I am dreaming. I know I am asleep and this is only a dream. In the dream, I see Dirty Harry threatening me with his famous line, “Go ahead, punk, make my day!” Only Dirty Harry is not a cop, and I am not a bad guy. And the most powerful handgun in the world, the .357, is not really a weapon. The dream I am having does not deal with criminals, cops, and gunfights; Dirty Harry is a metaphor for something bad that is about to happen and the bullet from the .357 is the allegory consequence to hitting the ground – really hard.
Every pilot worth his or her salt should have thought about this situation. Engine failure on takeoff. It is the only time I truly fear engine failures. An engine failure at altitude really is of no consequence. If the engine fails enroute, you merely pitch and trim to the proper glide speed, find a place to land, try to restart, and then land if you don’t get it running again. Engine failure on takeoff? Well, let’s just say that’s a horse of a different color.
I will submit to you young and inexperienced pilots have on occasion, turned the airplane back to the runway with success. I will also say they were probably very lucky.
Ask any group of pilots what to do with an engine failure at 600 feet AGL on takeoff and you will find some who will say, “Turn back.”
Then ask the question, “What bank angle would you use?” Some will respond with “a shallow turn” because you don’t want to bank too much close to the ground. Others will respond with “turn steeply” to get the turn over with in as little time as possible in order to preserve altitude.
Neither response is correct. If you are going to turn back to the field, you must use exactly a 45-degree AOB turn; this accomplishes both objectives of turning as quickly as possible while preserving precious altitude.
Here is something else to think about, also. Each year, I stand in front of many young pilots and tell them with my 39 years of experience and thousands of hours of flight time, if I were to have an engine failure at 600 feet on takeoff, there is no way I would attempt returning to the airport. Following an engine failure on takeoff, I would immediately lower my nose, look no more than about 30 degrees left or right of my flight path, then I would pick the path of least resistance and land.
A few points to keep in mind regarding the engine failure and the turn back to the field: first, you are going to be startled and the process of accepting the fact of the engine failure may take precious seconds. Secondly, trying to turn the airplane back to the airport will take Chuck Yeager-like flying skills, something that will be hard to come by during the middle of an emergency. Third, keep in mind stall speed increases 14 percent at 40 degrees AOB, 41 percent at 60 degrees, and a whopping 140 percent at 80 degrees.
Now, combine an uncoordinated turn with the high stalling speed and you have the classic recipe for a fatal accident. If the airplane stalls in the middle of the turn back to the runway with the ball to the outside of the turn, the airplane will enter a spin from which there is not enough altitude to recover. Impact with the ground will be harsh and out of control compared to a landing straight ahead.
By landing straight ahead, the airplane is flying into the wind and impact velocity is controlled and minimal. Stalled and spinning out of low altitude turn, however, puts the airplane in a situation where impact velocity with the ground will be high and out of control. All pilots need to keep in mind that the more the impact is controlled, surviving becomes a higher probability.
Me, I’m taking it straight ahead. I’m good, but I know I am no Chuck Yeager…
© 2010 J. Clark