Aviation Law Monitor

The "Impossible Turn" and Three Mooney Crashes in Two Weeks

Three Mooneys have crashed in two weeks.  Each aircraft crashed on takeoff.  Sadly, seven people were killed.  Two of the accidents may have involved the "impossible turn."

First Crash: On July 5, a 1974 Mooney M20F (N7759M) crashed shortly after taking off from Watsonville, California.  All four aboard were killed. 

Second Crash: On July 17, a nearly identical Mooney M20F (N3524X) crashed taking off from Winslow-Lindbergh Airport in Arizona, killing two aboard.  

At first glance, the Watsonville crash and the Winslow crash seem eerily similar.  The same model aircraft was involved in each.  Each crashed just moments after takeoff. 

But the two accidents are entirely different. The Watsonville crash is consistent with the pilot climbing too steeply to avoid a fog bank. There doesn't appear to be any evidence of an engine problem, at least at this point. Rather, as the pilot pitched the nose up, his airspeed bled off, and the wings (not the engine) stalled.  According to one witness:

He was heading toward the coast and tried to climb . . .From the time he took off, he was going too steep, too slow. ... He spun to the left and you can see where the impact was.

In contrast, the pilot in the Winslow crash appears to have attempted to turn around and glide back to the runway after his Lycoming engine quit.  

A Mooney departed then called with engine problems [saying he was] returning to the airport [from the] opposite direction. My friend circled giving the Mooney the right of way. .  Later he asked the Mooney for a position, no response to a couple of calls. He circled for a while longer then landed. Rolling out he saw the Mooney off the departure end of the runway on its back. He said it looked like the typical return to the airport stall spin accident.

The attempt to return to the airport after an engine failure is often called "the impossible turn," because it so frequently ends in the aircraft stalling during the turn and spinning in, with fatal results.

Plots are trained never to turn back to the runway after an engine failure unless they have adequate altitude.  Instead, land straight ahead, or slightly to the right or to the left.  Better to land in the trees, but under control, then lose control of the aircraft and spin in.  While a crash landing in rough terrain may result in serious injury or even death, spinning into the ground is almost always fatal.  Losing control of the aircraft after engine failure must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the temptation to try the "impossible turn" and make it to the runway can be irresistible.

This video shows a Mooney pilot attempting the impossible turn after engine failure near Sacramento, California in 2009.  Both he and his passenger were killed when the aircraft spun in.



Third Mooney Crash: Finally, on July 18, a 1979 Mooney 20K (N777CV) crashed at Augusta Regional Airport while taking off, killing the pilot and sole occupant, a Mooreville doctor. That aircraft also came to rest within the airport boundaries.  It appears this pilot also experienced engine failure, and also may have attempted to turn back to the airport, stalled, and spun in.  Too early to tell.

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Comments (7) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Hugh Campbell - September 17, 2011 12:29 PM

If the FAA would insist on spin recovery being taught to all pilots this stall/spin problem would not be as bad. I'm a commercial pilot/flight instructor.

MikeC - September 19, 2011 6:25 PM

Interesting, that turn is what I was taught for a rope break procedure in a glider. Must have done it 10 times. Of course, my L/D was much higher...so I never really worried about making it back (never worried about losing altitude to keep speed).

drmarkflies - February 28, 2012 3:55 AM

Upset Recovery not Spin Recovery: I generally agree with the FAA's decision not to teach spin recovery, because too many airplanes don't recover very well (my Mooney Bravo being one) and too many instructors don't know how to properly recover from a spin. Spin recovery won't save you from a pattern accident anyway... too low and not enough time. What the FAA should require is upset recovery training, where the first step is to "PUSH". The pilot in the video never pushed, at all. He hauled back on the yoke and rolled well past 30 degrees until the up-going wing stalled. At that point it was probably not recoverable by any method, and it became unrecoverable well before the incipient spin. The outcome is tragic, but this video makes it unambiguous about what not to do when you lose the engine right after takeoff. Great training.

Mike Danko - February 28, 2012 7:46 AM

When I first posted this entry, I embedded a cockpit video made by a Mooney pilot who suffered an engine failure on takeoff, turned back to the airport, and made it. I had read that though he made it, he felt it was a stupid move. He has since taken the video off of the internet, so I deleted the link. Probably for the best.

drmarkflies - February 29, 2012 3:38 AM

Mike: Was the video to which you refer the slow flight turn just at the angle of attack that triggered the stall horn? Fortunately for the pilot, he was able to keep his airplane from stalling. We are taught to do these slow flight turns using mostly rudder, and they do work, but with very little margin for error. I think it would be better to teach pushing turns because the ailerons work when you do, and they turn better and faster the rudder and won’t cause a crossed-control stall. If you are high enough (I think the slow turn pilot was), a push to Vy and 30 degrees of bank (1G) gets you turned more degrees faster without being near stall speed. Barry Schiff argues for pushing to a 2G airspeed and steeper bank. All of these techniques are worth trying at a safe altitude. I feel safest engine out at Vy and 30-degrees of bank in my Bravo.

Mike Danko - February 29, 2012 8:51 AM

I remember horns going off pretty much throughout. Snow on the ground, just barely cleared the trees lining the field, then turned left to land on the cross wind runway.

Practice plenty high. I've had two cases involving fatalities resulting from turning back during flight instruction.


Allan R - December 7, 2017 7:26 AM

I had a 1962 m 20c, for many years. Wish I still had it ! flew it coast to coast many times, IFR. I did a major overhaul myself in my garage according to the book., other approved mods, flew it again IFR. I did not get 180 mph, but about 170 at about 8 gph on the 0360 180hp Lycoming. . All kinds of weather, a couple of flight concerns, but solved them all, including diverting for icing. GREAT aircraft!!! ...ATP, A&P, with many ratings

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