When we posted online at GeneralAviationNews.com about a National Association of Flight Instructors’ live webinar about the impossible turn, more than 30 people commented on the post.
That’s not unusual for a feature story, but almost unheard of for a story about an upcoming webinar.
But the strong response wasn’t a surprise to Captain Brian Schiff, who presented the webinar on the controversial topic of returning to the departure runway following an engine failure soon after takeoff.
“This topic has been a bone of contention for a very long time,” he said. “If you go to any airport where the pilots are hanging out and just say, ‘turn around after engine failure or not,’ you’ll see something that’s very interesting.”
Since the early days of aviation, turning around to land on the departure runway has been called “the impossible turn.” But in his first-ever webinar on the topic in May 2019, Schiff offered a convincing argument to the contrary, identifying times when it is safer to turn back to the runway.
“A turn back to the airport following an engine failure shortly after takeoff is a risky maneuver, but there are times when it might be the least hazardous option,” he says. “The odds of successfully completing one, if needed, are dramatically improved with forethought and preparation.”
Schiff’s father, Barry Schiff, has been a long-time proponent of the turn back to the runway in certain situations. Much of the younger Schiff’s webinar was based on his father’s research.
“He’s been researching this over 40 years since he did it himself,” Brian says. “He had an engine failure turn back and was highly criticized.”
But in 2018, that all changed when the FAA issued Advisory Circular 61-83J, which states: “Flight instructors should demonstrate and teach trainees when and how to make a safe 180° turn back to the field following an engine failure.”
The Advisory Circular was a surprise — a pleasant one — to both Schiffs.
“It kind of vindicated my dad,” Brian says. “Finally the FAA is behind him saying, ‘okay, there is a time when that should be done.’”
But when, exactly, is that time?
“Of course, if there’s a field in front of you, you don’t take the added risk of turning around because it’s a hazardous maneuver by itself but, like I recommend in the webinar, you don’t want to do it unless it would be more hazardous not to,” he says. “In other words, there’s just nowhere to go as there are schools or houses and congestion in front of you or bad or rough terrain.”
And the turn shouldn’t be a decision you make on the spot, but one that’s made before takeoff and with plenty of practice and forethought.
Schiff, a captain for a major U.S. airline with more than 20,000 hours who holds several flight instructor ratings, regularly practices the maneuver and teaches it to his students.
“From test flying the airplane and knowing its characteristics, and my skill level in making that turn around, I learned how much altitude I need to make the turn around, plus I add a fudge factor because things aren’t going to go perfectly that day,” he explains.
He adds that practicing the maneuver at altitude is critical.
“The first time I did it, it was not pretty,” he admits. “The second time was a little better and after I did it up to a dozen times, I nailed it. I got it down to the point where I knew exactly how much altitude it was going to take to cover that much ground. Granted, that was under certain conditions, so that’s why I added a little bit of a fudge factor to cover those differences so that I know that, if at this point I lose an engine, I can make it back to the runway.”
While pleased that the FAA has come around to their way of thinking, the Schiffs are concerned that the agency has not released any guidance for flight instructors on teaching the maneuver.
“I suggested at the end of my webinar that the FAA put together an ad hoc committee of industry experts and the best flight instructors to come up with the best way to teach this because it can be a very dangerous maneuver if taught incorrectly,” he said.
Glider pilots and crop dusters have reached out to Schiff, noting that techniques from their flying can come in handy during the maneuver.
He agrees, with caveats: “A glider is different from an airplane,” he begins. “A couple of ag pilots have said you should consider what we do, because we are very proficient and we do a lot of low altitude turn arounds, and my rebuttal to that is that they do it with power. It’s different.”
He’s even had aerobatic pilots chime in, suggesting that pilots could do a wingover or some other aerobatic move.
“I don’t want to recommend to the masses of pilots who are garden variety pilots who don’t do a lot of aerobatics, myself included, that they start doing wingovers and maneuvers that they’re not familiar with. I think that’s adding, exponentially, to the risk.”
He also hears from pilots who say the maneuver will always be the impossible turn.
“To those pilots I say, if you regard this as an impossible turn, then to you it is one, so don’t do it,” he concludes.
You can watch Schiff’s webinar at Mentorlive.site/Program/20.html.
If you are going to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2019, Schiff will give the same presentation at 2 p.m. July 25 in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Pavilion.