The Impossible Turn: When Your Engine Fails on Takeoff

making the impossible turn

My engine quit on upwind… what now?

Do I land straight ahead or do I turn around? The impossible turn. We’ve all heard the stories, the advice, and mostly the warnings.

The turn is so seductive in the moment, as I can personally attest.

Generally, the consensus is that you shouldn’t turn unless you’re above 1000 feet AGL.

If you need a one size fits all approach that may be a good one, but we all have different size feet. You must decide what’s right for you. As an instructor, I’m a firm believer in personal minimums. I help all my students develop good personal minimums, as most do. This includes personal minimums as they relate to the impossible turn.

Cover Engine Failure in Your Pre-Takeoff Briefing

For the instructors reading this, consider accessing the individual student to determine if a turn is advisable. If it is, under what conditions? Some people are better off pulling the parachute if the aircraft is so equipped or simply crashing strait ahead. The statistics say these are the more survivable options.

You or your student must be ready to pull the trigger: turn around or land strait ahead. It takes the average pilot seven seconds to respond in an emergency situation.

That doesn’t sound like much… right? Lets perform an exercise, count with me: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one-thousand, six one-thousand, seven one-thousand.

Now just imagine that entire time your engine was not running and you did nothing to respond. It’s an eternity. You must be ready. A good pre-takeoff briefing helps insure that those seven seconds are more like two or three.

Should You Turn Around?

So what should you consider when deciding at what minimum altitude you should turn around? The list is long.

  • How proficient are you in the aircraft?
  • What type of aircraft is it?
  • When was the last time you practiced the turn? (More about this later.)
  • What is the head wind component (or tail wind when you turn around)?
  • What is the terrain?
  • How long is the runway?
  • How heavy is the aircraft?
  •  What is the density altitude?
  • How is the gear actuated if retractable (engine driven, hydraulic pump?)
  • Can I feather or coarsen the pitch on my propeller to decrease drag?

There are many other factors as well. This is why the decision is so hard. It is also why we must have a plan prior to taking off rather than making a hasty decision in the moment.

Practicing Engine Failures in Training

What is the first thing you were taught to do when you were practicing engine failures in training? Pitch for best glide… right? WRONG! If you have made the decision to turn around than you must do so without wasting any precious time or real estate.

I recommend testing this procedure. The next time you’re at altitude try this maneuver: Pick a heading and make a 180-degree turn trying to loose as little altitude as possible.

The best procedure for this is not pitching for best glide and making a shallow bank. Try pitching down 5-10 degrees (or more) and rolling into a 60-degree bank with the engine at idle.

If done properly and without hesitation you can loose as little as 150 feet. This all depends on the aircraft type and the speed at which the engine failed.

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It beats the shallow turn every time.

Try changing the propeller blade angle to a courser pitch if your aircraft is equipped. Remember, if this happens for real you will loose more altitude more quickly as an idling propeller makes much less drag than a wind-milling one.

I know what you’re thinking: You’re recommending I make a 60-degree banked turn close to the ground? Not necessarily.

This maneuver is not for everyone and must be practiced and adapted for different airframes, configurations, weights and mostly proficiency. I am saying, that if you choose to turn around, this is your best chance for survival if properly performed.

Airspeed and coordination is key. Your stall speed goes up considerably when in a steep bank which is why it is necessary to insure you have a low enough pitch attitude and a high enough airspeed to keep the wing flying.

I have personally experienced a catastrophic engine failure on takeoff. I used the procedure described above and made it back in one piece. I also personally know many others that were not as fortunate.

I would never encourage anyone to make or not make the turn. I do, however, urge everyone to have a plan before each and every takeoff based on his or her personal minimums.

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