The “Impossible” Turn?

December 9, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Impossible Turn RPSLast week ASF posted a new Real Pilot Story, The Impossible Turn. Most will know this as an attempt to return to the airport during an engine failure right after takeoff. The conventional wisdom is to look for something soft and cheap to hit out ahead of the aircraft that involves minimal maneuvering to lessen the chance of a fatal stall.

We have ample evidence that a poorly executed turn or an attempt at too low an altitude is disastrous. What we don’t know is how many people successfully pulled it off because there are no statistics on the positive side. Sorry, but local hangar flying does not quite qualify as a reliable source even as the story gets better with each retelling!

In the unusual case of Mooney pilot, Dave Keller, he had just installed a video camera in his Mooney when the engine quit right after takeoff. He estimated he was perhaps 500 feet AGL. We couldn’t have paid Dave enough to do this on purpose -it was all captured, accidentally, on video. Dave did a fantastic job and had many things going for him. See for yourself in the Real Pilot Story above.

AOPA writer Barry Schiff wrote about the impossible turn some years ago and actually did some testing to show when it might work. There are lots of caveats. We had quite a discussion at ASF on how to present Dave’s experience. There are times when the impossible turn may be quite possible and others when it would be a really bad idea. Perhaps some more testing should be done to identify those situations. What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Bill Hamilton

    I achieved my private glider rating before I got my private SEL rating. One thing that I make sure I do on EVERY flight, with or without an engine, is recite my take off emergency procedures BEFORE I take off. In a glider, the tow rope can break, there could be issues with the towplane, and many other items that can cause a premature tremination of the tow. I practice at least three simulated rope breaks each year by having an instructor pull the release at or above 200′ agl. Even when you are expecting it, it comes as a surprise. Immediate action is required to get the nose down, keep up your airspeed and make a coordinated turn back to the field, However, before I take off, I tell myself a low level termination (0 to 50′ agl) I will land straight ahead. Above 50′ and below 200′ agl I will turn 30 degrees right or left and land where I can. Most importantly, when I pass through 200′ agl I say it out loud and I know I can safely make it back to the field.

    I brought this over to my power flying as well. Obviously the altitudes are different, however, the concept is the same. I plan for take off issues before I take off on every flight, I say “anything can happen” and be prepared for it. If the motor decides to quit at 800′ agl on take off, can you make it back? Which way will you turn? Is there another runway that you can make without turning as far? Whats off the end of the runway? What is your altitude that you can safely make the turn? It changes with wind speed and direction. If you have a 20 knot wind right down the runway, you could be at 800′ before you get to the end of the runway…what then? Will you have enough runway left to make the turn and a downwind landing?

    I take a few minutes before every flight to sort things out. I always have in my mind the minimum altitude that I need, given the conditions, to safely make the turn, and hard as it may be, if there is an issue below that altitude DO NOT TURN and land off field.

  • Thomas Edgerton

    I read this story with great interest because I have flown out of Anderson, IN on runway 18 many times. So, I am baffled as to why the pilot chose to turn right because at his left is a huge area of flat farmland where he could have landed without incident.

  • Mike Wiseman

    I absolutely agree with you on this one. We are so concerned in this country now with the lowest common denominator (IQ-80?) and scumbag lawyers that we are no longer allowed to think let alone publish anything that might lead to a liabiliy case.

    Anyway, I have executed the impossible turn. No problem. 1942 Meyers OTW biplane that floats like a kite. No wind situation. 500 ft. or so AGL when the engine quit (Kinner Radial) after take-off. As a matter of fact I wound up too high and too fast, flew the airplane literally onto the ground, held the tail up while she ran out of steam, and approaching the end of the “road” sat her down and got on the hooks. All ended fine. Would not recommend the experience for a weak heart.

    When these things happen, you assess the equipment, conditions, environment, and all the “variables” you can in quite short order. You make your decision and you don’t have time to read articles. As I look back on it, it was the right decision at the right time. One of the happier endings (you’re right) you never hear about.

    Thanks for the out-take on all the drivel and “party line”.

  • Brian Lansburgh

    If pilots were not trained to minimum standards, this would not be such a big question. A turn back is often the best action, but a pilot who has been taught that “a good landing is the result of a good approach” may not be able to pull it off. My students are taught to make good landings out of a wide variety of approaches, including touching down during the turn to final. My thanks to AOPA and ASF for presenting this incident so well and making it possible for others to learn from it.

    Brian Lansburgh

  • David E. Smith

    Like any other maneuver, the “impossible turn” back to the airport is something that benefits from practice. The first thing to do is figure out how much altitude you need for your aircraft. To do this, start at a safe practice altitude over a straight road, establish a takeoff climb, cut the throttle, and see how much altitude is lost getting turned around and aligned with the road again. (You are current in stall and spin recovery, right?) Practice this several times. How much altitude did you lose from when you cut the throttle? Add at least a 100ft to this, and this is the minimum you should ever consider attempting. Now go back to a quiet airport and practice. But don’t start at your minimum altitude, start at a nice safe altitude of 500 ft above your minimum, then gradually lower as you gain confidence and proficiency. It’s definitely worth practicing this periodically, but always start at a safe altitude, and be careful to maintain airspeed and keep the turns coordinated.

    One other thing to consider: it usually requires less altitude to turn in the direction of a parallel taxiway and land on the taxiway. This is not something you should do except in a real emergency, but you might be able to practice it with a go-around at a quiet airport. As Mr. Hamilton (the glider pilot) suggested, this is something we should think about before we take off – have a plan for what to do when the engine quits at various altitudes. Know your minimum altitude for turning around, and know which way you will turn and where you will land.

    That reminds me, I need to go out and practice this again 😉

  • Brian Pfleegor

    There was a big, wide, open field just as he started his turn. I don’t know why he just didn’t land there. A VERY risky manuver. Glad it turned out okay.

  • http://Yahoo Buz Allen

    At IBM the CO. MOTTO ” To Fail to Plan is to Plan to Fail” how much Simpler can it be? In Aviation, Stupid Should Be Painful, and It Usually IS!! The US military will not allow a student pilot to progress until they have learned their EP’s [Emergency Procedures] and can recite them correctly and consistently in Pressure Situations, what magic does the FAA think civilians have that makes this not PARAMOUNT!!! Practice makes perfect, it’s amazing how much simpler these potential catastrophes are once they have been practiced. In the six short years I was a USAF pilot, I lost 6 engines, was on fire three times and blew tires on takeoff 3 times and never incurred a scratch, all because of the intense superior training I was so fortunate to receive!!! After 40 yrs. of accident free flying I know better than to EVER Stop Training!!!

  • Bruce Mamont

    After careful re-reading of the ASF material that supplements Dave Keller’s narrative, it’s hard not to conclude that ASF discourages the so-called “Impossible Turn”. I would have liked to see some suggestions accompany the Real Pilot Story as follows:

    Don’t attempt this maneuver unless you’ve received competent instruction in the airplane in which you’re experiencing the emergency, know your decision height for your airplane, and have recently verified that you can successfully execute it. Practice, practice, practice. A flight school that offers aerobatic instruction will likely have competent instructors.

    Having received that competent instruction, practice the maneuver (that’s the “verification”) and mentally rehearse it prior to take-off as Bill Hamilton describes above. Make sure you add your AGL decision height to the departure runway MSL altitude so that you know your decision altitude MSL. Have a plan for the turn that considers wind, traffic, the airport lay-out (is there a parallel runway? Other runways that might support a turn with less heading change? Other-than-runway areas on the airport that will be safer landing areas than off-airport “urbanized terrain”?), obstacles.

    ASF is right that Dave Keller was very lucky in this instance: he attempted the turn without apparently ever having received instruction, determined his decision height, having a plan before starting his take off, and a variety of other factors. ASF is probably exercising appropriate “due diligence” in adding the caveats to this particular anecdote because it’s hardly an example that should be emulated. But I think this “teachable moment” could have offered some of the points that I and the other posters have posted.

  • Brian

    I work in flight test and have been involved in practicing these, on a prototype airplane. Even with test pilot’s flying, who are not of course minimum standard chumps, it still took a few practice runs to get right. For that particular airplane, which is high performance, typically reason it didn’t work out was actually being too high, fast and close in rather than too low – just like on this video. This airplane also had angle of attack displayed, which is very comforting for low and slow maneuvering. However I seriously doubt if what we found (speeds, minimum altitudes, etc) would ever be published as guidance to customers, by any company. Because of liability. Or at least the perceived threat of it, which is just as damaging.

  • John Lane

    This was in our syllabus in Cessna 150 and 172. (Don’t attempt sometahing that you have not practiced)

  • Austin Byrd

    I also fly an M20C, and perhaps some of the success of this “impossible turn” is the fact that airframe has a better than average glide ratio, and Dave’s plane was lightly loaded (one person on board). 15 degrees of flaps would have extended float, perhaps too much for the available runway, but helped by lowering stall speed, while 33 degrees would have caused enough nose-down pitch to require trimming to avoid a nose-first landing, a distraction, but would have reduced float and slowed everything down. He didn’t need flaps, but any engine out plan requires us to consider what to do with those flaps, and when. I’d like to see someone write about that topic.

    All I’m saying is well done Dave, and consider this might not have been the same outcome in a different airplane.

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