Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight
Would you make it?
We've all talked about it. Some of us have tried it. Most of us couldn't do it. It is the "impossible turn" -- the 180-degree turn back to the runway after an engine failure. What would you do if confronted with this situation at 200 feet agl? How about 500 or 1,000 feet? Most flight instructors and pilot's operating handbooks tell pilots to land straight ahead, not to try to turn back.
On August 27, 2001, a homebuilt Sky Raider II departing New Smyrna Beach, Florida, lost engine power at about 200 feet agl. The pilot attempted to turn back to the runway, the airspeed decayed, and the airplane subsequently stalled and dove straight into the ground. The pilot was killed, and a passenger was seriously injured. The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's failure to maintain airspeed while performing an emergency maneuver, which resulted in a stall and uncontrolled descent.
Remembering basic aerodynamics, when an airplane is turned, the vertical component of lift is reduced, thus overall lift is lost. Therefore, if a turn is initiated and there is a lack of excess thrust (remember, the engine has failed), the airplane will descend. At 200 feet agl, you have no room for error.
On August 1, 2002, a Grumman Tiger experienced engine problems after takeoff, and witnesses observed the airplane in a steep 45-degree left bank before it descended into a cornfield. The pilot was killed on impact. There were several clear fields in front of and on either side of the departure path. The NTSB cited the improper decision of the pilot to try and return to the airport with inadequate altitude remaining, and his failure to maintain airspeed as contributing causes of this accident.
According to the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook, "If an actual engine failure should occur immediately after takeoff and before a safe maneuvering altitude is attained, it is usually inadvisable to attempt to turn back to the field from where the takeoff was made. Instead, it is safer to immediately establish the proper glide attitude, and select a field directly ahead of or slightly to either side of the takeoff path." The tricky part is defining "safe maneuvering altitude." Most people would say the minimum would be 500 feet agl, just about the altitude where most people start their turn to crosswind. How much altitude do you think you would need to make the runway safely?
The best way to answer that question is to try it. Now, nobody is suggesting simulating an engine failure right after takeoff. However, there is a way. Find an instructor and go out to the practice area. Climb to a safe altitude (at least 3,000 feet agl) and set that altitude as a hard deck. Establish yourself in a takeoff configuration, then have your instructor simulate an engine failure at different altitudes above your hard deck -- 200, 500, and 1,000 feet would work well. Once your engine has "failed" you can practice making the 180-degree turn back to the runway. See how much altitude you would need to complete the turn safely before reaching your hard deck.
For more information about maneuvering flight and its hazards, download Maneuvering Flight Safety Advisor and Special Report on Stalls and Spins from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Online Safety Center.
Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.
By Kristen Hummel