We don't want it to happen, but it can. An engine loss will cause surprise and denial, so you need to be mentally prepared with a plan of action. If a single-engine aircraft is still on the runway when the engine loses power, whether it be complete or partial power loss, the response is simple and straightforward: instantly throttle to idle and apply full braking. The POH should specify detailed steps for each aircraft, but the goal is to stop safely on the runway. Multi-engine turbine aircraft that have the capability may be required to depart single-engine after a certain point during the takeoff roll, but otherwise, stopping safely on the runway is always the best choice.
Once airborne in a single-engine plane, it's a different ball game, and success is dependent upon the pilot's execution, as well as the aircraft's altitude and location. Landing options in the flat farmlands of Kansas are significantly different than at an airport in the urban sprawl of the L.A. basin. Having a prepared plan for every airport from which you're departing might someday save your bacon.
The usual recommendation is to land straight ahead, up to 45 degrees off runway heading. This methodology has four distinct advantages: First, the winds should be similar to those at the departure airport. Second, the landing will usually have a headwind component. Third, it requires minimal turning. And finally, it's a simple, straightforward procedure to follow during a period of high stress.
The challenge is to choose the best touchdown locations (plural) throughout the departure phase of flight. If you're in VMC conditions, it's less of a challenge. If you're IMC or it's night, it's time to concentrate. You've probably heard the old saying about what to do if you lose an engine at night? Turn on the lights, and if you don't like what you see, turn them off again. There's a fundamental truth in that axiom. The important thing is to control the aircraft until it's stopped.
What To Look For
Since most flight operations happen at an aircraft's home base, have you given thought regarding where to land should the engine become recalcitrant? Have you considered the escape options on the reciprocal runways, as well as the other runways at your airport? And, what do you do about researching airports when you're planning cross-country flights?
Let's agree on a moral imperative. It's implicit in your choice of location and execution that you do your best not to harm anyone on the ground. With that in mind, a football field or a school yard may look inviting, but there could be people on the field. Maybe a lot of people, and with a failed engine, there won't be engine sounds to warn those on the ground of an aircraft's impending arrival.
The heat of the moment isn't the best time to have to look for acceptable landing sites. That's best accomplished with a calm mind and useful tools.
What makes a landing site a good one? Look for a flat area long enough to land. If your aircraft can land in 800 feet (or 1,000 feet over a given obstacle) that's your ideal landing target. But, if there aren't any places available of that length, you need another option. Here are the physics: There's significantly less energy to dissipate when touching down under control at minimum speed than there is to force it onto the ground at higher speed or to lose control trying to stretch a glide. If it comes to a worst-case scenario, you're looking for a place big enough to touch down under control and begin hard braking while aiming at something as soft as possible.
There's a very important thing to keep in mind when taking off. Knowing this may well change the way you depart every runway. If you double your height above the ground, say from 200 to 400 feet, the potential area that you can land in is four times greater. For example, in no-wind conditions, a 10:1 glide ratio, and a 45-degree angle to both sides of the runway heading, at 200 feet, the pie-shaped area ahead of an airplane is approximately 31,400 square feet. At 400 feet, that area increases to 125,660 feet! That knowledge puts teeth in the old saying, "There's safety in altitude!"
How To Reconnoiter
What's the best method for reconnoitering (aka "recce") the area around an airport? First and foremost, look around for logical places every time you arrive and depart an airport by either airplane or car. Take a glance down after takeoff or when you're on final. Look for locations with enough room to get an aircraft safely on the ground.
Another simple recce method that can even be used at airports you haven't been to is to use Google Earth, the iPad's Map application, or any program that provides the capability to closely examine the area around an airport. Depending upon the location of the airport, the quality of the picture can vary from spectacular, almost to the point of identifying people, to something substantially less sharp. Typically, you'll get better resolution where you need it most, around major metropolitan or populated areas. Sectional and Terminal charts can be helpful, but they lack the detail to make them particularly useful.
The primary thing you're looking for is open space. Determine the airport's runway length and use the map's runway depiction to estimate the length of any potential landing place. Once you find a spot that looks promising, focus on the area between the airport and that TDZ, and beyond. Look for hidden gotchas like power lines, ditches, fences, walls, buildings, towers, trees, etc., in short, anything that can snare an aircraft. Also be aware that sometimes what looks okay on the screen could, in fact, be untenable. An inviting stream bed, for example, might actually be in a deep ravine. If possible, follow up with personal observation.
Golf course fairways can be a good choice because they're long, but be aware of golfers. Parks, football fields and baseball diamonds are inviting, but often have fences, light poles and stands around them, and there's always the possibility that they're populated.
Farm fields are great choices, even if there's a crop, because the crop can slow the aircraft. (Although sometimes faster than you'd prefer.) If you have a choice, land along the rows, not across. Watch for power lines and trees around fields.
Water is always an interesting option. If you fly an airplane with retractable gear, evaluate whether landing with the gear up or down is the right choice. The POH may weigh in on this topic. Judging the height above water for flaring can be an issue. It's sometimes better to hold a constant descent rate until touchdown. And, what about accessible life jackets? If you're landing in water, they may be necessary for survival, especially if anyone is injured.
Large parking lots can be a reasonable choice, especially on days when they aren't crowded. Keep in mind that, in addition to vehicles and people, they often have light poles scattered throughout and sometimes power lines around the periphery.
The most obvious choice is roads. When they work, they can be a lifesaver, but remember that there are cars, often traveling in the opposite direction, power lines paralleling many roads, overpasses, road dividers, etc. Freeways can be a good choice because they're wide, and traffic is going in one direction. But, they could be clogged with traffic; sometimes stop and go, or even completely stopped. Be aware of the traffic flow patterns before you choose a freeway. Examine the road ahead for overpasses, merging traffic lanes and anything else that might present a danger.
Should You Turn Back?
An engine failure after liftoff is one of flying's most time-critical emergencies. At some point during every takeoff engine failure discussion, the question always arises, "What about turning back to the airport?" Returning with an engine developing at least partial power can be a reasonable option. But, keep in mind that a partial power loss was caused by something, and that something might cause a complete power loss in the next second. If you don't know the cause of the problem and there's another safe place to land, that's probably the best choice. Besides, landing into the wind is almost always better than landing downwind. Having said that, a downwind landing on a 12,000-foot runway beats trying to land in a football field. Your response should be based upon the situation.
With a complete power loss, our question is better couched, "At what altitude and what methodology is a return achievable?" In addition to altitude, there are three other gating factors regarding whether to consider a return or not. The first two are: the maneuverability of the aircraft and the skill of the pilot. An air show performer in an Extra 300 or an experienced pilot in a high-performance glider could successfully manage a return from a significantly lower altitude than most pilots. If you can't match either of those aircraft or pilot capabilities, plan for a much more conservative altitude, and maneuver and periodically practice what you've learned. Or, maybe don't even attempt a return at all.
If you do decide to attempt a return, the challenge is to find the AGL altitude that works for you and the aircraft that you fly. The best method to determine that altitude is to experiment by selecting an altitude a few thousand feet above the ground as the "pseudo ground" level, and then attempt the return at increasingly higher altitudes until you identify an AGL altitude that allows a no-pressure return. That altitude is the "trigger altitude" below which you absolutely won't attempt a return in an emergency situation. It's generally bandied about that 800 feet AGL or higher is the minimum altitude, but that assumes the pilot is spring loaded to attempt the turnaround, and the aircraft is capable. In an actual emergency, spring loaded rarely happens. Usually, there are a few seconds of surprise and denial. One-thousand feet AGL or greater is a more realistic minimum. Remember, the sight picture out of the windshield is significantly different at 300 feet AGL than it is at 3,000 feet. Instinct, often instinct detecting imminent danger, comes into play near the ground as does mental paralysis from stress. So, higher is better.
Also, a 180-degree return isn't really a 180-degree turn. The turn will be more like a teardrop or a 225-degree turn in one direction and then 45 degrees back to align with the runway. The steepness of the bank and turn rate are your decision, and you should determine what works best by experimenting. Too slow a turn, and the altitude loss might preclude a successful return; too fast or steep, and the risk is a loss of control or significant altitude loss. To learn how to accomplish this maneuver, find an instructor who's comfortable teaching it and learn the right way.
The final gating factor is wind. With any kind of significant headwind component, you'll be closer to the airport when the engine fails. But the stronger the wind, the more you'll want to turn back into the wind to touch down, thus raising the risk factor and altitude requirement tremendously. Since the stronger the headwind, the slower the groundspeed, this again might be a situation where landing straight ahead will be the best choice.
But if you're going to turn back, unless the terrain is more accommodating in the other direction, make the initial turn into the wind if there's a crosswind, because that will keep the aircraft closer to the runway centerline.
Finally, a caveat. It's one thing to determine the altitude and learn an acceptable procedure, it's quite another to be both instantly prepared for the eventuality and current in your skills. Personally, I like having this procedure in my bag of tricks, but it's highly unlikely I'd ever attempt it at less than 1,500 to 2,000 feet AGL. The consequence of failing isn't worth the risk.
What To Do When It Happens
The aircraft's POH should provide the approved procedure for dealing with an engine failure immediately after takeoff. Sadly, many older aircraft's POH don't cover this emergency.
No matter what, there are a few things you must do to maximize the probabilities of a successful outcome. First and foremost, always fly the airplane. If you do nothing else, keeping the aircraft under control until it's stopped will maximize your chances. Second, immediately lower the nose and trim for the aircraft's best glide speed because that ensures the longest gliding distance. You should have that airspeed memorized—an emergency isn't the time to look it up. The best glide speed varies with the current aircraft weight. The book value is for gross weight. Worst case, use the book value, but on my Columbia 400, the best glide speed range varies from 108 KIAS at 3,600 pounds to 96 KIAS at 2,700 pounds. That's a bit over a knot per 100 pounds. Only the correct airspeed for the current aircraft weight will achieve the maximum gliding distance.
You also should have at least the critical items on the emergency checklist memorized. You won't have time to look them up. But, the fact is that if you lose an engine at a very low altitude, it's unlikely you'll have time to restart it, so remain focused on flying the airplane to a safe landing. Once stopped, turn everything off and depart the aircraft immediately. The engine failure may be the result of a fuel leak, or the landing may have damaged the aircraft, so a fire is entirely possible.
If you choose to land on a road, for the most part, the aircraft will likely be overtaking ground traffic from behind, so consider leveling 10 to 20 feet above the pavement for a short period so that the traffic will have time to slow, allowing room to land.
There's one thing you can practice every time you fly that will improve the chances of emerging unscathed from an engine-out emergency. Since an emergency landing may well be in a small or confined area, learn to touch down on a specific spot by practicing pinpoint precision on every landing until it becomes second nature. That will pay for itself should you ever need the skill.
If you realize that you're going to impact something on the ground and you have options, choose the softest thing to hit. Also, if necessary, aiming between trees or the like can shear the wings, slow the aircraft and may keep the cabin intact. Finally, if you're in IMC conditions, you may have only seconds of visual ground contact before touching down. Instinct may drive you, but your best chance of survival is always to continue to fly the airplane.
This article doesn't contain all of the instruction you'll need to be able to locate the best off-airport landing sites. Instead, it provides ideas to keep in mind when planning for this emergency. The final recommendation is that old standby that has proven itself over and over, no matter what: continue to fly the airplane until it has stopped moving.