The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute (ASI) has released a new episode of its Reality Check video series focused on a topic that never seems to lose any energy, at least in the debate: the 180-degree turn back to the runway after an engine failure just after takeoff. Traditionally, most of the debate focuses on how few pilots are able to successfully execute this (actually) 270-degree-plus maneuver because it requires a significant amount of planning, as well as a serious understanding of the glide characteristics of the aircraft being flown. Each one is a little different.
ASI’s recent example The Runway Behind You is based on the fatal crash of a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, Florida. ASI used a number of aircraft—including a Piper PA-18 Super Cub, a Van’s RV-4, a Cessna 172N, and a an A36—to test the ability of each of a number of pilots to execute a safe return to the airport after a complete power failure. Importantly, each pilot had practiced power failures before the research runs at a safe altitude to understand how their aircraft might perform—and each pilot knew precisely when the engine was going to go south.
The startle factor experienced by pilots when the engine quits is an important element in the success or failure of this maneuver that even proponents claim will work sometimes for some pilots. The tests proved that a return to the runway is nearly impossible for aircraft with high glide speeds such as the A36 Bonanza, while tests in the lighter aircraft were successful most of the time—with planning—in returning the aircraft to the runway. A word of caution: Don’t attempt any of these maneuvers for the first time without a good CFI sitting in the right seat.
Flying also recently studied the issue of the 180-degree turnback in addition to a host of other takeoff risks that GA pilots face in a story, “How to Minimize Risk During Takeoff” from the April/May 2021 issue.