Over the years, I've made frequent mention of a controversial number: "safe turnaround altitude." Many pilots say it doesn't exist. They even assert that attempts to turn around after an early engine malfunction are invariably dangerous, usually fatal.
Have you heard this? "If your engine fails on early climbout, you have no choice: You can't turn around, and you must continue straight ahead." This is said with impressive seriousness: It's the stuff of life and death. I suggest all who are interested in a scholarly analysis consult The Possible 'Impossible' Turn by David F. Rogers.
Safe turnaround altitude forms a cornerstone of my analysis of the initial climb segment. Faced with a low-altitude engine failure, every combination of pilot and single-engine airplane can have such a number: an altitude below which there's insufficient height to turn around, but at and above which it's not only practical, but advisable, to turn back. Why do so many deny the possibility?
Turnaround rejection stems from a mixture of entrenched opinion, a long history of tragic turnaround failures and reluctance to engage in personal experimentation. Any engine failure requires accurate decision making and prompt action. Low-altitude failures are the most severe, and no one wants to be guilty of giving wrong advice and perhaps making things worse. In consequence, instructors have traditionally embraced the most conservative approach, a "do nothing—just crash straight ahead" policy.
Creation of a safe turnaround altitude is a matter of technique, not belief. In defense of entrenched opinion, two things are certainly true: If you climb at Vy (or even faster) and believe that the best way to conserve altitude in a gliding turn is to use very shallow bank angles, you don't have a safe turnaround altitude. In fact, it's fair to say that no matter how high you climb, 500 or 5,000 feet, you'll never be able to return to your departure runway without power. So, you're stuck: An early engine malfunction will inevitably find you searching anxiously ahead for a suitable place to put down. If you do succumb to temptation and start to turn, you'll quickly run out of altitude and possibly try to stretch the glide, then stall and crash.
Fortunately, straight ahead may not be your only option. But you do need to change two aspects of your technique to alter the outcome. Start climbing at Vx, not Vy. Make your turnaround with a minimum 45-degree bank (60 degrees would be even better).
The entire argument for Vx climbs in single-engine airplanes requires more space than available here. In a nutshell, it's safer to climb as close as possible to the airport (Vx) than to stretch your climb out over a greater distance (Vy). If you insist at climbing at Vy, as you were almost certainly taught in primary instruction, no amount of skill in turning around is going to do much good: Vy climbs maximize altitude gain, but cover too much ground in the process. Experimentation will quickly demonstrate that an increase in climb efficiency is of no benefit if your angle of climb takes you so far from the runway that you can't glide back after a successful turn.
It's obvious that turning by itself doesn't lead to stalls and spins. Failures proceed from attempts to stretch gliding performance beyond what's possible, whether in the turn itself or in the glide that follows. This much is generally acknowledged.
What angle of bank would you use in attempting a low-altitude emergency turn-around? My experience suggests that most pilots naturally assume that mild angles would be best, perhaps 15 degrees or 30 degrees at most, on the theory that steeper banks will consume the most altitude. But if you limit the bank to anything less than 45 degrees, your turnaround is doomed to failure, very likely a worse choice than a straight-ahead crash.
You have to experiment to learn the truth: The shallower the bank, the greater the altitude loss in a gliding 180-degree turn. Although rate of descent is lowest in shallow banks, the additional time consumed in getting turned around ensures the greatest altitude loss.
If that isn't enough to start you thinking, shallow banks have a second fatal flaw: They produce large-radius turns that carry the plane impossibly far from the runway to which you're attempting to return.
Over the years, I've heard a few instructors acknowledge there might be something to using a steep bank attitude in a turnaround attempt, but with the caution that it would be foolhardy to recommend it: Lack of skill and panic would inevitably make such attempts dangerous. Nonsense. I would venture that pilots who can't learn and master 45-degree or 60-degree banked turns shouldn't be flying.
What about panic? This is obvious: Train through it. Give a pilot a task and the certainty that it will work, and panic recedes. It's shameful to use emotion as a justification for failure to train.
You need to experiment in your own aircraft before you form your opinion about turnarounds. Consider a Cessna 172 with a failed engine. Starting from Vx pitch attitude and airspeed, and using a 60-degree bank angle, it's possible to reverse course with less than 300 feet of altitude loss. Even allowing for several lost seconds of "disbelief time," this translates into a very real safe turnaround target of 500 feet AGL.
The critical key to success in turnarounds is practice and preparation. If you don't know that you can do the maneuver safely, you won't be prepared to react as quickly as an emergency demands.
Practice is simple: Using a conservative altitude, establish a stable climb at Vx (not Vy), then cut the power, noting the altitude. Allow for a couple of seconds lost in disbelief, then lower the nose as you bank steeply and pull to a high angle of attack. With any crosswind, the turn should be initiated into the wind to limit radius. Some degree of prestall buffet is desirable, and inadvertent stalls are probably inevitable as you learn to identify the limits. You'll be amazed at how quickly and in how little space you can get turned around.
There are two fairly obvious prerequisites: first, you need to be able to make a gliding turn with a 45-degree or 50-degree bank angle at high AOA without losing control of pitch, bank and yaw. Second, you have to be comfortable with the possibility of causing an inadvertent stall in a steeply banked attitude, a stall that will require recovery without abandoning the turn.
Now you see why turnarounds are called "impossible": To the shame of the FAA and virtually the entire teaching community, few pilots are ever encouraged to develop these critical skills. With no preparation, there's little wonder that turnaround attempts often wind up in disaster: You might as well expect students to go out and do spins on their first solo.
If this style of maneuvering is even faintly foreign to you, get a competent CFI to come along. If you get a blank look, go find another. Once you've developed the necessary turnaround skills, the second key to success is correct identification of your personal safe-turnaround altitude. The number changes with four important variables: pilot skill, airplane model, runway length and density altitude; it can be determined only through trial and error in a specific airplane model.
Very few pilots are prepared to fly as I've described. Yet most survive, so why bother with all this? The answer lies in the very statistics that produced the "never turn back" credo in the first place: Enough pilots have gotten killed trying the maneuver to indicate that takeoff emergencies do happen. If you fly a single-engine airplane long enough, you'll experience an engine emergency. Luck (bad) plays a part, and your engine problem may occur at low altitude shortly after liftoff. If you aren't prepared, maybe you shouldn't be carrying around your family and friends.
Michael Church has been a CFI since 1967 and Chief Instructor at Sunrise Aviation in California since 1985. He has been a NAFI Master Flight Instructor and Master Aerobatic Flight Instructor since 2002. This article is revised from columns originally published in Pacific Flyer.