate turn at three degrees per second takes one minute to complete 180 degrees. You might get turned around but the radius of the turn will take you away from the airport and youll need to turn an extra 30 degrees or more to make the runway. A steeper bank will tighten the radius, but the higher bank angle increases load factor, which increases sink rate and stall speed and increases the risk of breaking into a deadly stall/spin.

A controlled landing on rough terrain, or in water, is always preferable to a spin accident. Even if you could make the miracle turn of 180+ degrees and reach the runway you just left, you may then be running into departing traffic.

This does not preclude landing on a cross runway or taxiway. Given enough altitude and expertise, an engine failure on departure can safely turn into a gliding base leg entry to any open area on the airport, which is much better than running through a row of backyard fences in a middle-class neighborhood. Again, the altitude loss in the turn can be staggering.

All advice comes with the caveat that its given by someone who wont be with you when the emergency happens. You may face a takeoff emergency situation where the choice is either land in a volcano or turn back.

Prove the futility of turning back yourself and test your skills in advance by simulating engine failures at altitude. Line up over a road and close the throttle. Lower the nose for best glide and start a turn. See how much lateral and vertical room youll need to reverse course and realign yourself. Learn how impossible it is to accomplish the miracle turn from climb-out to touchdown on the same runway.

On all departures talk through your emergency plan. If the engine quits now, I land there … if the engine quits now, I land there. Create options, because, its only an emergency when you cant get out of there.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “If theres any right time to ditch…”

-by Paul Berge

Paul Berge is a former air traffic controller who gave up all the glamour to be an instructor in a Champ.


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