Read accident case studies and aviation stories to help you stay sharp.
By Dan Sobczak
Editor's note: This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.
In an 'impossible turn' accident during VMC daylight hours where two passengers received minor injuries, NTSB ruled the probable cause was the fatigue failure of the #4 engine cylinder head resulting in a loss of engine power. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the pilot's decision to attempt a low altitude turn back to the airport, resulting in a loss of control (sometimes referred to as a moose turn stall accident).
In March 2010, this airplane was damaged when the pilot attempted a return to the runway after the engine lost power. During the attempted turn, the pilot lost control of the airplane and crashed about 500 ft short of the runway. Directly ahead of the airplane when the engine lost power was an 1,800-ft clearing. Source: NTSB.
NTSB reported the pilot departed on a scheduled passenger flight. Shortly after takeoff about 300 ft AGL, the engine began to run rough, lose power and vibrate violently. He attempted to return to the runway, but during the turn the airplane impacted snow-covered terrain, coming to rest inverted about 500 ft from the runway.
The runway's departure end clearway extended about 1,800 ft beyond the runway's edge. The terrain within the clearway consisted of snow-covered tundra. The terrain beyond the clearway consisted of sparsely scattered spruce trees extending an additional 2,800 ft.
NTSB reported the pilot's decision to attempt to return to the departure runway with insufficient altitude, instead of landing in the 1,800 ft long clearway, precipitated a loss of control and impact with terrain, adding to the severity of the accident.
Considering the airplane's altitude of about 300 ft AGL when the engine began to lose power, what might have been the best course of action to avoid this accident?
A) Because the engine's cylinder head failed, there was nothing the pilot could have done in this situation to avoid the accident.
B) Make sure to not exceed a 30-degree bank while turning back to the airport in the emergency landing attempt.
C) Immediately decide to land the airplane in the 1,800 ft clearing that was ahead of the airplane.
With the options to either land the airplane in the 1,800 ft clearing ahead or turn back to the runway, making a more than 180-degree turn back to the runway will depend on certain circumstances, such as:
A) your aircraft's altitude above ground level at the time of engine failure;
B) knowing precisely your airplane's flight characteristics in an engine failure after takeoff scenario;
C) and of course, having previously obtained sufficient practical training with a certified flight instructor in simulated engine failure after takeoff scenarios;
That said, it may be possible to safely make a turn back toward the airport and land on the runway from which you just departed.
Dubbed 'The Possible Turn' by Brian Schiff, who is a captain for a major airline and an accomplished general aviation flight instructor, Schiff led a seminar titled 'The Possible Turn - Engine Failure After Takeoff in a Single-Engine Airplane' sponsored by NAFI, the National Association of Flight Instructors, in May 2019.
Schiff's seminar was based to a large extent on his father Barry Schiff's decades of study, research, and experience involving the subject of a possible turn back toward the airport.
Captain Brian Schiff discusses 'The Possible Turn' maneuver in this May 2019 educational seminar sponsored by NAFI, the National Association of Flight Instructors. Source: www.mentorlive.site and NAFI.
As Barry Schiff wrote in an April 2019 article in AOPA Pilot magazine:
"It became my contention, however, that although landing straight ahead almost always is the safest course of action, there are exceptions to the rule — circumstances when turning around would be the preferred option."
In the online seminar, Brian Schiff discusses a number of important factors, experience, research and training that is gaining growing support of this thought process of making a turn back toward the runway in an engine out scenario on takeoff, given certain situational factors, conditions and training.
As the saying goes, a good pilot is always learning, and Schiff's highly educational seminar should be watched by pilots of all experience levels, so you can have one more tool in your aviation toolbox that you can practice the procedures he explains with your flight instructor.
Learning from his experience can help you be ready to decide in the moment if a turn back to the airport would be 'The Impossible Turn' or 'The Possible Turn' for you, given your specific engine out scenario and previous flight training experience.
The FAA now recognizes the importance of receiving training for making a safe turn back to the runway after an engine failure. As Barry Schiff notes in his April 2019 AOPA Pilot article:
"After 44 years of having to endure criticism for publicly advocating that pilots need to recognize and be prepared for those times and conditions when turning around is preferable to landing straight ahead, I was ready to concede that I had been fighting a losing battle. I was stunned, therefore, to recently learn that I had been vindicated by an unexpected ally. The FAA now states matter-of-factly in paragraph A.11.4 of Advisory Circular 61-83J dated September 13, 2018, that "flight instructors should demonstrate and teach trainees when and how to make a safe 180-degree turnback to the field after an engine failure." Never in a million years did I expect that the FAA would come to my rescue. The impossible turn is now considered possible."
Lastly, it is prudent to re-state here Brian Schiff's seminar disclaimer about receiving proper flight instruction with a certified flight instructor for 'The Possible Turn' procedures that he discusses:
"Disclaimer: These procedures should be practiced at a safe altitude and considered only when landing straight ahead is not a viable option. If you are uncomfortable performing this maneuver, obtain advice and training from a certified flight instructor. The turnaround maneuver described here is strictly an emergency procedure. It should not be utilized unless the pilot considers it more hazardous not to perform this maneuver."
Questions like the moose turn stall accident described above can be found in Flight Chain App's 'Safety Quiz' feature.
Flight Chain App's goal is to make NTSB reports easier to learn from. The app's 'Safety Quiz' feature lets pilots quiz themselves with questions based on actual NTSB accident reports -- covering important areas of flight that have been a factor in aviation accidents -- along with NTSB statistics and other aviation topics.
A screenshot from Flight Chain App showing its 'Safety Quiz' feature, where pilots can quiz themselves with questions based on actual NTSB accident reports, NTSB statistics and other aviation topics.
By reviewing NTSB accident reports -- and understanding the lessons learned from them -- you can help yourself stay ahead of the power curve when you need it most.
Blog posts like this one about 'The Possible Turn', and Flight Chain App's 'Safety Quiz' feature, are additional steps in our continued effort to make it easier for pilots to learn from NTSB reports.
The Flight Chain App team
Dan Sobczak is the founder of www.FlightChainApp.com, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.
Flight Chain App and its companion blog www.AheadOfThePowerCurve.com are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.
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Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.