The instant you leave the ground, part of your mind should be thinking, “What if the engine quits right now?” Then, a few seconds later, when you’re higher and faster, you should ask yourself the same question again, but this time, the answer will be different. At that point, you may not be able to land on the few feet of remaining runway and you may need off-airport landing options. When the engine quits, every single one of those landing places should already be in mind because you aren’t going to have time to look for them. A little higher, and the same question again yields different answers because the altitude gives more options. This cycle of seeking out different landing places repeats itself every three to five seconds until you’re at cruise altitude and en route. Then the “Where do I put it if…” cycles continue, but are much more spread out.
Speed and altitude change your “energy footprint” drastically throughout the takeoff and climb. At first, your energy (altitude and speed) make “straight ahead” the only option. A few seconds later, you’re higher and you have enough energy to support a 30-degree turn in either direction. As you climb higher, the turn options work their way around to 90 degrees and, finally, you’re high enough to actually make a 180-degree turn. Assuming the runway is within reach, you can go for it, which, by the way, is the very last thing you want to be thinking about.
In nearly all situations, trying to turn back to the runway is the wrong maneuver, if nothing else, because very few pilots actually know for sure how much altitude it takes for the airplane to do a power-off 180 in takeoff configuration. And you don’t want to try anything in this situation that you “think” will work. If you aren’t absolutely positive it will work, then don’t try it—you’re only going to get one shot. A pristine golf course you “think” you can make is no good if you try to stretch the glide and stall into houses/wires/canyon, etc. It’s even worse if you passed up a not-so-big parking lot on the way. Pick something you know you can reach with just enough maneuvering margin to set up the approach as well as you can.
The landing spot doesn’t have to be long enough for a regular landing. The goal is to have enough room to touch down at landing speed—generally 45 to 55 mph—then stand on the brakes and, if necessary, lock up one brake and ground-loop it. All you need is an obstacle-free touchdown area. If you touch down at a normal speed, you can run into a lot of stuff and still survive.
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