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Should pilots plan to turn back if there’s an engine failure after takeoff?
P&E October 2020
Illustration by John Sauer

Don’t turn back

Risks outweigh the rewards

By Doug Rozendaal

A pilot’s decision about whether to turn back to the airport after an engine failure or lower the nose and land on a spot ahead of the wings, into the wind, is a risk-assessment exercise: Acknowledge the risk; rate the risk; rate the reward. If the risk is greater than the reward, stop. If the reward is greater than the risk, proceed with caution and work to lower the risk.

Step 1: Acknowledge the risk. Every time we fly a single-engine airplane, there is risk of an engine failure after takeoff. There is a narrow window where a high-risk turnback is technically possible: between reaching the possible altitude and flying too far from the airport to return. But the accident database is littered with reports of pilots who, inside and outside that window, turned back to a nearly always fatal stall/spin or a high-energy downwind crash with serious or fatal injuries.

Landing ahead of the wings into the wind is the only choice up to some altitude. At airports in densely populated metropolitan areas a suitable landing spot might not be apparent. We must acknowledge that risk. All pilots need to be prepared to lower the nose and land, or crash, ahead of the wings, into the wind, under control, at minimum speed. That option can be fatal, but most often, airplanes that arrive at the Earth under control at minimum speed, with the wings level, have survivors on board.

Step 2: Rate the risk. The model I use to evaluate risks is a subjective math equation: Total risk equals likelihood of occurrence times severity of outcome times time exposed.

Thankfully engine failures after takeoff are rare. The severity of outcome from an engine failure after takeoff factors in two things: pilot skill/proficiency and the environment. Also, the time exposed to this risk is low. To fairly compare the risk of turning back versus landing ahead, we must consider the entire picture, and this includes the risk of training.

Land on a street, a fairway, a football field, in the tops of trees, or the roof of a warehouse.Some advocate going to altitude and executing a 360-degree turn at idle. With a fixed-pitch propeller, idle thrust is significant. Practicing turnbacks in a Cessna 172 with one or two people aboard, at idle thrust, at sea level, is not the same as flying at or near gross weight at even medium density altitude after a total engine failure. To determine the sink rate during an engine failure after takeoff, the mixture should be pulled or the magnetos off so the engine isn’t producing power. Few pilots are comfortable shutting down a perfectly good engine in a single. Even proponents say not to attempt a turn back in winds exceeding 10 knots. But where would we practice 10-knot tailwind landings? What is the risk of that?

Finally, the pilot needs to practice 45-degree-bank turns with the stall horn chirping. That will result in inadvertent spins. When an engine failure happens for real, close to the ground, there will be a big dose of adrenaline. There is no way to simulate that. Adrenaline destroys fine motor skills and creates tunnel vision. Fine motor skills and situational awareness are exactly the skills needed to pull off what is essentially a low-level aerobatic maneuver. Pilots will instinctively push the nose around with rudder to accelerate the rate of turn, resulting in a skidding spin entry. Training to the level of proficiency required to execute this task would result in accidents.

Conversely, landing ahead of the wings, into the wind and under control, is less demanding. The shock factor will be there, but it’s easier. If the stall horn chirps, lower the nose. Land on a street, a fairway, a football field, in the tops of trees, or the roof of a warehouse. All of those have been done successfully. Landing upwind increases the accuracy and reduces crash energy. One hundred feet of braking or sliding, and it is doubtful there will be injuries.

Picking a spot ahead of the wings is easier. Training for off-airport landings is very low risk. Pull the power at cruise regularly, then Airspeed, Best place to land, and Checklist. ABC. Power-off 180 spot landings should be part of every pilot’s regular proficiency practice and are low risk. Severity of consequences is still higher than most regimes of flight, but the reduced crash energy and increased chances of an accurate landing lower the risk. And, time exposed is lower because high-risk training isn’t required. This is the lower risk option.

Step 3: Rate the reward. This is the simplest of the tasks. The reward when turning back from an engine failure after takeoff is preventing damage to the airplane and injury to ourselves and passengers. The reward from lowering the nose and picking a spot ahead of the wings into the wind is not exposing our passengers to the chance of a stall/spin arrival, or a downwind, high-energy accident.

Step 4: Is the risk greater than the reward? Turning back is a high-stakes bet with long odds. If it works, the pilot is a hero. If not, it is too often a family funeral. That’s a bad bet, whether at Vegas or off the end of the runway.

Videos of lightly loaded aircraft with idle thrust at low density altitudes calmly being flown back to a departure runway plant expectations that are not congruent with reality. When oil covers the windscreen and the cockpit fills with smoke, pilots don’t make good decisions or fly well. That’s why we should train pilots from the outset that the default action is to pick a point ahead of the wings, and land into the wind.

Flight instructors and pilots both need to recognize and respect the limitations of our flying skills. A pilot friend of mine, Tom Drew, has a quote I love: “Eighty percent of the pilots think they are in the top 20 percent.” To that, I add this corollary, “The reality is half of us are below average.” In short, we’re not as good as we think, and, when we’re in shock, we’re not good at all. Training can reduce the level of shock, but the inherent risk of the training outweighs the reward from the very low occurrence of engine failure after takeoff and the small window of time when a turn back is possible. The worst is a pilot who watched a video or read an article that said a turnback was possible but never trained.

While it is true that there are some airplanes, in some configurations, where a turn back from an engine failure after takeoff is possible, it is also true that many light GA airplanes we fly are capable of performing an aileron roll on takeoff. But an impromptu aerobatic maneuver close to the ground, even for pilots trained to do so, is an off-the-chart high-risk maneuver.

Step 5: We can mitigate the risk of engine failure after takeoff in many ways. Avoiding pattern work at airports in densely populated areas. Surveying potential emergency landing sites near airports we frequent. Practicing (idle) power-off 180s to a spot landing at minimum speed. And, finally, simulating a power loss after takeoff, and thinking through what we’re going to do. The default action should be to lower the nose, pick a spot ahead of the wings and into the wind—and, to quote Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, “Fly the airplane as far into the crash as possible.”

Doug Rozendaal is an experienced warbird pilot, aerobatic pilot, and designated pilot examiner.

Never say never

Sometimes turning back is the best option

By Brian Schiff

People who say “always” or “never” are usually wrong. Such was the case when, until recently, conventional training and wisdom dictated that pilots should always land straight ahead following an engine failure shortly after takeoff in a single-engine airplane. Hard and fast rules like this should be carefully considered because they do not apply to every situation. Turning back after an engine failure should not be a consideration unless you have practiced it, are prepared for it, and are comfortable with performing it. It should not be accomplished unless there are no better options.

At some point during the climb it might become obvious that it is feasible, and possibly safer, to turn back to the airport. It is not always that obvious, however, to determine the point at which this can be accomplished. Before attempting to return to the airport, you need to learn when and how to perform the turnaround maneuver. During such training the glide ratio in the turn is better with an idling engine than it would be if the prop were windmilling. This is one of the reasons I advocate adding a 50-percent safety margin. That said, the propeller may stop anyway—providing even better glide performance.

This controversial topic has been hotly debated since the early days of aviation to the point where turning around to land on the departure runway has been called “the impossible turn.” It can be argued convincingly, however, that there are instances when it would be safer to return to the airport than to land straight ahead following such an engine failure. Attempting to make a straight-ahead emergency landing with mountainous terrain, buildings, or other impediments along the departure path can be a fool’s choice.

Making a steep turn at a low altitude does introduce risk factors that includes the potential for a stall/spin accident. This is precisely why a pilot should be trained in the execution of the turnaround maneuver with an emphasis on turn coordination and stall prevention. Pilots are routinely taught how to safely turn from base to final to mitigate the risk involved, so why should pilots not be taught how to perform the turnback maneuver?

The FAA, now in favor of such training, states matter-of-factly in Advisory Circular 61-83J that “flight instructors should demonstrate and teach trainees when and how to make a safe 180-degree turn back to the field after an engine failure.” The AC further states that flight instructor refresher courses should have instructors teach how “to determine quickly whether a turnback will have a successful outcome.”

If you believe that turning back after an engine failure is always dangerous and should never be attempted, then you should not do it. You have made up your mind, and you know your limitations. I would encourage you, however, to be open-minded and learn how to perform the turnback maneuver at a safe altitude with a qualified instructor. Doing so will help you to decide whether you can be reasonably comfortable performing such a maneuver. After learning how to perform a return to the runway, it is likely that you will consider the maneuver easier than you had thought. Practicing it until you are proficient will add one more skill to your collection of resources.

The thought of an engine failure shortly after takeoff is daunting. Although the likelihood is remote, the severity of the consequences could be catastrophic; therefore, preparation before every takeoff is warranted. A turnback should not be accomplished when better options exist.

Being prepared for an engine failure to occur during every takeoff means having a plan and knowing in advance what to do when an engine does fail. If the engine does not fail—great. This mindset and preparation can save your life.

It is a natural tendency to return to where you came from when things go wrong. Numerous accidents have resulted when pilots instinctively attempted to turn back to the airport after an engine failure despite being admonished not to do so. These pilots probably did not have the benefit of the training required to do so safely. Since pilots are instinctively doing it anyway, why not teach them when and how to properly perform a turnback maneuver?

NTSB records are replete with accidents resulting from pilots who attempted to turn around following an engine failure. But we seldom hear about the success stories of pilots who have turned back and succeeded. Records are not kept of accidents that don’t happen. If my father had not done it (twice), I might not be here today.

A successful turnback maneuver depends on too many factors to mention here. Those include having enough altitude and knowing how and when the maneuver should be accomplished. It is vitally important that no pilot attempt this maneuver unless they have received training from a qualified instructor, practiced it, and feel comfortable performing it.

I am not recommending that, as a rule, pilots turn back toward the runway following an engine failure shortly after takeoff. This decision must be made by the pilot in command under the unique set of circumstances that exist at the time. Turning back should not be considered an option unless you consider it more hazardous not to. If viable options for an emergency landing are ahead of you, then that is where you should go; otherwise, you need to have a contingency plan in place before takeoff.

Do not attempt to return to the airport without a plan of action in mind. Every takeoff is unique. Every airport is unique. Performance always varies. You need to know how to consider the variables, especially the minimum turnback altitude, runway length, density altitude, gross weight, wind direction and velocity, obstacles, turn direction, bank angle, and airspeed in the event the engine goes silent at the worst time.

Every foot of altitude gained after takeoff offers increased options in the event of an engine failure. Some pilots have a plan that changes with an increase in altitude. For example, land straight ahead if the engine fails below 200 feet agl; between 200 to 400 feet, turn up to 30 degrees left or right; between 400 and 750 feet, turn up to 90 degrees left or right; above 750 feet, return to the airport. (These numbers may vary for your airplane and airport.) I teach students to verbally call out critical altitudes during the initial climbout to increase their situational awareness.

If you are not comfortable practicing or performing the recommended turnback maneuver (not discussed here), then you should not do it. I strongly recommend not attempting this kind of low-altitude maneuvering during an actual or simulated engine-out emergency unless you have practiced the maneuver and can perform it with consistency, proficiency, and confidence.

Finally, it is important to understand that I am not recommending that anyone turn back following an engine failure shortly after takeoff. What I am saying is that turning back is an option to use when it would be less hazardous than landing straight ahead. Avoid the words “always” or “never.”

Brian Schiff is a captain for a major airline, has been an FAA-designated examiner and check airman, and has been flight instructing steadily for 35 years.

There were 121 takeoff and climb accidents among noncommercial fixed-wing aircraft in 2016, according to the most recent Nall Report, accounting for about 12 percent of the total.

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