Is ‘The Impossible Turn’ Ever the Right Move?

If you are faced with a problem right after takeoff, you should be prepared to make the right decision.

When I tell people outside of aviation that I’m a pilot, they typically ask me, “Could Captain Sully and Jeff Skiles make it back to the airport, or was landing in the Hudson their best option?” The response is complicated because Sully—the movie based on the famous event—focused on the NTSB investigation that questioned the crew’s decision. 

With nearby airports in view, should the CACTUS 1549 crew have attempted the “impossible turn”? Today, I’d be surprised if anyone doubted that the flight crew made the right decision not to return to the airport. 

…unfortunately, aviation’s accident history is littered with misplaced optimism.

I often wonder how I would’ve handled that. The more comfortable I became with instructing, I would occasionally ask my students during climbout what they’d do if the engine quit right then. My goal wasn’t to scare them, but for us to prepare them for a possible emergency scenario. The appeal of turning back toward the airport becomes even more alluring when climbing through a 1,000 feet agl, perhaps because it’s easier to prefer this outcome, however overly optimistic it is. 

Still, unfortunately, aviation’s accident history is littered with misplaced optimism.

Being curious about this, I decided to research what resources were there for pilots. I discovered that the FAA Safety Team, or FAASTeam, recently curated a series of notes around the industry that addressed this scenario. The FAASTeam began with one mission: to improve the nation’s aviation safety record by conveying safety principles and practices through training, outreach, and education. With a less ominous title than “The Impossible Turn,” their post called “Return to Field/Engine Failure on Takeoff” aims to give instructors tips on how to help students make the right decision if their engine suddenly quits on takeoff. 

The Worst Possible Decision

The directive is blunt: “Instructors should train pilots of single-engine airplanes not to make an emergency 180-degree turn back to the field after a failure unless altitude, best glide requirements, and pilot skill allow for a safe return.” Yet, when it comes to deciding what to do, the argument to try the turn amongst pilots has always been “it depends.”  

A 2017 brochure from the FAASTeam said turning back is the worst possible action that a pilot could take if there were an engine failure on the climbout, especially in a single-engine airplane, regardless of pilot proficiency. Using a pair of accidents as examples, the report outlined that in both cases, pilots overlooked more obvious off-field landing options in front of them and, on the way back toward the airport, found themselves wanting. 

Realistic Expectations

Even with plenty of altitude, I suspect some pilots lose their cool from the uncommonness of the situation and fumble a scenario where it might have otherwise worked out. This is one reason the safety team also pointed out that pilots are often trading a “bird in the hand,” i.e., roads and fields ahead, for an uncertain outcome.

“Such decisions, demanding split-second action and supreme skill, are beyond the capabilities of the average pilot,” the report said.

Therein lies the first truth most pilots need to face. To properly execute the turn requires a level of precision in flying that most pilots with sporadic flight schedules don’t have the muscle memory or judgment to complete. In other words, one of the first possibilities of having a safe outcome is being realistic about your demonstrated capabilities as a pilot, not your aspirational ideals. 

So, what should you do?

As the report said, “It’s better by far to establish a well-rehearsed emergency drill and keep it in practice. Should the engine go on strike, there will be no ‘shall I/shan’t I’ nonsense while time runs out.” 

This is what I had hoped to achieve with my students each time I quizzed them. Furthermore, what helped them shape the right instinct was that we discussed and rehearsed the engine failure plans that factored in a series of outcomes before takeoff. Even when it became repetitive, I believed this practice helped narrow their focus toward a better outcome if there was an emergency—it took some of the guesswork out.

What Makes ‘The Impossible Turn’ Difficult 

The impossibilities of the turn go back to some of the fundamentals of flying. Pilots who opt to do it seem to lose a sense of those rules when their engine quits. 

At a basic level, altitude, speed, and wind conditions are the major factors that affect the airplane’s ability to maximize performance. Still, they require the pilot to put them all together. 

The first thing that pilots ought to consider is the conditions where it is statistically impossible to turn around. The FAA’s report uses a scenario in which the engine fails at 300 feet. Still, most conservatively, even up to 2,000 feet, your best outcome might be landing off-field. The idea that the field is just behind you makes it tempting to believe that you can quickly reverse course. However, the bank angle necessary to turn in the shortest amount of time would be so steep that the airplane’s stall speed would increase at an incomprehensible rate. So, having to fly the aircraft at a faster speed to maintain flight would require lowering the nose, woefully destroying your best glide performance. Together with poor reaction time, choppy flying skills, unforeseen obstacles, or even less than perfect weather, turning back remains an ordeal. 

How to Plan for an Engine Failure on Takeoff

So, what should you do? Well, do consider the options you have. To my earlier point, the best mitigation is pre-planning on the ground, accounting for proficiency, and rehearsed plans of action that statistically give you more optimal outcomes. That means deciding what steps I would take at specific altitudes, factoring airport environments—and though grim, rightfully expecting that things could go wrong more than not. 

Your idea of situational awareness should also account for obstacles and landing options around each runway that you might depart from. You can easily do this with commercial mapping tools to get a sense of where things are. It would help if you also accounted for the option of being rescued after the fact. In other words, if you were to survive the off-field landing, would responders be able to get to you quickly? These are more realistic options that pilots of all capabilities have within their reach. If the day comes when they find themselves in this situation, they could fully improve their chances. 

As the historic explorer Roald Amundsen said, “victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck some people call it.”

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