Would You Try the Impossible Turn?
The Impossible Turn – the 180 degree turn back to the airport on take-off in an emergency situation.
I can still recall the first time David Pflum enlightened me to it. I was flying a Cessna 172 at the time and we had just left the pattern. Practicing the maneuver at a very safe altitude I had made a slow and steady turn back without losing much altitude. I had accomplished a turnback, but so slowly that I’m certain I wouldn’t have made it in a climb-out situation.
Having discussed the scenario often enough with both David and my husband, the best course of action in this particular emergency seems quite the dilemma. For example…
If you’re taking off on Runway 27 at KHTL, what choice would you make in an emergency situation?
Would you aim for a nearby road? The main road is not only busy with traffic, it’s surrounded with power poles and overhead electric lines. Is it possible to maneuver a small plane between the lines and safely down onto the road?
Would you land in/on Houghton Lake? The lake is a great place to land so long as it’s frozen, but otherwise, how will the airplane react to landing in the water? Most wonder if the plane will flip upside-down as soon as the wheels touch.
Would you choose the nearest patch of trees? The nearest trees are interspersed through housing subdivisions, so crash landing here would definitely involve anyone still inside of these homes. We have also talked about landing in trees during EAA Club meetings, and many agree that aiming your aircraft between two trees in hopes the wings will get ripped off before crashing may very well save you from going up in flames.
What if you’re taking off on Runway 09 at KHTL?
Would you take that little subdivision east of the airport? I am uncertain how many power lines there are to deal with here, but there appears to be some good-sized backyards to land in.
Would you take the huckleberry marsh? Will the plane flip upside-down as soon as the wheels snag on those bushes? Or will the plane bury itself deep into the goo at impact similar to the bobcat excavator that was nearly swallowed up by the marsh about 10 years ago?
Would you try landing on the Cut river? Again, a water landing may very well have you upside-down, and being the river is surrounded by trees, you may very well find yourself in another fireball situation.
According to John Zimmerman’s article, Stop Calling It The Impossible Turn, “Sometimes, returning to the airport is the safest option and if you’ve never practiced it or thought about it there’s no way you’ll pull it off successfully.”
To practice the emergency turn-back, Zimmerman offers advice from his personal Glider practice. He recommends practicing the turn at a minimum of 1,000-2,000 AGL, and if possible, with an instructor. At a predetermined altitude, pull the power back and make your turn. Practice the maneuver until you can make the imaginary runway at the 1,000 feet AGL.
When in an emergency situation at climb-out, your initial response may be to pull back hard on the yoke for your turnback. This could easily cause the airplane to stall due to your current Vy angle of attack. Train yourself instead to push the nose down first in order to reduce the angle of attack, then depending on your aircraft, you must make an aggressive turn back toward the airport. Zimmerman stresses, not to make a ‘dangerous’ turn back, but a 10-degree bank isn’t going to cut it. In comparison, he offers a Pilatus requires at least a 30-degree bank to make it, so use that as a reference point.
Zimmerman also points out that weather conditions will have some effect on the maneuver so should be taken into consideration. Calm winds will leave you far from the runway whereas a good headwind may keep you right over top which would cause you some trouble with stopping. With every take-off, consider how wind conditions could foil your emergency plan and how you will correct for it.
In opposition of Zimmerman’s point of view, AOPA recommends this maneuver not be done at all. Leaning on fatality statistics as support, AOPA states, “Unless the airplane is close to pattern altitude, or you’ve already started a turn when the engine fails, it’s generally safer to land within the area you can see out the windscreen.”
Other interesting facts in the AOPA article, Engine Failure On Climbout Leads To Impossible Turn, mentions a Cessna 172 would need to be at a minimum of 500 feet and exercise an aggressive, 45-degree bank within 4 seconds of an engine out in order to get back to the runway in ideal wind conditions. That’s not a whole lot of time when you’re freaking out about an engine failure, so I can understand why this scenario would support having an alternative plan.
Like practicing your emergency checklist, planning what you would do in an engine out situation should be a priority before every take-off after noting conditions. Even if you don’t ever plan to do the turn-back maneuver, you should know what you would do… and at what altitude you would make the call.
If I had an emergency after take-off on 27 at very low altitude, I think I would hope for shallow water beyond the docks and boats near the shore of Houghton Lake to aid in my staying upright when landing. As for runway Niner, I’d try for one of those big backyards just past the huckleberry marsh. If I was at or above 500’ AGL, I might try a turn back - not necessarily to the runway, but to the airport where there is a lot more open areas free of obstacles.
What would you do?
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AOPA, Engine Failure On Climbout Leads To Impossible Turn, https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/air-safety-institute/accident-analysis/featured-accidents/engine-failure-on-climbout-leads-to-impossible-turn
Zimmerman, John, September 14, 2020, Stop Calling It The Impossible Turn, https://airfactsjournal.com/2020/09/stop-calling-it-the-impossible-turn/