EAA Launches Turn-Back Study


The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has formed a team to study 180-degree turn-backs to the runway following engine failures on takeoff. Designed to improve aviation safety by looking at turn-back responses, the study will focus on how pilots react to an engine failure on takeoff, stall awareness, recognition and prevention after loss of power in takeoff attitude and stall recovery. EAA says the group will also look at how to teach pilots proper judgment in a turn-back scenario, the ability of different types of aircraft to perform the maneuver and whether a turn-back is an appropriate response.

“EAA’s action followed a National Transportation Board report that indicates engine failure on takeoff/climb-out was a significant contributor to GA accidents,” the organization said. “The group will study how to incorporate these piloting skills in basic private and sport pilot certification, as well as additional training programs.”

The group will be led by EAA board vice chairman Charlie Precourt and EAA vice president of advocacy and safety Sean Elliott. According to EAA, it will also include representatives from the flight instruction and flight test communities, academia and data analysis experts. In addition, the team is working with the FAA and plans to submit any recommendations resulting from the study to the agency.

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Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. Many variables. Only way to tell it to go up and practice it yourself in your plane and see what happens in different situations.

    Lower weight, stronger takeoff headwind, DA and many other things matter.

    My Maule can make it back under some circumstances but only if conditions are right and I’m Johnny on the spot. I suspect in an actual takeoff engine out after liftoff I’d never be able to react fast enough below 500-750′ AGL to make it back.

    Landing (or crashing, I suppose we always ‘land’) straight ahead is good general advise, but in some cases may not be only option.

  2. William’s comment above nailed it; lots of variables so you need to go out an practice it. Ironically high winds make it easier to get back to the runway but nearly impossible to land/ stop before crashing of on that end of the field!

  3. Some input here from a glider pilot: a 20 degree offset after liftoff greatly increases your return chances just in case, especially if you offset with the crosswind. Of course that is a nearly impossible departure at most airports where you are expected to maintain runway heading, you would be the oddball.

    • HI Joe,
      You nailed it. I used to practice the turn back with your glider technique and it was easy.
      Lots of times general aviation planes are taking off from small airports where the downwind turn after lift off can be used.
      I used to takeoff from Mackinac Island where there are cliffs or woods on both ends followed by water. In a fixed gear Cessna if you survived the upside down ditch and did your under water escape you would still die of hypothermia in the water.
      Ready for takeoff : As soon as you lift off do a gentle 20 degree bank downwind to put yourself on a downwind leg by the time you get to 500 feet. With an engine failure below 500 you try to turn back and hopefully land on some remaining runway. 500 feet and above: Relax, one step at a time. First lower the nose, don’t stall. Next : start your upwind turn back to the runway. You will most likely need only 30 degrees of bank. Since you offset yourself right after lift off the turn back to the runway is just like every other landing. Turn to base and final just like you have always done. Of course in this case we will not be wasting time and altitude on a base leg. Just turn for the runway. It works every time.
      When I have operated with a tower and I feel I need this technique, like surrounded by houses, I just ask the tower for permission and depending on traffic they will approve it.
      Many years ago I got this idea from a glider pilot like yourself and started practicing it. By the 2nd attempt it was easy.

  4. As everyone said, it is all about knowing what the plane you are flying right at that moment can do. And that is about practice, practice, practice in that airplane. My last flying machine, an Aeronca Chief, I practice the 180 return frequently. As I would throttle back simulating an engine failure, I would count a 5 second denial period before I would react. Then I could rack it over into a tight turn, insuring ball centered, and complete the turn in 250′. However, that give no margin for down drafts, etc. I established 400′ then as my turnaround altitude if the engine quit. Before each takeoff, I would note on the altimeter what number msl was 400′ agl. That would be in my mind before takeoff. Under 400′, left, right, or straight ahead. Again, it’s the particular airplane. One size does not fit all. I had a Tri Pacer once and figured if its engine ever quit, I’d be pretty much landing on what ever was directly below me. Oh, also climb at VY until you get to a safer altitude.

  5. Practicing is fine, we did it in our Skyhawk, but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is recognizing [and accepting] that you haven’t any power and deciding on what to do. That could easily take fifteen or twenty seconds, perhaps more. You could then decide to turn when it is now too late.
    My only engine stoppage occurred 1/2 of the way down a long runway, so I didn’t have to think about it.

  6. If the pilot drops the nose immediately, and can maintain well above stall speed. If not, the best option is to fly it in straight. A stall spin is like driving a motorcycle into a wall at 180 mph without a helmet. Is that worth the chance of turning back? Maybe… is your life worth maybe?

    • I think the study has already been accomplished right here. And all of the above is correct in that this first minute or so after takeoff is a bad time for an engine failure. That is why the consideration and decisions should have already been made before you open the throttle on the runway. The “if the engine quits, what do I do” thought should already be up in the front of you mind. And of course that will always vary depending on what you can see that will be confronting you off the end of this particular airport. When you start rolling, be giving the engine failure priority consideration until a safe altitude. There’s that depends word already.

  7. Too much emphasis on returning to the departure runway. Just making it back to the airport perimeter, infield, or diagonally across the departure runway would be preferable to crashing straight ahead in a subdivision, interstate, shopping district, busy boulevard, or trees, which are your choices at our county airport. On the airport you’re most likely to have people who can offer assistance if things go bad. But, as above, the VARIABLES! Huge difference between a 172 and a Cirrus.

    • Dennis–agree completely! Every single-engine takeoff should consider the options–just as we do with multi-engine aircraft. Running off the end of the runway and into any clear zone is usually the best low-altitude option. I’m a glider instructor–the “20 degree offset” mentioned above is important. When flying my 2 stroke ultralight (and other light airplanes) I consider the pre-planned option of the cross runway–at 300′ AGL, I can be on a downwind-to short base turn for return to the cross runway–far better than a 180 to a downwind landing.

      Setting up the aircraft for a steep initial climb is rarely mentioned–all too often pilots use a “cruise-climb” for the initial–why not get maximum altitude (in effect, use short-field technique) until gaining turnback altitude? This can work even in a high-performance aircraft–after completing recurrent in a Falcon 10 jet, we had some extra time. The instructor asked if we would like a dual engine failure. Just as we had gear up, flaps up, slats retracted, he killed both engines–we didn’t make it. He told us “This airplane has a great glide ratio–this time, climb steeply–clean up–after the engine failure, bank hard left and pull up to the stick shaker and enter the downwind”–we made it!

      All of these scenarios are based on a sudden and catastrophic engine failure. It happens, but a far more common is partial failure–not enough to sustain flight, but SOME remaining thrust. I would hope that EAA also develops procedure for THAT. I would also hope that EAA differentiates between heavy singles and light singles in developing takeoff procedures. Good preflight planning would ameliorate most problems.

    • I believe they used a Bonanza, RV-8, C-172, and a super-cub. Bonanza was a no go. RV-8 made it 1 time in 3 attempts with 1000 feet altitude loss. C-172 required about 500 feet altitude. Super-cub required less than 300 feet. What I got out of this was that slow and relatively high lift was better. The faster that you are going, the larger the turn radius and the further you are from the runway. Also, the higher the crash speed will be.

  8. It also depends on the crashworthiness of your plane (especially if your fuel lines are the old flanged metal types which I believe Cessna still uses even on high wings). One reason to land straight ahead is that you are into the wind. Turn around in a 10 knot wind and your old Cessna or Piper are now going to hit the ground 20 knots faster which is asking a lot of bent aluminum.

  9. I agree: “it depends”. I also agree: “know what the airplane you’re flying can do”. Over time, I’ve seen several NTSB and other accident reports, in which a competent pilot had practiced “the turn” in one airplane with success but tried it in a different airplane when it counted, without success. I know what my modified Cessna P172D can do—I’ve practiced multiple times by myself and with an instructor—but whether that information would work with even a fully loaded 172 or a different model is an unknown. There are enough variables, even in my airplane which I know intimately, that although I “know” I can make a successful turn back from 600’ AGL with just me or one passenger, I have it in mind that 750’ AGL is my minimum turn back altitude—in my airplane. Without practice, I am not about to say what the turn back altitude would be in any other airplane.

    I doubt seriously that any good study will come up with iron-clad, “do it this way” recommendations, other than to go out and practice, practice, practice, from a safe altitude in a number of different configurations, in the airplane you’ll be flying.

  10. The impossible turn. Everybody’s favorite. A very good presentation of this is available on the Wings program that is very well done. As pointed out an offset of 20 or 30 degrees (if possible) is a big help. Height, AGL at the end of departure runway the key factor and on short runways it is eye opening.
    After practicing you can add it to your limitations list and keep in mind when you have the only option to land straight ahead.

  11. The variety of opinions expressed in these comments points out the need for a comprehensive study.

    “It depends” is too vague an answer to have any predictive value. What are the dependencies? Which dependencies are more important than others? Can one predict a sufficient turn-back point prior to take-off? What are the best techniques for performing a turn-back? Is there just one technique, or does it vary depending on conditions (weather, or aircraft, or ?)

    As a simple example, it’s somewhat like asking what’s the shortest distance an airplane can take off? The answer is, of course, “it depends”. However, there are charts and formula to compute the take-off distance for a particular plane on a particular day under particular conditions. Sure, those numbers are for a brand-new airplane with a test pilot, but at least there’s a starting point for applying personal ‘fudge factors’. If nothing else, you’ll be warned you can’t ‘beat the book’ if it says you need 2000’ of paved runway and you’re facing an 1800’ grass strip.

    I don’t know that the EAA study will be that detailed. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a chart or formula or, in modern parlance, “an app for that”? One that took into account the dependencies (weight, wind, weather, etc.) and computed a minimum turn-back point? Now, just like a short-field take-off, all the apps and numbers won’t help if you haven’t practiced. But at least you’ll have a better idea of what to do if the day’s charted turn-back altitude is 900’ but the fan quit at 700’.

  12. My impression is that a common lack of knowledge among pilots is stalling speed variation with turn.

    Frequent occurrence in B.C. when someone stalls turning in a blind canyon they blundered into.

    The basics of physics of airplanes and their wings – turn increases lift required thus raises stall speed.

    In the canyon case, I presume pilot is alarmed by trees getting large in window so loses discipline on speed and choice of severity of impact.

    Decades ago Pacific Western’s VP Flight Operations was quite annoyed with a Fokker demonstration crew, evaluating operation of F100 out of Castlegar airport.

    Takeoff procedure with engine out after V1 is climb to a certain point and speed then turn a modest amount and head into a valley. (Say 25 degrees for talking purposes.)

    Fool Fokker pilots reacted to the mountain looming in the windshield in a way that set the stick shaker off.

    (And a minor negative was people left on the airport while only V-P and two Fokker pilots demonstrated, they saw the airplane climbing very slowly during the procedure – they were accustomed to seeing 737s climbing out steeply with two engines working. We had to educate them.)

  13. Landing or crashing straight ahead is always a reasonable option and a pilot would never be faulted for it. It is probably, but not always the best option in most circumstances. Still knowing your options in advance through experience and practice is a good idea.

    It was mentioned above that even if you can’t make the runway at least crashing on the airport grounds is an advantage in many cases, especially with urban airports. So even if you can’t make the runway being in the fence is probably better for all concerned.

    Another point not brought up yet is sometime there is an intersecting runway, other than your reciprocal departure runway that may be better aligned with your return trajectory.

    I was in an old Bonanza, with a fresh prop rebuild, that puked oil all over the windshield shortly after becoming airborne. Still under power, we made a turn back and landed on the 45 degree runway because it was aligned better than the reciprocal departure runway.

  14. What I don’t see mentioned often is that doing turnbacks at airports with parallel runways is a no-brainer if you know the airport layout.

    I did a lot of flying at HNL, and it’s basically a parking lot, with tens of miles of runways and taxiways. Even a golf course.

    The policy at my FBO was to land straight ahead, but it’s nice to have other options.

  15. Spent a few hours in the simulator for both the TBM and the PC 12. Success rate at less than 50%. As everyone has alluded there are too many factors to be reliable. I can see some accidents coming where pilots are spring loaded to return, stall/spin or try to return into the face of a departure. This entire turn back study is going to get more people killed. My insurance is expensive enough and my liability limits keep decreasing, this is not going to help.