From the One-More-Time-But-With-Pictures file comes this week’s Best of the Web video. It was posted by Cessna Centurion owner Edward Frye earlier this week. It depicts a successful runway turnback after a catastrophic engine failure. Total time in the air: one minute, 12 seconds. Frye does a nice job of analyzing the incident, including illuminating his own oversights, with views from inside the cockpit and out. We should all do so well in handling a similar emergency.

As I’ve observed before, I’m agnostic on the turnback maneuver. Sometimes it’s a good choice and sometimes not. As the video shows, Frye’s decision worked and he even managed a Scott Crossfield-style taxi off the runway, sans the hangar wall. The incident occurred at Tracy Municipal Airport in California, which is located in a relatively flat area near Stockton. He departed Runway 30 and after the engine failure returned to Runway 8, a turn of about 220 degrees and near ideal geometry for a turnback attempt.

There’s a dense commercial industrial area off the end of 30 and to the west of that, a large open field that might have also been reachable. I wouldn’t second-guess the decision because I wasn’t in the seat and why argue with success? Frye explains the circumstances that led to his predicament. The 210’s engine had just been overhauled but not operated on a test stand. Having read articles about cylinder glazing, Frye found recommendations to run the engine as little as possible before setting full power to seat the piston rings without tanking the cylinder walls. He said it had only been run for a few minutes and he rushed to the runway to get airborne against a setting sun for a few minutes of high-power flight time.

Personally, I’m not a fan of initial break-in by flying an engine. All of the half-dozen overhauls I’ve dealt with have been properly run on a test stand and the resultant data recorded in the engine paperwork. And even at that, on the first flight, I did high-power runups on the ground and returned to the ramp for uncowling and inspection before flight. I did that when we overhauled the Cub engine, which had been run on the stand, albeit a rudimentary one. After an annual, I perform a similar inspection and I conduct at least one high-speed taxi test.

This comes not from personal calamitous experience but from reading scores of accident reports following maintenance and overhauls. Failure of a freshly overhauled engine is not an everyday thing, but it’s not rare, either. The very scenario described in the video happened to a friend of mine, but before takeoff during a high-power runup. I’d rather have it blow up on the test stand or on the ground rather than after takeoff. In Frye’s engine, a rod came unglued and blew a hole in the crankcase, suggesting the undertorquing that is a common failure scenario.

The advice to run high power for initial break-in is accepted wisdom, but having never seen any data on the incidence of cylinder glazing, I wonder if the risk of that is worth the risk of rushing through a runup or even towing the airplane to the runway and starting it for immediate takeoff. I’ve seen that done, too. As Frye points out, rushing through all of this led him to forget his shoulder harness, something I suspect we’ve all done.

If I had anything to add about Frye’s technique, it would be to hold the landing gear. He extends it pretty quickly after the failure and although he makes it to Runway 8—3438 feet long—he doesn’t have much altitude in the bag. Better to save the drag until the bitter end when you’ve got the runway made (and then some) rather than deploy too soon and land short because of it. That sort of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory is an occasional accident narrative, too.

As for turnback versus no turnback, the debate will rage on, I’m sure. Frye’s video is a brilliant example of how it can work, without suggesting that it always will.


  1. Great job. I would be delighted to deal with a low-altitude engine failure issue as well as you did. I’m a DPE; you pass!

  2. A lot of this is technique, whether to minimize ground run time (outside of test cell) or not. Note that a Dec 2020 Aviation Safety article advised minimizing ground time (republished on Avweb mid-2021), and there is a fair bit of commentary/advice by respected engine people to do this as well (if I’m not mistaken GAMI principals were saying this back in the mid-90s). For that reason I’m both in the limited ground run school and not a fan of breakins. Is glazing an OWT? Hard to say, but certainly those advocating limited ground time in the test aircraft put a lot of stock in test cell runs per manufacturer’s instructions. Good overhaulers do this.

  3. I was surprised to see the attitude indicator flag out. I wonder if the vibration of the failing engine was more than it would compensate for. I suspect a mechanical gyroscope would have continued to provide good data (if suffering reduced bearing life in the process). It does seem worrisome that an engine failure so quickly produces an instrument failure, but I suppose a vacuum gyro also wouldn’t be useful for very long after the loss of the vacuum pump. Still, as long as the engine is windmilling, one might assume that the vacuum was being supplied.

  4. First, Great Job!! Like I tell All my students, “being prepared is half the battle” , then you have to execute! Of course, I would not lump this particular engine failure with all the turn back studies. This was appears to be a highly experienced pilot who was more than well prepared for this event. You can tell by all the cameras that are set up. It’s like when a test pilot for an aircraft manufacturer goes up to test an airplane. I am not trying to take anything away from this fine pilot. I’m just saying it’s apples and tomatoes comparison (not the same). I agree with Paul on disagreeing how fast he put the gear down, there was a good size cement canal just before the runway, which would have been catastrophic to hit had he not been right on the money. I always teach don’t worry about the gear, “ make your landing area first!” The insurance will pay for the gear up damage, but you’ll survive. Ultimately, you can’t argue with this succes!

  5. Well done. Excellent quality video and great discussion of lesson learned.

    This is a good example of how after engine failure you might make it back to the general airport area, but it’s unlikely you’ll make it to the pavement from which you departed. Luckily in this case there is a second runway in that airport area that was barely within the airplane’s glide range as flown. As Paul wrote, the pilot departed on RWY 30 (reciprocal 12) and (barely) landed on RWY 8, which is 40 degrees off of the reciprocal runway heading.

    Thanks to the pilot, and to AVWeb for letting us learn from this example. Again, well done.

  6. “Test stand” – what is that?
    You mean the mount that’s in front of the firewall – don’t ya? ha
    Had zeroed out many many engines in my time.
    After start up & temps normal, I would run it at full power for about 20 sec ( making sure no fuel starvation) & then go fly.
    I know there are many folks out there that would NOT approve of this procedure, but I would challenge them on their TECHNICAL explanation as to why. I mean TECHNICAL – no BS.
    Talking with the owners years later were comments like “Running great Bob” (including my own)

  7. I’m all for the engine break-in documented on a stand (I’ve only seen one at Sun n Fun) and then high power run ups on the ground returning to ramp to remove the cowl and inspect the engine.
    I’ve only seen this done for planes worked on at KPDK where there are run up areas just to do this, and it was done so much the times had to be limited for noise.
    As for turning back… depends on altitude and what is in front or to the sides
    My only concern is stalling. As long as you fly it in, it will always be the best choice. Stall, and you are jumping from a tall building will hot metal and fuel surrounding you.

  8. A very well done turnback by a guy who is unflappable. He knows his aircraft and his own capabilities.
    I would question why he used over 29″ MAP considering the light TO weight and a super performing aircraft.
    I would question why mess with power adjustments so soon after take-off.
    The matter of turn-backs first came to my attention in Jan 1991 issue of ‘Flying’ when I read Peter Garrison’s
    column on the subject. He also wrote in ‘Flying’ Sept issue 1990, ‘You can go home’, on the subject. So although it is getting a lot of attention recently, it is now a 30 year old subject.
    It will be very educational to read about the cause of the engine failure. Smoke and full stoppage of the prop is significant.

  9. My question is why did he put the gear down before he for sure had the runway made? A belly landing on the airport would be preferable to an urban jungle landing. He should have extended the gear once established on a safe glide path.

  10. He did a very good job of handling this emergency but he was lucky that it didn’t occur at a lower altitude. I would rather have risked cylinder glazing and run the engine at full power on a test stand before flying it. If the cylinders glaze, then it’s the responsibility of the overhaul shop to fix the problem but at least no one is risking his/her life. I understand why he extended the gear when he did – one less thing to worry about while you are focused on controlling speed, descent rate, avoiding a stall and making the runway. He was close enough to the runway and slow enough that the drag from the extended gear wasn’t a big factor. Fortunately, it looks like he was lightly loaded so there was less chance of a stall during the turn. For me the lessons learned from this are: (1) make sure the overhaul shop has run the engine at full power on a test stand for several minutes through several power cycles before flying the airplane; (2) fill the tanks with minimum fuel for the test flight both because of weight and the possibility of a post-crash fire; (3) load the airplane as lightly as possible and, of course, no passengers; (4) stay in the pattern and do several takeoffs and landings; (5) have several emergency landing options at different points within the 270 degree arc preselected; (6) leave the gear extended during the test flights – adding a gear-up landing to an engine-out emergency is not a good thing; (7) have preplanned criteria memorized for when to abandon the turn and use one of the emergency landing options.

  11. Is he the A&P who did the “overhaul”? or who was the A&P that signed off the engine “overhaul”? Not very good quality control to have a thrown rod. I am a novice mechanic starting with small engines, i.e. lawn mowers, chainsaws, motorcycles, etc. since I was 12. I have rebuilt 4 car engines to date. First in 1988 by reading a “how to rebuild a small block Chevy” book and using all new aftermarket parts. The last one 2019 a “Vortec” small block Chevy, with one Dodge 318 in between. All of these rebuilds went 150,000 plus miles between them with NO failures. Torque specs and good quality parts are available to each of us it is up to us to do the work properly. Just glad no one was hurt or worse killed in this event.