The horrific crash of a Bonanza A36 in March due to a runway turnback attempt prompted AOPA Air Safety Institute to shoot this excellent video analyzing turnback results with four different types of aircraft. Bottom line: The turnback is viable for smaller, lightly wing-loaded aircraft flown by a proficient and prepared pilot. It’s unlikely—probably impossible—to pull off with a heavier, faster airplane like the Bonanza tested in the video.

ASI explains the methodology used to test the turnback concept and worth noting is that of the four airplanes used—a Cessna 172, a Piper Super Cub, a Van’s RV-4 and a Bonanza—the attempts succeeded more than they failed (8 out 12), once again blowing a hole in the myth of the impossible turn. But that doesn’t mean that every pilot should consider a turnback as an automatic response to an engine out after takeoff. It’s not that simple. The proficiency part of the equation shouldn’t be discounted and like everything else, having trained on this maneuver will improve the odds of a successful outcome.

If I had anything to add, it would be this: The traditional technique of building in a three-second delay to simulate startle factor strikes me as negative transference that should be trained out, not in. In other words, on every takeoff, assume the engine will quit and you’ll have to respond instantly. On every takeoff, this is the last thing I tell myself before I roll the throttle forward. Then when it doesn’t, I’ve cheated death again. This decision making is independent of the turnback consideration.

If the engine does well and truly quit, you’ll be at high angle of attack, high drag and low speed. A stall will be imminent. Regardless of what you think of the turnback or whether you’ll try it, you won’t be in the game long enough to decide unless you push the nose over and rather vigorously. With the angle of attack tamped down, you can then do the analysis and turn back or not. Based on what I know about what’s off the end of the runway, I try to make this decision before takeoff.

ASI’s video should leave us all with this vivid, lifesaving impression: In lighter and slower aircraft with good glide ratios, maybe. In heavy and fast singles, fuggedaboutit.


  1. Yjis is where a few lessons at your local gliding club would be of enormoud benefit! Ask any glider pilot that launches using a winch! Cable breaks: get the bloody nose down, do not hesitate, do it NOW! Next make sure airspeed increases, you need approach speed, plus a tad! THEN look for somewhere to land, preferably straight ahead!! I lost a friend because he thought he coud do a turn back: he span in, Say no more! The VERY LAST option should be to try and return to the airfield / turn back, and ONLY if you have PLENTY of altitude!!!

  2. I agree the three-second pause should not be used during training for the maneuver. It should, however, be used when conducting maneuver feasibility testing. This testing should not occur close to the ground; go up to the same altitude you normally practice stalls, because stalling is a possibility if you wait those three seconds before pushing the nose down. Use the feasibility testing to determine the absolute minimum altitude required to perform a 360-degree turn, then start your training in the pattern.

    Of course, bring along your favorite starving CFI.

  3. Long ago a CFI and I practiced this several times during a BFR in my owned-a-share-of Bonanza 36. After takeoff from a 5,000 foot runway, the CFI pulled the power to idle during climbout. I (think I) waited 2-3 seconds to “make it real”. I also pulled the prop control back fully. Results? From anything like a cruise climb, no way could we get back to the runway. From a best-rate climb, it worked from 1,000 feet. In every case, a successful 180 was made from 1,000 feet; the issue was whether we got back to the runway.

  4. Way too many variables to make gross conclusions about this issue. I fly a “smaller, lightly wing loaded” airplane, and I need at least 950 feet altitude to turn back. Straight out, I would be about three miles from the runway at that point! So, yeah, I can do the 180, but it won’t get me back on the runway. One size never does fit all. I usually stay in the pattern after takeoff, by the way, to get to 1000 feet (pattern altitude).

  5. It’s all about the airplane you are doing it in and how much you have practiced the 180 in that plane. In my Aeronca Chief, I’ve practiced it many times, mostly just to delight myself in how good it does the 180. I use a 5 second denial delay, then rack it into a tight turn insuring it is a coordinated turn, ball in the middle. The Chief will do the turn easily in 400′ with room to spare. Before takeoff from wherever, I note what will be 400′ agl on my altimeter and say turn around is safe from there. Anything else, 90 left or right or straight ahead. Its practice, practice in that particular plane, and have your brain anticipating an engine failure until up to a safe altitude. (And actually, the Chief could do it in about 250 feet but no room to spare.)

  6. I fly one of those small, lightly loaded airplanes. I can do it from about 500ft verified at altitude using GPS over the middle of nowhere. There’s a specific way to fly to make this work. You need to get the airplane into the maximum bank angle it will sustain a stall. This minimizes the altitude lost in the turn. The math says 45 degrees of bank, but in my plane I can’t hold the nose at stall past 30 degrees or so due to the increase in angle of attack at the tail caused by the pitch rate in the turn reducing elevator effectiveness. Once you’re pointed back at the runway, you need to get on your best glide speed. By the way, if you aren’t prepared to do this, just go straight ahead. The maneuver requires proficiency, especially the part about flying at or near stall. I have to thank my first instructor for making me fly for endless periods in slow flight and forcing me to use rudder only (no ailerons) in stalls for my ability to safely for this maneuver and my engineering background for a much better understanding of the physics involved in this maneuver including the flight mechanics and stall.

  7. Dan Gryder did some excellent videos with Flight Chops and Aviation101. They work on building in the automatic response to say “Save Your Life” will simultaneously pushing the yoke forward. Engine loss, brief startle response (less than 1 second) “Save Your Life” action. Both are excellent series to view.

  8. FWIW, I agree the multi second (pick your number) response delay is building a powerful muscle memory that is unhelpful in a turnback. I prefer to: Brief each takeoff, including what I’ll do with partial power loss AND complete power loss. The brief includes where I’ll put it if 1. on the runway before rotation; 2. from rotation through 150′ (AGL); 3. 150′-300′; 4. 300′-500′; 500′ – 1000′; and if the engine issue occurs while I’m in low altitude cruise climb on my departure. I fly a C172 (relatively light wing load), and won’t consider a turnback attempt at less than 600′ AGL, have a nice headwind, am turning INTO the crosswind on departure, AND I’m departing a heavily built up or natural obstacle surrounded runway. FWIW, the performance of even lightly loaded C172 changes noticeably from GTOW. And density altitude on a hot summer day can be a game changer.

  9. I don’t recommend it, but if you really want to see how well you can perform a turn-back maneuver, you need to do it with a totally dead engine, not just one at idle. Having experienced an engine failure in a plane with a fixed pitch prop, I can tell you that it is quite different. The turning prop fights the air and makes the airplane vibrate like an impending stall. The turbulence also diminishes the elevator and rudder effectiveness – one more reason to lower the nose and keep your airspeed up. And if you think you can slow the plane down enough to stop the prop from windmilling, you aren’t going to have the time to do that 800 feet above the ground. I was fortunate to have enough altitude that I made it back to the runway, but if it had lunched on takeoff, I most likely would have visited the trees off the end of the runway.

  10. I have practiced this at altitude in a plane that has a stall speed and glide ratio that are not that far off from a Bonanza. I was able to consistently get turned around and lined up (as well as I could tell) in under 500 feet of altitude. That said, I would not recommend my technique to anyone who is not competent and proficient in the aircraft being flown, as well as being experienced with aerobatics and energy management. I probably wouldn’t even recommend it then. The results of messing up are pretty much guaranteed to be disastrous! I will say that my primary input for getting the nose down is starting with a steep turn if totally prepared to turn around. If you just bank with no pull, still being ready to push if the speed drops too much, your nose comes down really fast and you are already getting turned around. Oh, and I will comment on a previous post suggesting being close to stall in the turn. There’s a balance to strike here with staying near the runway versus staying near best glide, but I would suggest being too close to stall is both dangerous and probably eating up more of your energy than is ideal.

    • It occurred to me that I made a comparison with a Bonanza as far as speeds, but as has been noted many times now, this is very specific to the airplane. Everything else about my plane versus a Bonanza suggests I would need at least a couple hundred feet more in the Bonanza.

      But every factor in play, wind, weight, temperature, and everything else you can think of, needs to be considered. In particular though, knowing what density altitude, weight, and winds you practice at is important to know whether you can expect to do better or worse in a given situation.

      Anyway, as Paul and others have said, you should plan what plan for how to handle emergencies at various points during the climb before starting down the runway. If I know I can get back to the runway in 500 feet in the current situation and that’s better than any other option, I will be ready for when the engine dies and I am above 500. I will give myself margin if coming up short of the runway is worse than other options, because I might come up short.

      Also, for anyone preparing for such a maneuver, make sure to brief the direction you will turn, and it better not be downwind if there is a crosswind!

  11. A couple of points here, everyone seems to be assuming catastrophic engine failure. In the Navy we had a mantra we had to recite to the instructor when he pulled the power on a touch and go: Gas, Battery, Mags, “simulate” Prime. IOW, check the fuel selector is not off, or on an empty tank. Make sure the battery switch hasn’t been tripped. Switch the mags to left then right, hoping one is still producing spark. Lastly, push the primer button to see if the engine has maybe suffered a fuel pump failure.

    You could recite and point to those things in three seconds, but accomplishing them in a real emergency would have taken longer. At low altitude we pretty much had only 45 degrees either side of the nose to find a suitable (or not) place to put down.

    I suffered a valve failure on takeoff in my Decathlon years ago. Thankfully the engine continued to run (rough) or I would have had no choice but to land in trees off the end of the runway. Leaving the power set, I notified Tower of my problem and immediately turned downwind to the longer parallel runway while climbing to about 500 ft. Close aboard the runway and abeam the touchdown zone, I started an”impossible turn” while simultaneously reducing power since I was over the runway, and easily landed in the first third.

  12. I recently completed a BFR by a very knowledgeable, proficient, and thorough CFII. My Bonanza had been down for its annual that did not allow me to perform my BFR in it. My BFR had expired while the airplane was down. With a single yoke and expired BFR, I could not use my airplane once the annual was completed. I was not going to go through the trouble and expense of renting a dual yoke for my BFR. So, I rented a C172 which coincidentally had an 0-360 with CS prop. Somewhat unusual from the run of the mill rental 172’s. To coordinate with his current student load and aircraft availability, I had to drive a couple of hours to a new to me airport and corresponding topography. I had not flown a 172 for about 11 years, the last flight in my former 1956 C172. I was looking forward to getting acquainted again with a 172 even if it was not an old straight tail.

    During the BFR, I was directed to land at a beautiful strip surrounded by some lakes, a river, and small mountains. That landing turned out to be a touch and go where upon climb out on this humid 96 degree afternoon he pulled the power. While somewhat anticipating this earlier in the flight, I have to admit with getting re-acclimated to a 172, high wing vs low wing, 180hp/CS prop vs Bonanza variable pitch prop, late into the flight, and panel differences, and the beauty of that strip on final approach and climbout, I was surprised and startle effect did momentarily happen. But within a couple of seconds I lowered the nose, turned about 30-35 degrees left and aimed for what appeared to be about 1,000 to 1200 ft field among all the trees that were on top of this small mountain range. While about 600-700 ft agl above the airport elevation, I was less than 3-400ft agl above my present sedate cruise climb configuration and location over those still ascending small mountains which kept me at that same 3-400 ft level agl. He seemed satisfied with my decision, agreed that I would safely make the field as we got closer to it.

    While I added power back and began my climb out, he asked me why I did not do a turn back to the runway. Without hesitation, I said with the high density altitude, windmilling constant speed prop in high RPM, low pitch, full of fuel, and not really proficient in this particular airplane with its STC’d mods, 11 year hiatus from my personal 172, new to me panel with fuel, switch locations, I had already decided outside of being 800ft agl above the highest surrounding terrain, I would not even attempt a turn back.

    I had reviewed Paul’s video the night before my BFR. I believe there is no one size fits all strategy. It all depends on so many variables. I was familiar with a 172 but not this particular one. It was a very hot, humid day, high density altitude with unfamiliar, moderately rising terrain type of topography at the moment of the power loss. Had this happened at the home base of the airplane just a mere 10 miles away, with level ground and being 700-800ft agl, I would have done a turn back. Even if I did not make the runway, I would make it to level grass with no obstructions within the airport boundaries.

    One must form a decision strategy based on current circumstances, airplane being flown, configuration, and conditions. My take away from the video and having to dead stick a Bonanza into a tight field some years ago has mentally prepared me to be far more vigilant about my current environment, particularly at take-off but throughout the flight. This includes a predertimed hard deck for all potential maneuvers should the fan stop no matter what time of the flight this might happen. I think having this sort of strategy in play helps take away the potential for indecision and wishful thinking hoping for a good outcome vs being pro-active at every moment until the airplane comes to a full stop.

    Plus, I may be flying with my A game one day, and maybe not quite up to A game performance another day or time. We can be A game flyers in the morning and less than that later in the day for a variety of reasons. I was not an A game flier in this particular airplane, at this particular time, in this particular terrain. I was competent under those conditions and would have safely made to to my intended landing site. Competent and A game are not always the same. That difference has to be known before the fan potentially stops. As Paul says…depends.

  13. It seems to me that there are two things a pilot could do to expand the envelope of where/when the turn back is possible. The problem in the unsuccessful exercise was that the airplane was too far from the runway and too low to complete the maneuver. The way to achieve more altitude in less distance is to climb at Vx rather than Vy or (worse) cruise-climb until you get to your personal safe turn back altitude. Your engine won’t overheat in the time it takes to get to that safe altitude. Once there, you can transition to cruise climb or Vy and continue normally. The use of a Vx climb will put you at a higher angle of attack, which means that you’ll have an even greater need to shove the nose down quickly, but also this technique will put you in the mindset to do that right away.

    The other thing you can do is reduce the amount of turning needed to get back to the runway. From the moment the wheels break ground on takeoff, most pilots fly straight ahead (runway heading). That’s well and good for as long as there is still enough runway in front of you to safely abort and land on the surface remaining. Once there isn’t enough runway left to land on (and this happens pretty quickly most of the time) there is no reason to stay on the runway heading. You’re better off making a 45° turn into the crosswind. This makes the turn back maneuver require less than 360° of turning.

    When engine failure happened to me, at about 600’ after takeoff, I had (purely by chance) made that 45° turn into the wind, because I was showing a young and curious passenger how the flight controls worked. When the engine rolled back on me, I did not wait three seconds. I put the nose down and started the turn back.

    In my case, the issue was not to stretch the glide back to the runway. Rather the opposite. I needed to get down and slow down to avoid running off the far end with the tailwind on the 3300’ runway. I ended up using a strong slip to increase my drag.