AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - 24

SAFETY SPOTLIGHT

The runway behind you

BY RICHARD MCSPADDEN
Senior Vice President
AOPA Air Safety Institute

A reality check on turnbacks
THE MARCH CRASH OF A BEECHCRAFT BONANZA A36

AOPA Air Safety
Institute Senior
Vice President
RICHARD
MCSPADDEN is a

CFII and MEI, and
has logged more
than 1,000 hours
of dual instruction
given.

24 | AOPA PILOT June 2021

in Pembroke Pines, Florida, resurfaced debate about the
" turnback, " an engine-out course reversal shortly after
takeoff to land in the opposite direction on the departing runway. Initial NTSB reports indicate the pilot of the
Bonanza attempted a turnback with disastrous results.
Opponents of the turnback argue that it's impossible
in some aircraft, and near impossible in the rest. Even with
a glide ratio that makes a turnback technically possible,
they say, the difficulty of the maneuver, close proximity to
the ground, a startle factor, and the stress of life-or-death
consequences all conspire against a successful outcome.
Proponents argue that turnbacks are a viable
option for some pilots, in some aircraft, under some
circumstances (see " Proficient Pilot: Unintended
Consequences, " p. 22). The FAA cautions that CFIs
should train single-engine pilots not to attempt a turnback unless " altitude, best glide performance and pilot
skill allow for a safe return. "
In April, the AOPA Air Safety Institute flew profiles
at Martinsburg, West Virginia's (MRB) 8,800-foot-long,
150-foot-wide runway to determine the feasibility of
turnbacks. We will release a video on our YouTube channel in June to document the results and our conclusions.
The profile involved climbing between VX and VY
with full power to a predetermined altitude, cutting
power to idle, delaying three seconds to simulate a startle period, then pushing to best glide while entering a
45-degree-bank turn back to the runway. Our lineup
included me in my 150-horsepower, 1993 Piper PA-18
Super Cub with full gas; Editor at Large Dave Hirschman
solo in his Van's RV-4 fully fueled; Hirschman and
AOPA Vice President of Flight Operations Dave Roy
in a 1972 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 with a 300-horsepower Continental IO-550, full gas, and 40 pounds of
baggage; and AOPA Director of Flight Operations Luz
Beattie alone in a fully fueled 1978 Cessna 172N.
Prior to the exercise, we all climbed to altitude and
practiced stalls, including stalls in 45 degrees of bank,
to calibrate the actual stall speeds at play during our
turnback exercise. We then established our minimum
required turnback altitude using airline pilot and CFI
Brian Schiff's technique. We set a climb profile, cut the
power to idle, and began an idle power, 45-degree-bank
turn at best glide for 360 degrees, noting the altitude lost.
With stall numbers and expected turnback altitude

requirements freshly established, we each flew three
profiles in near-perfect conditions: cool, sunny morning, light winds, low density altitude. The Super Cub
returned to the runway in all three turnback attempts,
one at 500 feet agl and two at 300 feet agl.
Beattie made her turnbacks at 1,000 feet agl, 800 feet
agl, and 600 feet agl. She comfortably made the runway
each time. Both Beattie and I may have benefited from
some idle thrust, with engines still running, but experts
such as Catherine Cavagnaro advised that the light thrust
we might have received at idle power was somewhat offset by drag from the moving propeller, so the advantages
of an engine in idle are believed to be minimal.
Hirschman initiated turnbacks at 1,000 feet agl
in his RV-4. He made it back, barely, two out of three
times. The third time would have resulted in a landing
short of the runway. Hirschman's RV-4 has a threeblade, constant-speed propeller that creates far more
drag at the high-rpm setting than a fixed-pitch prop.
Perhaps most startling were the results in the
Bonanza. Turning back at 1,000 feet agl and varying
speeds from best glide (110 KIAS) to 95 KIAS (to reduce
the turn radius), and propeller settings from high to low
rpm, the pilots didn't come close to making it back to the
runway in any attempt. Even in an optimum glide configuration with landing gear and flaps up, the Bonanza
would have come down well short of the runway.
Our takeaway is that in certain aircraft with good
climb rates and glide ratios, flown by proficient pilots
who've trained for the maneuver, a turnback is a viable
option. Aircraft with shorter glide ratios, like Bonanzas,
Navions, Cherokee 6s, and some RVs, are unlikely to make
a turnback at any altitude. Pilots flying these aircraft using
typical departure and climbout profiles should eliminate
turnbacks as an option for engine failure on takeoff.
Variables like wind, temperature, density altitude,
and technique could affect these results, but not enough
to substantially improve our outcomes. Please don't fly
this exercise solo in an attempt to prove us wrong or
confirm our results. We've lost pilots training in these
maneuvers due to the high potential for an uncoordinated stall and spin in the turnback. Fly with a CFI, at
altitude first and determine your strategy in the event
of an engine failure on takeoff. Go fly.
AOPA
EMAIL richard.mcspadden@aopa.org



AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - June 2021 - Contents
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