We Keep Killing People...

paul-dye-musingI guess it's a Monday Aviation Journalist thing - time to get grumpy and complain. Over on our sister publication, AVweb, Rick Durden is stomping out Old Wive's Tails and Bertorelli is complaining about what constitutes a "Game Changer" in aviation... I want to talk about this continued fascination with the "Impossible Turn" - turning back to your departure runway after an engine failure on take-off.  I see this discussion come up over and over on internet forums, despite the fundamental thing we teach flying students, which is DON'T DO IT!

Now I’ll be the first to admit that it CAN be done under the right conditions. It is done more than we know.  We don’t have numbers on how many times each year, but since engine failures happen fairly rarely, I doubt that it is in the thousands each year. But in that year, we have quite a few accidents when it fails, making the percentage of failures high. And have no doubts – when you fail at the maneuver, you die.

Pilots love to talk about going to practice this at altitude, and they set numbers for themselves that above this, they’ll try it if the engine quits. But until you’ve had an engine quit on you, , understanding the confusion and denial that goes on just getting IN to the maneuver is impossible to understand. Oh, and for the glider pilots among us (I am one), this is nothing like a 200 foot rope brake in even a training glider – powered planes without power just don’t fly like that.

So why do I harp on this? I have had two friends killed this year trying to turn back after engine failures on takeoff - both relatively experienced pilots, one a Gold Seal Flight Instructor with many more hours than most pilots will ever have. Both of these guys talked the talk on flight safety and on being conservative pilots. Both flew a lot in the types of planes they rode to their demise. Neither of them had big egos, or considered themselves superior to other pilots. Both took a passenger with them when they died.

Maybe – just maybe – if we stopped talking about how to do this deadly maneuver, and went back to emphasizing that it is just NOT worth the risk, more people would walk away from their wrecked airplanes somewhere off the end of the runway, and fewer bodies would be scraped out of smoking holes in the ground.  I’m not a head in the sand kind of guy – I don’t mind what-iffing just about anything. But the emphasis needs to be on why it is a bad idea – not on how to try and do it. The more we encourage people to try – the more people we are going to kill.

Paul Dye

Paul Dye, Kitplanes® Editor in Chief, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the space shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 and a Subsonex jet that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, EAA Tech Counselor, and Flight Advisor, as well as a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.

4 Replies to “We Keep Killing People...”

  1. As glider pilot you know that even 14 year old student pilots are rquired ro actually demonstrate a "rope break" maneuver from something like 200 AGL (or as apprpriate for their aircraft). That should be the key. Establishing when this can safely be accomplished and when it can't For A Particular Aircraft, and actually practicing it. And if the Return To Land is not working out, how to abandon the attempt and accept the "crash" landing into whatever's available.

    With the aerodynamic and visual capabilities of modern flight simutator devices why don't we put them to use training for this maneuver and establishing a REALISTIC idea of what's safely feasible in a variety of situations? Obviously from your own examples, there lurks within even well experienced pilots, the sense that "I'm special, I could make this work out," when faced with the unexpected event. Having trained for it in an authentic simulator might prepare us for the shock, and the actual maneuver, and help prepare ourselves for the visual realities of "Landing Straight Ahead."

  2. I recently, and for the first time in my life, failed a checkride.

    It happened during the checkride for a float plane rating. We were at 500 AGL and had just crossed over a large lake, and another, smaller lake was right in front of us. That is the moment that the examiner pulled the throttle for a simulated engine out. The CFI that had trained by went to pains to stress that a Piper Cub on floats did not glide well; his advice was to get the nose down NOW and find water.

    That's what I did: nose down, lined up to land on the lake in front of us.

    The examiner chimed in: "That lake is too small! We would never get back out!"

    Yeah, so? What was I supposed to do?

    "Turn back to the lake behind us," he answered.

    You can imagine my response! "Turn BACK? Never!"

    He then proceeded to climb us back up to 500 AGL and perform the maneuver.

    It scared the ^%#$ out of me! I told him that I would never be comfortable with that.

    To be fair, he gave me another chance back at the seabase. Long excuse short, I failed again because we were pretty far up the lake, but still over it, and I was more comfortable with turning back. The only problem was that there was again not enough lake remaining. That was my mistake - I had it stuck in my head that he just wanted to see if I would make a turn back. So, I failed the checkride. It was my own mistake and believe me, it gave me a lot to think about.

    Here's what I told him the next day on the make-up checkride: "I will NOT make that turn back towards a tree line, so if you intend to do that again, we can save your time and my money by quitting now."

    He pulled the throttle with a massive lake just off to our left. Piece of cake. But... the additional training was not wasted; it reaffirmed my belief that a turn back is not a good idea at all.

  3. Every pilot needs to know the limitations of their aircraft, both in what it can, but also in what it can't do. I have had this situation happen, thankfully in my SuperCub clone. 300' AGL just past the departure end of the runway. Our mountain airport has few options off the end of the runway, and all of them are bad. My first reaction was to turn back toward the safety of the runway, then I hesitated momentarily thinking about all the banter about this being "the impossible turn". But upon looking at the situation, I rolled back into the turn and easily landed back on the runway. It wasn't even challenging.

    However, had this been my other plane, 1), it doesn't have the climb performance to have much altitude by the end of the runway, and 2) it's fast enough to require a significantly larger turn radius. No way could I successfully complete a turn back to the airport in it. The only choice would be to continue forward and hope for the best.

    Blanket statements don't cover all situations. Sometimes it makes sense to turn back IF, and ONLY IF your aircraft is capable in that situation, and that requires a good working knowledge of the performance capabilities of the aircraft. Had I abided by the wisdom of this article, I would have had a damaged aircraft to repair rather than towing it back to the hangar to find why the engine shut down.

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