YouTube Wisdom and the Runway Turnback


The stick-and-rudder component of flying airplanes, while challenge enough, is the lesser difficulty compared to learning to makedecisions that wont 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 cant. Im in the latter camp. While I think stupidity is a gift that you cant take away from some exceptionally talented individuals, I also believe theres a certain percentage of the pilot population that is reachable-call 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 dont have their own. I wouldnt encourage others to take the kind of risks Im 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 cant 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, youre 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 theyll generate. One that caught my eye was this, in reference to the impossible turn, which the runway turnback is sometimes called: It may not be impossible for you as a veteran AVweb test-demo reporter…extraordinaire, but 25 hours-a-year Joe Schmuck taking little Johnny and his dog for a Sunday afternoon jaunt in a beat-up rental C172…this is bad advice.

I see the point but I also assert that the decision is up to Joe and the point I made in the video-rather carefully-is that I cant 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, Im 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 Ive done this practice many times. Perhaps it has to do with age; creeping conservatism would suggest that bravado recedes as the calendar advances. Im not sure if Id do it or not. It just depends on the situation, I suppose. Thats 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 werent that many of them and second, theres no way to know how many were pulled off successfully because so many engine stoppage reports dont get into the NTSB records. For all we know, the success rate is 90 percent.

But when one ends in spectacular failure, its 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, heres one that went entirely bad. (Viewer discretion advised; its a dual fatal.)

Of course, in that case, we dont know what the pilot saw over the nose so we cant say it would have been better to stick with the straight-ahead strategy. But hasnt that always been the case in aeronautical decision-making? You cant 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.

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