LOTOT and the Impossible Turn
Following last week's blog on fatal accident stats, Dan Gryder sent me a note offering a theory on stall-related fatalities. His view is that one reason for these otherwise inexplicable fatalities is that as part of the standard training regime, most private pilots aren't instructed to detect and respond to loss of thrust on takeoff—basically an engine failure. He uses the acronym LOTOT, for loss of thrust on takeoff. (That's a new one on me.) Read more on his Facebook page.
I'll have to except myself from the ranks of most instructors and private pilots, however, because I do teach this response—not that there's much to it. Some years ago, an instructor I knew and flew with had an obsession about this and I guess I must have developed a similar focus, reinforced by glider training, which has a rope break response in the standard PTS. The concept is simply this: Upon detection of loss of thrust (or power), simply lower the nose. Don't look at the airspeed indicator, don't check the mags or fuel, don't call the tower—push the pitch down. The right sight picture will put the nose slightly lower than the perceived horizon. (We had a big argument about this a couple of weeks ago. I maintain you can do this with a visual sight picture, while others insist you need an airspeed indicator to reliably avoid a stall. Take your pick.)
Would knowing this technique reduce the stall accident rate? It might. In reviewing all of those 2008 accidents, I noted that some occurred on takeoff and some clearly wouldn't have occurred if the pilot had just pushed. That doesn't mean the fatality would have been avoided, but if you don't stay in the game after the engine failure, you're not even going to get the choice of trying. And this gets me to a beef I have with the aviation press with so-called "evergreen" topics. One of these is the beat-it-death idea that getting a glider rating makes you a better power pilot and the other is the bloody dead horse of "the impossible turn."
While I think glider training does improve your skills generally and there is some transference, I think what a glider rating most does is make you a glider pilot. When Sully Sullenberger was asked if his Miracle on the Hudson landing was a result of his glider training, he shrugged. But glider pilots do know how to do the rope-break turnback because they have to demonstrate knowledge of it during the checkride. In powered aircraft training, it's all but an article of faith that the turnback is the impossible turn and, trust me, never try it.
I have always chafed at this dumbed-down, one-size-fits-all approach to training because I think it's built on the assumption that people can't think and analyze for themselves. The tendency in the aviation press is to pick up the conventional wisdom because that's what readers expect and who wants to have the argument? But there have been some good examinations of the topic and the best I've found was in Barry Schiff's The Proficient Pilot. I first read his essay on the topic in the late 1980s and incorporated it in my own instruction. After exhaustively experimenting with Schiff's methods, I concluded that the impossible turn isn't impossible at all. In fact, under the right conditions, it's quite doable.
In a nutshell, the turnback can work if you have enough altitude (no less than about 600 to 700 feet), you use the optimum bank angle (no more than 45 degrees, no less than 30 degrees) and the runway is long enough to preclude a high energy overrun from a downwind landing. And—key point—you need to have trained it before trying it. There are additional details that I don't have the space to cover here, but Schiff does in his book.
So since then, I basically make the turnback decision before I takeoff. As I roll, I tell myself the engine really is going to quit this time and I consider myself lucky if it doesn't. This might buy precious seconds to start a turnback or give me more options if I decide to land straight ahead. I also set a target altitude and take into account any crosswind, since you want to turn into the wind if you're making a play for the runway behind you. Although I haven't trained it in a while, I usually gave students the option of trying it, so they would at least understand the basics.
I still think landing straight ahead is the higher probability choice, but there may be instances when it won't be, in which case an option that many consider impossible would be worth having.
Click here to read the Navy study on turnbacks.