Calling it “The Impossible Turn” is a bit of an exaggeration. Pilots have sometimes made it back onto the runway after losing an engine during climb-out. The Air Safety Institute even has in-cockpit footage from one successful attempt. However, the record suggests that successful attempts are rare. They depend on instant recognition of the problem, split-second decision making, and intimate knowledge of the airplane’s performance characteristics in a corner of the flight envelope where most of us don’t spend much time. Most fundamentally, they depend on having enough altitude, on knowing how much altitude is enough, and on lowering the nose enough to keep the airplane flying through the turn.
On the afternoon of April 3, 2011, a Lancair 360 lifted off from Runway 23 of the Chesapeake Regional Airport in southeastern Virginia. Six witnesses reported that about a quarter mile beyond the threshold, just after the gear retracted, its engine began to sputter and miss. Most estimated that it had climbed no higher than 200 feet agl, though one guessed 300 feet to 400 feet agl. All agreed that the airplane began a hard right turn before its nose dropped sharply; descriptions of its attitude varied from “straight down” to “inverted.” Just before impact the Lancair’s nose began to come up again, and two witnesses said they heard the engine return to full power in the last second or two before the airplane hit the ground. The pilot and passenger were both killed. NTSB investigators found the engine embedded in the ground at a 20-degrees-nose-down pitch attitude.
The 45-year-old pilot did not lack for expertise. He was an Army helicopter pilot and standardization instructor who also held a civilian commercial certificate rated for single- and multiengine airplanes, single-engine seaplanes, helicopters, and gliders, and a CFII rated for helicopters and single- and multiengine airplanes. His résumé claimed “4,533 total hours in 52 different aircraft,” including seven different models of military helicopters, and listed him as a 2004 graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School. His total amount of fixed-wing experience was not reported, but the investigators noted that he had “accrued more than 150 hours in the airplane” since buying it from its builder in February 2008. Earlier that day he’d made the short hop from his base in Williamsburg to meet his family for lunch; afterward, his sister had accepted his offer of a quick introductory flight.
The reason for the loss of power was never conclusively determined. Disassembly of the engine found impact damage, but no evidence of any failure before that. Both tanks were ruptured, and no fuel was found in either one. Enough leaked from the right tank to damage the vegetation in an area nine feet square, but beneath the left tank there was only one small patch of browned foliage, perhaps a foot in diameter. The fuel selector was found set to the right tank.
With no way to know the position of the fuel selector at takeoff, the investigators offered two possible explanations. If it had indeed been set to the right tank, it is possible that the tank didn’t contain enough fuel to cover the intake port (located about two inches behind the leading edge) once the airplane pitched up to climb attitude. Fuel would have reached the port again after the stall. More likely, they thought, was that the pilot had taken off with the selector set to the nearly empty left tank, and then switched once the engine began to miss. Either would explain why power was first lost, and then apparently regained in the last instants before the crash.
Whatever the reason for it, the loss of power at low altitude left the pilot with few good options. It’s not certain that he was actually trying to return to the runway, though that’s what the witnesses assumed. The NTSB report notes that “agricultural fields were located to the right of the departure end of Runway 23,” the largest of which measured more than half a mile on each side. The pilot might well have recognized that as a more realistic choice. Wherever he was trying to go, though, his chances of getting there depended on lowering the nose fast enough and far enough to keep both wings flying.
This tragedy also underlines the importance of some of the first lessons our instructors tried to teach us: Know how much fuel is in each tank. Recheck all crucial configuration details before you taxi onto the runway. And before you ever open the throttle, plan out exactly what you’ll do if the engine quits; then be ready to do it. After hundreds of uneventful takeoffs, many of us get complacent about these things. Clearly, we shouldn’t.