Turn Around

What is the best thing to do if your engine quits while climbing out after takeoff? You know that you have a big, open, flat runway behind you. Do you attempt to turn back to that runway, or keep going?

This may be one of the most crucial questions that pilots face: Can you depart from runway 9, experience engine failure, then turnaround and land right back on runway 27? The turn back to the runway has been called ‘the impossible turn,’ but at some altitude and in some wind conditions it is possible to make it back to the runway safely. How can a pilot know when to do what?

You can safely simulate the takeoff turnaround decision and, in doing so, learn more about your airplane — and your options — if the engine should quit immediately after takeoff. (Please perform this experiment with a qualified flight instructor on board.) Then go over the flight test plan:

  1. Climb to a safe altitude. You should be at least 1,500 AGL.
  2. Look for a place on the surface that could serve as a ‘simulated’ runway. (I use the actual runway of a grass strip near my home airport.) You could also use the real runway at your home airport — provided there are no additional safety concerns (busy traffic, overlying instrument approach, etc.). You could use a farmer’s field if it were long enough for a runway.
  3. Carefully fly over the simulated runway into the wind and at the same speed that the airplane would normally lift off. Note the altitude when you begin.
  4. At about the mid-point of the simulated runway, add full power and begin a climbout just as you would after lift off. You are performing a takeoff and climbout just as you always do — the only difference is that you are doing it above the airport instead of on the airport.
  5. Hold your normal climb speed until reaching a point 500 feet above where you added full power. Then smoothly reduce the power to idle.
  6. Let the games begin. Can you make a turn and get back over any part of the simulated runway before you loose those 500 feet?

After completing the experiment, you will be better prepared to make a timely decision, should the unfortunate opportunity arise.

In light, single-engine, trainer-type airplanes you will discover that the turn itself will use up most of that 500 feet. Why? Because the turn that must be made will be greater than 180 degrees. You must turn about 210 degrees one way to get back to the runway centerline and then turn about 30 degrees back the other way, to line up with the centerline. All that turning leans the wing’s lift vector over toward the horizontal plane and makes the wings less effective in the vertical plane. You will get best results if you fly using the airplane’s minimum sink rate or best glide speed (one of them will be better depending on the situation). Regardless, in about 8 out of 10 given condition sets, you will not make it back to the runway.

Best: With only 500 feet to play with, find a place to land without much turning — possibly straight ahead … and do it quickly.

Repeat the experiment with different variables. You need to know what your airplane is capable of — and what you’re capable of, too.

  • Try it using a climb to 800 feet above the starting altitude.
  • Try it on different days with different temperatures and wind conditions.

Result: You will know — in advance — which benchmark altitude must be reached before a turnaround maneuver can even be considered. You will know what you and your airplane can do. Then someday, if the engine really does quit on climbout, you will already know the best course of action — to turn back to the runway or find a place out ahead. You will not waste time with indecision, and you and your passengers will walk away from (what could have been) a very bad day.