December 2010 — It starts out as a typical flight. You complete your preflight planning and load the airplane. The engine starts quickly and everything is normal during the run-up, so you taxi onto the runway, add full power and then smoothly lift off for another enjoyable flight. Then, just as you are thinking ahead to the departure sequence, there is sudden, unexpected, shocking silence. It takes many precious seconds for your brain to recognize and comprehend what has happened, consider the options and then decide on a course of action. The problem is that you don't have that much time.
Like others, I had been disturbed by the number of stall/spin accidents following a loss of power shortly after takeoff, but until I started writing this article, I had never put myself in the seat of a pilot experiencing a sudden loss of power on departure to truly understand the precarious situation that pilot would be in. The airplane is flying in a nose-high climb attitude not far above stall speed, so the airspeed bleeds off rapidly as the airplane stops climbing and then quickly begins to sink toward the ground. The combination of shock and fear can produce an overwhelming desire to pull back on the control wheel to stop the descent. With right rudder likely still being held to compensate for the no-longer-present torque and P-factor, all the requirements are present for a stall/spin accident. Without the proper response, it will be over in a matter of seconds.
What is required almost immediately after the engine fails while in the initial climb, let's say between 50 feet and wherever you reduce the pitch attitude to cruise climb, is a surprisingly forceful push forward on the controls to an even more surprisingly nose-low attitude in order to keep the airplane flying. In an airplane with high drag, such as a biplane, you may need to push hard enough to feel light in the seat. Even in a low-drag, streamlined airplane, the push required will be close to that. At altitude a push like this would feel very strange, but would not be that scary or difficult to accomplish. However, following an engine failure on takeoff, you are not at altitude; you are only a few hundred feet above the ground. You would have to overcome every cell in your brain screaming at you to hold the wheel back to stop the descent. Many pilots have given in to that desperate plea, resulting in an almost immediate stall/spin following the engine failure.
So now let's say you actually managed to do the big push. The nose is very low but the airplane is still flying with at least a small margin above stall speed. If you were really low when the engine failed (up to about 300 feet), there is no question about what comes next. The airplane is descending rapidly and the ground is coming up equally fast, so the only option available is a slight turn if necessary to avoid any serious objects directly ahead of you, followed by a pull just before hitting the ground to flare or at least try to cushion the force of the impact. While the landing gear may be damaged or even collapse, the odds are that you and your passengers will have few if any injuries.
The problem comes when you have made it past 300 feet before the engine fails. Assuming you manage to avoid an immediate stall by getting the nose down quickly, you would typically start hearing the siren call of the runway you just took off from. It seems so close! Perhaps you can still see a bit of the runway or the airport beneath you. Rather than a crash landing off the airport, wouldn't it be better to make a quick turn back to the runway? Even if you don't make it all the way around the turn, you would at least be landing on the relatively flat surface of the airport. Why not at least give it a try?
The fact that many pilots even consider turning back to the airport shows that most pilots, like myself, have never researched the maneuver and carefully considered what the options really are. They don't call it "the impossible turn" for nothing. The problem is that the phrase "impossible turn" is really a misnomer. Pilots have in fact had an engine failure in the 300- to 600-foot zone and managed to turn back to the airport successfully. Under the Air Safety Institute tab at aopa.org, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation even has a Real Pilot Stories video, "The Impossible Turn," made by a pilot who experienced just such an event shortly after installing a video camera in his airplane. The pilot wisely advises other pilots that they not try this maneuver in their own airplane, and yet the evidence is clear — he made it back onto the runway without any damage and even managed to turn off onto the taxiway at the end of the runway. He just cleared the trees, barely managed to line up with the runway and landed just short of the other end of the runway, but he did make it.
Let's analyze what you would have to do to accomplish such a feat. Having completed the "big push," you are now in a nose-low attitude not far above stall speed descending at about 1,000 feet per minute. Doing the math, even from 500 feet you would have only about 30 seconds to make the turn. Based on many briefings about keeping bank angle shallow at low speeds, many pilots make a fairly shallow turn, probably 30 degrees maximum, to reduce the chance of a stall in the turn. Figuring about twice standard rate at that bank angle, it would take around 30 seconds to complete the 180-degree turn. Sounds like maybe you just could make it, except there is one small problem. Depending on wind direction and speed, you are now more than a half-mile to the side of the runway heading downwind. You would have to turn another 30 degrees toward the runway and require anywhere up to another minute to reach it.