The Impossible Turn – Tips to survive an Engine Failure After Takeoff

They say nothing is impossible. That’s a great positive way of thinking, but I prefer to say that not everything is worth the risk. Sometimes you just have to accept that you are in this hairy situation, and you are going to have to accept some scratches in order to survive.

EFATO turnback

Engine Failure After Take Off

Engine Failure After Take-off (often abbreviated to EFATO) is one of those emergencies that we have all trained for. In many cases it’s likely to be the worst place for an engine failure to occur. It’s extremely likely that you have been trained to never turn back and try and land on the reciprocal runway, because
you will probably stall, spin, and crash. The lesson is generally to lower the nose for best glide speed, land straight ahead, or even to choose a field 30 degrees left or right of the nose, and land there.

Its possible you have heard of horror headlines such as ‘ENGINE FAILURE ON CLIMBOUT LEADS TO IMPOSSIBLE TURN’ associated with pictures of aircraft wreckage.It’s also possible that you’ve heard of pilots that have somehow defied the laws of physics, and managed this so-called 180 degree ‘Impossible Turn’ – for real, or sometimes during a practise session. I’m not here to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t try it. At the end of the day, you are the Pilot in Command, and you are responsible for your own actions.

AOPA Pilot article, “Engine Out!” found that a Cessna 172 requires nearly 500 feet of altitude to return to the runway using an aggressive 45-degree bank and allowing the nose to fall fairly dramatically through the turn in order to maintain airspeed. This test was conducted under ideal conditions and assumed only a four-second lag from the time the engine quit until the pilot took decisive action.

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

But what I can give you is a little advice on factors to consider, which may in fact convince you in certain situations to avoid this tempting turnback manoeuvre. Tempting it is, because it’s a natural reaction to want to get yourself back onto the ground as quickly as possible, to save both the aircraft and yourself, back onto that nice flat runway.

flying training
Birds are a significant low level flying hazard, especially for takeoff

However the reality is that for whatever reason the aircraft has failed you (or you have made a mistake) and that the priority should be to save your life, and your passengers’ life. If that means landing your aircraft wings level into treetops under complete control, and it never flies again, then so be it. Your priority
should never be ‘to save the aircraft’, and then risk operating it outside of your experience level – it will bite you.

The turnback – an Impossible turn?

Firstly, a turnback is not simply a 180 degree turn. On a nil wind day, if you set up a glide, then do a descending 180 degree turn, you will not be lined up with the runway. Depending on your angle of bank and speed, you might be 100 metres displaced, or 500 metres displaced. So now you have to continue
that turn for another maybe 45 degrees until you are almost lined up, and then reverse the turn back 45 degree back onto the reciprocal heading. So that becomes a descending turn through maybe a total of 270 degrees.

EFATO turnback

Now, if a crosswind exists, and you initially turn into that wind, then your ground-track is reduced, and you won’t fly as far into that wind, and your reversal won’t have to cover so many track miles.

EFATO turnback

Stalling – a danger of turnbacks

Many pilots haven’t practised stalls in a long while. When they did practise them, they prepared for them, maybe even did a little study, and thought it through before the flight. Then they went out at a sufficient altitude to recover safely by 3000’ AGL. Then they practised a wings level stall, often
recovering with power at the first sign of the ‘chirp’ of the stall warning horn, and they flew home safely in the knowledge that they may never have to demonstrate such a thing for another two years. Suffice to say, that is not going to help them much for the day they have a practise, or even a real EFATO, and
they now attempt a steep 60 degree angle of bank gliding turn, through a 270 degree turn with a reversal, at low level.

stalling

Why such a steep turn you ask? Surely it’s safer to limit my AOB at only 30 degrees? Sure it’s safer, and keeps you further from the stall. But at a low AOB you are going to take a longer amount of time, and also track much more distance, that you will run out of altitude before you reach the runway. A steeper turn will mean a higher decent rate, however it’s for a much shorter time, and your runway centreline displacement is less. So lets say that you bank perfectly as required, being aware of the HIGHER stall speed with the G-loading, and you finally line up with the runway at an ideal glide speed, but now you are going to land well short, and you don’t make the runway after all. Now you may have to land into the water, trees, buildings or that TNT factory anyway.

The effect of wind

Let’s add some headwind to the equation. Headwind on takeoff will benefit our angle of climb, and means we are closer to the airfield when we reach a pre-calculated altitude. Now the engine goes BANG, you lower the nose, turn through left and right, line up on the runway and realise that you will in fact make it! That headwind has benefited you with better positioning and it became a tailwind to help you return to the runway. Now have you ever landed with a tailwind? Maybe you have, but it sure can be tricky. Even just a few knots is enough to mess up your approach, and often you didn’t realise that the wind had changed, and your instructor has chuckled to himself as he then told you to apply power and ‘go around’.

What else does wind effect anyway? First of all – energy state. Let’s throw some random numbers into an example, to see what can happen. You’re in a nice bushplane that climbs best at 60 knots, and you are climbing out into a healthy 20 knot headwind. If the engine blows oil all over your windscreen and
then stops, then you lower the nose and get that 60 kts back, before you flare straight ahead at only 40 knots groundspeed. You’ll stop pretty quickly, even if you go through the fence or trees at the end of the airfield. Alternatively, you decide you have enough altitude, skill and luck to turn around, and land
downwind, and you make it back onto the runway. Again at 60 KIAS, but now that wind is giving you 80 kts Groundspeed (at Sea Level, but if you are up in the rugged 9000 feet mountains then your TAS will give you a groundspeed closer to 90kts). That’s a strange approach scenario, and at only 80kts groundspeed, you now have DOUBLE the alternative into-wind groundspeed, with FOUR TIMES the energy to dissipate. If you are unlucky enough to land slightly short, into those trees, then you are in for a much harder impact.

Use your Illusion. Energy State isn’t the only effect that changing ground speed will have on you, but also the ground rush. In my previous example, your groundspeed is changing from 40 kts to over 80, all whilst you are descending and steep turning at lower altitudes than you are used to, with greater radius of turn. The desire to slow down, pull back tighter (raising your stall speed), and even underbank and skid it with rudder, only increases your chance of stalling out of balance – and do your first or last ever ‘flick roll’. If you aren’t experienced or checked out in low level flying, then consider doing a course. Temperature, Pressure, Density Height, Runway, Weight: all of these factors and more can conspire against you on the day, when compared to your practise or pre-calculated conditions. Don’t assume that you will always be ‘Above 800 feet over the train station’ every day.

Aircraft performance

Aircraft performance: If you have a high drag aircraft, then you are unlikely to have decent glide performance – even when configured ‘clean’ with flaps or gear up. If you don’t have much excess power, then you aren’t going to gain much altitude with which to begin your forced landing options. One aircraft that EFATO turnbacks are encouraged with is the Pilatus PC-12. It has a high powered turboprop, and a very clean drag index, and nice efficient wings. Plus the pilots are trained well. Chances are that your aircraft probably doesn’t match both the climb and glide performance of this multi-million dollar executive machine.

Partial Engine Failures

Partial Engine Failures, or Rough Running. OK I still have some power, or it springs back into life… Practise Engine failures are generally 100% Failed. Your instructor pulls the throttle, says “Practise! Pistons blow out through the cowl, oil goes everywhere and your propeller fell off.” You know what’s next – you do that Pilot Stuff. Real ones – sometimes aren’t so black and white. You’ll have some power, or it’ll burp, then it restores to ALMOST full power, maybe…. and you consider flying a long normal downwind over the forest for a normal powered approach, praying that it’ll keep going. Be ready for the fact that it’s more likely to fail completely now, compared to any other time, and set yourself up for the safest route to do an engine idle glide approach. Don’t get suckered in to flying somewhere hazardous. Who says you have to land ON the runways? Sometimes it’ll be good enough to land on the airfield, somewhere flat, ideally just outside the Fire Station.

Practicing EFATO and turnbacks vs reality

Practising engine failures and turnbacks, compared to the real thing. When you pull your own power, chances are you’ve already decided what you are going to do. You’ll wait until a precalculated height, pull the power, immediately lower that nose, turn into your favourite direction, nail that glidespeed, and then realise you’ll probably have to add some power, go around if necessary and fly away. In the real case, you are climbing out after takeoff, checking your tracking, glancing at the T’s and P’s, and then BANG! The engine stops.

The inner you may deny what is happening, and you might sit there in shock for a few seconds – maybe even pulling back that stick to maintain altitude. Eventually your training will kick in, and you’ll push forwards on that stick and lower the nose, in an attempt to regain best Gliding Speed. Now you’re trying to remember what the best glide speed is…. All of that time delay due to the Startle Factor, is going to delay your initial ‘get the nose down’ action, which is required in the majority of General Aviation aircraft.

The courts even gave Captain Sully a 20 second ‘Startle Factor’ to decide what his course of action was to be when he famously had a double engine failure in his twin engine Duck Magnet Airbus over New York. If you are climbing out at best rate of climb in your light aircraft, it’s likely that your best glide angle is about the same speed – so you need to get that nose down very quickly indeed – or even bury it further to initially regain that important ‘best glide’ airspeed back.

EFATO

When practicing, make sure you are with a licenced and experienced flying instructor – they will help you to get the most out of your flying lessons.

Pre-takeoff safety brief

Pre-takeoff Brief: Consider before flight what your EFATO actions will be, under what conditions. Before you open the power, consider voicing a verbal takeoff brief out loud, to yourself, and to your pilot passenger. Eg “My takeoff runway 30, ten knots headwind. For a fire, loss of thrust, or critical control issue until
700ft indicated, I will lower the nose and attempt to land straight ahead glide speed 65kts, through the trees if necessary, or turn slightly left for the beach, avoiding the Nitroglycerine Factory to the North. After 700ft I may consider turning back if conditions allow. Initial Actions: 65kts Fuel Pump Off, Fuel
Selector Off, Mixture, Prop Fine, Flaps, Mayday and Master… Any questions?” This reminds you of your best glide speed, and allows you to consider some critical decisions before they occur at an undoubtedly busier and more stressful time in the next two minutes. Then during those critical decision points, actually say out aloud “Thru 700ft” as a reminder that your turnback height has been reached.

In Summary:

  1. Practise at altitude, preferably around 4000’AGL in case of accidental stalls. Give yourself a four
    to five second “Oh My Golly Gee Whizz What is happening?” to simulate your real unexpected
    reaction on the day.
  2. Recite a rehearsed (and flexible) Pre-Takeoff Emergency Brief before every takeoff, and visualise
    your actions (or touch) during the brief.
  3. Verbally acknowledge your decision points as you fly through them.
  4. Steep Turns up to 60AOB are better than shallow turns. Practise them at idle, way up high.
  5. Turn into Xwind for turnbacks, unless they take you over adverse ground features.
  6. Airspeed – know your best distance glide speed, and the nose attitude required.
  7. Don’t aim for a perfect landing. Get it on the ground at a low rate of decent, wings level.
  8. Fly the aircraft into the crash for as long as possible
  9. Know your emergency egress checklist actions (which may include opening the canopy or door prior to landing)
  10. Wear appropriate clothing and safety gear – such as a Nomex or Leather flying jacket, and a good quality flight helmet

Conclusion

My advice? Don’t risk your life trying to save the aircraft. That means, if you aren’t great at steep descending glide turns on the buffet at low level, and you haven’t considered your aircraft performance, airfield and weather conditions for each flight, then prioritise on saving yourself and scratching or
scrapping the aircraft if necessary. Landing straight ahead (or somewhere left or right of the nose) may actually be the best option. Your friends and family would rather hear that you wrote off the airplane and came home, than the worst alternative.

Turnback
Stay Safe – your friends and family would rather you came home!

Further reading

There is a bunch of great further reading you can do on EFATO and turbacksd

Jorgo

Michael Jorgensen is a specialist formation instructor and Australia's premier air to air formation action photographer, based in Sydney, Australia. Jorgo has a wealth of experience, stemming from his career as a military fast jet pilot, and heavy air-to-air refuelling tanker pilot flying for both the New Zealand and British Air Forces. Find out more

Jorgo has 14 posts and counting. See all posts by Jorgo

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