Another Look at "The Impossible Turn"

When the engine quits just after takeoff, the pilot has few options. One is to attempt to turn around and try to land at the airport. It's such a difficult maneuver that it's often referred to as "the impossible turn." I've written about the "impossible turn" before. AvWeb's Paul Bertorelli takes another look at the turn in the video below. Bertorelli suggests that the turn is an option that a pilot should not write off. But it does require practice.

My advice is to practice with plenty of altitude. I've had two cases involving fatalities resulting from turning back after simulated engine failures during flight training.  One is here.

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.