#2 The Impossible Turn

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The Tailwheeler’s Journal #2
AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation recently made mention of a video available on-line in which a glare shield-mounted camera captured the takeoff of a Mooney, complete with subsequent engine failure and, god forbid, a return to the runway. The video can be viewed by going to this link: www.asf.org/pilotstories/impossibleturn . You should probably check it out before reading any further.

Amazingly, the Air Safety Foundation, AOPA and the pilot who accomplished this “impossible” turn all advocate landing straight ahead rather than attempting this maneuver which they have just proved is a possibility under the right circumstances.

Let me make it clear where I stand on this issue: I feel that the general aviation establishment encourages under-training when they encourage straight ahead flight after engine failure. Advocating the stabilized approach is a similar acceptance of the sad state of undertrained airmen. Virtually every takeoff and landing approach is different. They are affected by the performance of the airplane, the way it’s flown, the weather, the airport, the terrain, the traffic and on and on. Within each set of circumstances a well-trained pilot performs within the limitations of those circumstances. If a pilot chooses to depart straight out, he may very well find that there is no good place to go if the engine packs it in. Under the same circumstances, a pilot who makes an early turn, a downwind drifting departure or virtually any other departure designed to handle a possible engine failure will be in a far better position to land right back where he started should that engine quit. The video mentioned above is fascinating because I found myself designing the “landing out of a turn” approach course as soon as the airport was visible ahead. The pilot of the Mooney didn’t fly that course and didn’t conduct a landing out of a turn. He did, however, have the judgment and the ability to simply return to the field and make a successful landing without bending any metal. Had he executed a landing out of a turn he would have had much more runway in front of him after touchdown. I hate armchair quarterbacking and second guessing other pilots’ actions from the comfort of my desk, BUT… Had this same pilot altered his departure a little bit he wouldn’t have needed to make a landing out of a turn… he’d have had room to spare. And as much as I respect his piloting skills, I wish he hadn’t disparaged the decision that he made. It’s almost as if he said, “I know that I rolled out safe and sound with an intact airplane, but under the same circumstances you really should land straight ahead in the woods. You’ll probably make it out with only a few scrapes”. It just seems to me like a math professor stepping back from the chalkboard and declaring, “There, I know I just proved that two and two equal four, but I assure you that it’s actually three!”

The pilot who performed this successful return to the field said, “My advice to other pilots is don’t do what I did.” He added, “I took a chance, and I was fortunate to make it successful. But, your chance is much greater just finding a place straight ahead. Keep it level and put it on the ground. Slow it way down, and stall it out as you’re landing.”
In this production, the Air Safety Foundation said, “Attempting to return to the airport before reaching pattern altitude is risky and can be fatal. You’re low and slow, making a 180 degree turn. As you increase the bank angle the airspeed bleeds off as the angle of attack increases – a classic setup for an unrecoverable stall/spin accident. Instead of turning, ASF recommends landing straight ahead or slightly to the left or right. Be aware of your options before takeoff.”

They also said, “…But this was a chain of luck you cannot count on.” I say, “How ‘bout making your own “luck”?

The airport in question had an operating control tower. The controller on duty performed admirably during the event and he mentions in the narrative, “ …my thoughts were just to get ready—, call dispatch emergency vehicles, and get everything ready in case he did have a mishap upon landing… just to be quiet and let him fly his plane.” That was the absolute right thing to do and all a controller should attempt to do. But he also advised, “… be calm. If you have any checklists, go through your checklists.” I would add, “Checklists? ARE YOU OUTTA YOUR MIND? This is a time to keep your head out of the cockpit. Fuel and ignition and you’re done!”

He adds, “Let us help you. Don’t think you gotta do everything on your own.” I would add, “ How ‘bout you just get outta the way.”

Everyone involved in this incident performed properly. But in my opinion they followed it up with some less-than-good advice.

I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but I love the Air Safety Foundation. It performs an incredibly valuable service and is staffed by wonderful people. It also facilitates our learning from our colleagues’ mishaps which is an extremely valuable thing. I think I’d be really pleased if the ASF would change their response to this incident slightly. How about advising, “unless you have been properly trained in a return to the field or in landings out of a turn or performance maneuvers close to the ground, you’re probably better off to land straight ahead with minimal maneuvering prior to touchdown.” Let’s stop assuming that every pilot is undertrained and let’s start encouraging pilots to really increase their competence.

We are currently producing a video on the landing out of a turn maneuver that is taught in our tailwheel course. When it’s done it will go on our  website for all to see. I will send an announcement to our newsletter subscribers when that happens.

My hat is off to the pilot involved in this video and to the Air Safety Foundation for presenting it in such a well-produced piece. It does us all a great service. My thanks to all concerned.

Brian Lansburgh