YouTube Wisdom and the Runway Turnback

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The stick-and-rudder component of flying airplanes, while challenge enough, is the lesser difficulty compared to learning to make†decisions that wonít kill you or at least rend metal. Teaching it or learning this has everything to do with recognizing risk and hazards for what they are and preparing accordingly. In fairness, I think most pilots do this well enough because even though the accident record is peppered with stupid decision-making, in the vast majority of flights, the airplane remains usable after the last landing.

Teaching judgment, like pitch versus power or less filling versus tastes great or liberal versus conservative, is a point of contention that must be coded into the human DNA. Some people think you can teach it, some think you canít. Iím in the latter camp. While I think stupidity is a gift that you canít take away from some exceptionally talented individuals, I also believe thereís a certain percentage of the pilot population that is reachableócall them the impressionables. But I still think people who are capable of learning risk analysis have to get there on their own after being shown a few sign posts. And that attitude guided my thinking when I was doing this video on the runway turnback maneuver last month.

I long ago concluded that the last thing I should do as an instructor is to use my personal risk tolerance model as a template for people who donít have their own. I wouldnít encourage others to take the kind of risks Iím okay with regard to weather assessment, for example. Nor do I particularly relish being second guessed by someone with a more conservative outlook than my own.

And one thing I really canít stand is instructors who co-opt certain kinds of decision-making on the basis of assuming their charges are too dimwitted, too slow of hand and foot or too dense to make their own judgments. Once the ink is dry on your private certificate, youíre not just licensed to fly, but to learn and decide, too. For yourself. Slightly different advice applies to students, of course.

And that gets us to the wisdom of YouTube phase of the discussion. When we post our vids to the freckled-neck masses of the triple-W ranch, we never know what kind of comments theyíll generate. One that caught my eye was this, in reference to the impossible turn, which the runway turnback is sometimes called: ďIt may not be impossible for you as a veteran AVweb test-demo reporterÖextraordinaire, but 25 hours-a-year Joe Schmuck taking little Johnny and his dog for a Sunday afternoon jaunt in a beat-up rental C172Öthis is bad advice.Ē

I see the point but I also assert that the decision is up to Joe and the point I made in the videoórather carefullyóis that I canít make the decision on something like the turnback maneuver for you. You have to examine all the risk points in the context of your own skill at the moment the decision needs to be made. One-size-fits-all advice is exactly the wrong way to encourage people to analyze risk on their own, to think and to learn.

Having said that, Iím agnostic on the turnback myself. When I was experimenting while shooting the video, I was surprised to realize the level of discomfort I felt, and Iíve done this practice many times. Perhaps it has to do with age; creeping conservatism would suggest that bravado recedes as the calendar advances. Iím not sure if Iíd do it or not. It just depends on the situation, I suppose. Thatís also the advice I pass along to others, if asked.

Although the inherent risk of the so-called impossible turn is obvious, the relative risk is unknown. For an article I wrote on the topic about 10 years ago, I searched the NSTB database for outcomes on turnbacks. This research was inconclusive for two reasons. First, there werenít that many of them and second, thereís no way to know how many were pulled off successfully because so many engine stoppage reports donít get into the NTSB records. For all we know, the success rate is 90 percent.

But when one ends in spectacular failure, itís human nature to extrapolate that to the whole and use it as a cudgel to beat the unsuspecting pilot who has the temerity to think he might want to try it himself. In fact, hereís one that went entirely bad. (Viewer discretion advised; itís a dual fatal.)

Of course, in that case, we donít know what the pilot saw over the nose so we canít say it would have been better to stick with the straight-ahead strategy. But hasnít that always been the case in aeronautical decision-making? You canít do it from the comfort of your armchair, before or after the fact. And definitely not through the view finder of a video camera.

Worth mentioning is that the Navy took this topic on as a research topic in 1982 and you can read the full report by Brent W. Jett (then a midshipman, now an astronaut) on that project here. (PDF) The project was simulator based and included pilots of all experience, some with as few as 40 hours.†I suggest having a look, for it's as thoroughgoing an analysis of the turnback as I've seen. The report's final sentence is worth reproducing here. "If there is no suitable landing area ahead, the pilot who has practiced and mastered the turnback technique will immediately know whether or not turning back to the airfield is possible (by the minimum turnback altitude) and will be able to perform the maneuver successfully."

Funny, that doesn't make it sound impossible.

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (25)

I had a chance to practice this "impossible turn" back with my CFI once and we were able to do it above 800' AGL, it was interesting. However, we planned it and knew we were going to pull the 172's power to idle beforehand. There is that built-in several second lag in a real engine out that we need to "pad in", but generally I would think it is not impossible, depending on the altitude when it happens. Another good point is to find out / know the area beyond your runway's departure end and consciously think about that prior to take off so you may know generally where the set-down area is and also that it may not be a total shock / surprise if an engine out did happen...

Posted by: Peter Hamilton | January 23, 2014 5:55 AM    Report this comment

Years ago when I was a low time pilot, I watched a friend try the low, slow tight turn when his engine failed after take off. He spun and crashed. He died as we put him in the ambulance. This led to a discussion with my flight instructor. We knew the turn could be done but from what altitude? We flew several planes and quickly figured out there were a ton of variables and few absolutes, but there was usually some altitude from which it could be done. One plane we flew was such a poor climber, by the time we had enough altitude, we were out of gliding range. I have continued to work it out for every plane I fly.

If you think you might try the" impossible" turn, don't wait 'til the engine craps out to try it the first time, have it as a carefully thought out Plan B.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 23, 2014 8:17 AM    Report this comment

At fields I regularly operate from I have always maintained a mental "list" of set-down sites off the end of each runway and inspect them on the ground. I'm surprised how few people do this. If it happens it will probably be at your home field. Do it before you need to.

Posted by: A Richie | January 23, 2014 9:46 AM    Report this comment

The one time I had an airplane sputter (Cessna 150 at 30' agl) I can still remember thinking, hey, maybe I can nurse this thing back around. I had enough time to do a quick flow - mixture, carb heat, mags - then put it in a bean field. Turns out it was the right call - zero damage to the airplane (except a new engine).
I had CFI insurance in place to cover the entire airplane if I crashed it - honestly I see that as a safety factor - knowing that if I tear the plane up yet walk away, the insurance company bought it, not me.

An old timer recently told me, whenever you line up for takeoff, say, "It's a piece of s**t, it's going to quit, now what are you going to do"! If you can't answer the question, don't fly! He was a ferry pilot, claimed to have crashed 18 airplanes, and walked away from every one.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 23, 2014 10:52 AM    Report this comment

To me the turn back issue is the classic case of "What should be" vs "What is". What should be is that every pilot carefully considers the EFATO risks and prepares a plan before EVERY SINGLE takeoff and then regularly practices the manoeuvre. what is, the fact that on about 30 % of the EFATO accident the pilot doesn't even lower the nose before the aircraft stalls and spins. Forget about the turn back the shock of the sudden engine failure causes the pilot to freeze . That is part 1 of my comments

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 23, 2014 6:46 PM    Report this comment

Part 2.: Approx 80 % of engine failures are caused by the actions I actions of the pilot. The best way to deal with an EFATO is to not have the engine fail in the first place. This involves boring unsexy things like have enough uncontiminated fuel and the right tank selected. Understanding what you are looking for when you do your runup and verifying full power at the beginning of the takeoff run. I tell low pilots if the engine fails below 1000 feet land straight ahead turning to avoid major obstacles. The accident record is clear. If you hit wings level and in a level flight pitch attitude, under control your will almost always live. My 02 cents to low time pilots, if you want to practice something, practice landings that is how aircraft generally get bent.

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 23, 2014 6:57 PM    Report this comment

Correction to above

It should read 80% of engine failures are caused by the actions or in-actions of the pilot

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 23, 2014 6:59 PM    Report this comment

"Approx 80 % of engine failures are caused by the actions I actions of the pilot. "

Just curious, how do you know this to be true? In other words, what data supports it?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 24, 2014 8:27 AM    Report this comment

When I was part owner of and flying a Bonanza 36, every biennial flight review I'd include engine-out-turnback practice with the instructor, the turnback always preceded with a few-second real-world delay. We found that (1) the 180-plus-degree turn required could be made but (2) it took a climbout at best rate-of-climb airspeed to be able to reach the runway. If the climbout was done at a higher airspeed, which is often the case, we couldn't get back to the runway. That was with two people aboard and no baggage.

Posted by: Malcolm Ruthven | January 24, 2014 9:01 AM    Report this comment

With my CFI we often practiced engine out maneuvers. In 99% of the cases I would just land straight ahead.
One day while taking off on 23 the instructor asked if we lost power now what would you do. We didn't have enough runway left, only about 400 - 500'. I said I would turn. He looked at me as if I was crazy and never listened to him, My rational was this;
Either way I was going down. I didn't have enough altitude to do a 180 but we were on a field with multiple runways and open land between them. Straight ahead was a small town, no open areas, dense houses and mature trees.
If I tried going straight ahead, the chances I would take an innocent with me was high.So my decision was to avoid other people. To me it was simple. Maybe I didn't have to make it all the way back, maybe a road at right angles to the runway, any open space would do.
If I took off on 5 there was a few open areas, that was a different matter.
Know your surroundings, pick out a spot to land long before you need to.
And sometimes you do what you need to do.

Posted by: Jeff Grigg | January 24, 2014 9:15 AM    Report this comment

When talking about engine-out on takeoff scenarios, the "wait a few seconds" topic always comes up. Personally, I don't think it does much good if you're trying to simulate what it would be like for real, since doing so means you know it's coming.

As an instructor, I have found it more realistic to simply say "my throttle" and reduce power to idle at some random (as far as the student is concerned) moment. It usually takes them a couple seconds to realize what has happened, and I feel it's in a more realistic manner than purposely waiting a few seconds. If the goal is to practice the maneuver with an instructor, it will be during a session when some other airwork is being done, with the instructor timing the student's reaction time when failing the engine. You'll then have a baseline from which to work and start timing from, than simply guessing at how long to wait. Performed over several lessons at unexpected times, this will also prime the student to more quickly detect an engine abnormality (i.e. failure) during takeoff.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 24, 2014 11:20 AM    Report this comment

As ordered... Paul: You're a wild eyed reactionary. There. Done. Feel better soon!
I'll go ahead and read your article now, so as to know what I just called you a wild eyed reactionary for. Remember, proper distance from the writing surface will keep your eyes healthy. Eat your carrots!

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 24, 2014 4:39 PM    Report this comment

IMO the bigger issue is almost all flight training deals with what the accident stats show is the absolute least likely scenario. That is a perfectly running engine suddenly and without any warning suffers an instantaneous and complete loss of power. In the real world you often get some warning before it quits, or the engine loses power but is still producing some usable thrust. Training on how to recognize impending engine problems and deal with a rough running or partial power loss is almost never covered but is in fact what a pilot is most likely to actually experience.

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 24, 2014 7:49 PM    Report this comment

It never ceases to amaze me that some pilots, maybe many, insist on pointing fingers of blame to everyone else but themselves. Now we hear it's the CFI's and FAA's fault for not satisfying some people who could not contemplate aeronautical flight situations other than from a training syllabus. You've got to be kidding.

If one actually watches and reads with a critical eye the article and video (loved the lawyers' kids playground and sleep apnea bldg!) it is obvious the author put the responsibility of using his opinion and test square on the pilot who would contemplate such a maneuver. Calling the experiment 'malpractice' is only viable if one didn't understand the context and meaning. Using 'real world' or 'real life' as standards to judge this by is naive. Accidents are conflicts of energy that defy 'real world' and 'real life' categorization. You cannot practice them.

I had three CFI's while getting my Private. One loved navaids and radios - I learned little sitck and rudder with him as he appeared genuinely indifferent to it, always coming back to the fascination of radio waves. Another was in her 70's, had become hearing-hard to radios and navaids, and had me practice turns-around-a-point endlessly. The other was burned out and just wanted to get the hour over with.

But I took their signatures in my logbook with a grain-of-salt and practiced and researched things I felt short on or needed work. I never blamed them for being human as they did the best I could expect. What followed was up to me, no one else.

Infighting on the deck while the ship is sinking, again.

Posted by: David Miller | January 25, 2014 1:09 AM    Report this comment

" I challenge the pilot in the video to take the Cub to altitude, turn off the engine, and replicate the "impossible turn".

Shirley, you can't be serious. And Dave, in a cruel and humorless world, not to worry. My malpractice insurance is paid up.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 25, 2014 8:22 AM    Report this comment

The "turnback" can hurt or kill if the pilot does not prepare for the aircraft, runway and airport layout and wx conditions. With recent and good practice in the aircraft being flown the maneuver becomes a good way out. The "turnback" minimum altitude is an variable. It's value depends on the pilot, aircraft, weather conditions, distance from the runway or taxiways or any other open area. This needs to be well studied and varies from airport to airport. Assuming the pilot's takeoff briefing includes all elements then there should be a higher success ratio than what is apprehensibly estimated by the ignorant and ill-skilled crowd. As a CFI I fly more than the average pilot, my skills are good and I keep alert. I practice the "turnback" and teach it making sure that the student is skillful enough to understand the complexity and risks involved.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 25, 2014 9:57 AM    Report this comment

Had you worn your 9 stripe captain shirt on that turn-back video, your credibility would have been just sooooooooo much higher, Paul. Its all about credibility and how we get it. Now, I know you've only flown single engine fighter planes in the war, but you definitely picked the wrong week to quit sniffing marker pens.

In truth, there are so many factors playing into the pilots mind during a actual engine failure - and so many things affect the outcome of the subsequent forced landing - that it is prudent to raise ones hands, pull the shoulders up and tell the student that everything "D E P E N D S" on whatever the situation may present. Probably good to keep a humorous attitude about it and keep on trucking. If there was a ultimate fix-all way to teach engine failure scenarios it would be gospel today.

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 25, 2014 12:35 PM    Report this comment

The lawyer who wrote to complain about the kids playing off the end of the runway would not have been moved by any number of stripes, I'm afraid. He was seriously offended.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 25, 2014 1:04 PM    Report this comment

This is another one of those epidemiology vs individual circumstances things. The "impossible turn" is a treatment being applied to the population because it's seen as the best way to minimise death and destruction. It's based on stats based on crash reports. You've neatly described the problem with this.

Where I come from, for the last few years we've been bombarded with road safety messages about not crossing flooded roads. The result is that the same clowns who prompted the campaign are still getting swept away but a lot more people are hesitating in the face of 2 inches of water - due to the well meaning public safety message they're ignoring their own common sense and doubting their (probably) reasonable judgement.

Posted by: John Hogan | January 25, 2014 5:47 PM    Report this comment

Paul and Mr Miller,
In fact I am dead serious. The typical pilot I described in my post is at the mercy of the CFI community and the FAA and the self-appointed aviation pundits to offer information needed to "contemplate aeronautical flight situations." Regarding engine failure training, I contend that all three groups are not up to the task.
Read the most recent issue of Aviation Safety. An experiment was done in a 4 seat single in the context of measuring in difference in glide with engine stopped with and without the prop windmilling. And I know of an unpublished flight testing experiment using an L16 to determine true glide ratios with the engine stopped. This experiment was intended to replicate the Jett experiment. Your snide comment aside, your demonstration of the "impossible turn" has little in common with the performance of a light single with an actual dead engine event on departure. If the engine is truly stopped, the plane is going to descend at a significantly higher rate than the average GA pilot will ever have experienced with the engine at idle as when practiced. Ignorining this factor in a demonstration of the "impossible turn" iis, in my view, a critical omission.
While the Jett study provides great insight, it does not offer the training or experience of the pilot test subjects. I'd guess that they were not the typical private pilot population I described in my comment.
I'm sorry that both you and Dave Miller missed my point.
And don't call me Shirley.

Posted by: Dan Vandermeer | January 25, 2014 6:24 PM    Report this comment

Let's see if I can get this right on the third posting...

Maybe it has escaped your notice, Dan, but when we train pilots, we're compelled to present and conduct training scenarios with the tools we have, hopefully without killing people or destroying aircraft. That said, note two things in the video: in some cases, a windmilling prop would be an advantage because the glide angle would be steeper, helping with the overshoot problem. This is more common than not being able to reach the runway. Second, if the prop is stopped--and I've done this testing at altitude--the glide angle is significantly shallower. This would markedly increase the problem of an overrun, because the airplane will glide better than it will with a windmilling prop, even at idle.

I suppose if one were actually suicidal, one could kill the engine after takeoff and stop the prop and see how that works. I wouldn't even mention that, much less that suggest it. Re-reading your post, I think you meant do this at altitude and gather the data. Fair enough. But it does entail risk.

But the takeaway here is this, which Dave pointed out: The training edifice can equip you with only so much knowledge and experience within the limits of time and money, the rest is up to you to take personal responsibly, accept and analyze the risk and not blame the training community for the inability to do that. I can't accept that pilots are at the mercy of CFIs. Anyone dumb enough to sit there and expect to be spoon fed everything probably lacks the analytical ability to survive in a small airplane.

After I posted this, I remembered a relevant point. During the 1960s, the "realistic" training doctrine in twins was to give a pilot an engine failure on takeoff by actually pulling the mixture. The carnage caused by this was appalling. But it was realistic. The dead bodies were really dead, the airplanes were really destroyed.

Eventually, the FAA and NTSB and training community realized the better way was to pull the throttle, not the mixture and that's the way it's done today outside the sim. Yet the old ways persisted. In 1995, a friend was training with an older instructor in a Cessna 310. He pulled the mixture on rotation. They survived. But not without a gear-up slide down the runway that trashed the airplane.

Training value: Zero, unless it was worth it to do that to actually demonstrate that stupid decisions break airplanes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 26, 2014 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Good response Paul and I'd really want to read more comments about the topic. . " But what's most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 26, 2014 10:47 AM    Report this comment

Let's see a picture of your nose first, Rafael... :)

I confess to being one who has always considered just going ahead on takeoff if my engine stops without enough altitude, and have always tried to remember available landing areas ahead from the dozen or so airports I regularly use, as A Richie mentioned above. Those interesting videos that Capt. Schiff made years ago I think he said use 600' agl as the required go-no-go turnaround, but this discussion has me wanting to go up to altitude and try a few scenarios on my own with the plane. Thanks to Paul for always considering re-learning/re-examining things as our consciousness changes - he showed that the aerodynamics don't! - (or our aging progresses...).

Posted by: David Miller | January 26, 2014 1:41 PM    Report this comment

Dave Miller, are you trying to insult me? Stay focused man!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 26, 2014 4:08 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for re-reading my post and for the clarifications that followed the gratiuitous, snarky comment in your opening sentence.
We seem to agree that there is more to be taught and learned about the management of engine loss events at low altitude than are found in the current primary and recurrency training oppotunities generally available to typical single engine GA pilots. I completely agree that it is the pilot's responsibility to seek out and digest information and experience that will hone aviation skills, better understand and manage risk, and cope with emergencies. I commend you and your publication(s) for making significant contributions in the effort to educate us.
I also believe that the teacher can at times learn from the student. I will try to be more tactful and circumspect if I screw up the courage to offer critical commentary in the future. My purpose was and is not to offend but clearly I did in this case. Fortunately it appears that no egos were damaged in this collision.
And thanks for not calling me Shirley.

Posted by: Dan Vandermeer | January 26, 2014 5:46 PM    Report this comment

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