​​​​​​​Wild Blue Aviation

What About Those Emergency 180's Back To The Runway After Takeoff?


Engine failure is serious. Its possibility deserves serious thought, preparation and practice. Unfortunately, the FAA has been moving away from the idea that aircraft control skills are the foundation of pilot training for some time. Yes, students need to learn to control the airplane, but stall and spin recovery techniques have been deemphasized in favor of impending stall recognition and spin avoidance—not a bad idea. Except it’s a pretty good idea to know how to fly at all speeds, configurations and attitudes. And with the advent of “Technically Advanced Aircraft” a decade or so ago, the emphasis was switched, again, to “automation” and systems management. In the brave new world of GPS and glass panels, stick and rudder skills were somehow barely relevant. Somehow, “situation/scenario based” training became a brand new idea.

Yes, self-driving cars, and aircraft, too, seem to be on the horizon, stand by for news. In the meantime we’re still flying the same airplanes grandpa flew, mostly VFR, looking out the window (or not) and mostly hand flying from takeoff to approach and landing. When it comes to flying 99% of the airplanes in the fleet, equipped with steam gages and a windshield, I’m here to tell you all the happy talk about magic, automated flying just ain’t so, at least not yet and not for the foreseeable future. Stick and rudder skills are just as important today as they were generations ago.

John and Martha King deserve a round of thanks for recognizing that talk of “safety” is nice, but airplanes are not safe, never will be. What we should be concentrating on is accident prevention and strategies for mitigation of unexpected events. Do that and “safety” will take care of itself. Accident statistics have been showing the same patterns of death and destruction for decades. Although most accidents occur at the airport on takeoff and landing, where the sheet metal may get bent but injuries, if any, are often survivable, the killers remain loss of control stall-spins on takeoff and approach in blue-sky conditions and controlled flight into terrain in marginal VFR. All are avoidable.

So what can be done to prevent these common, deadly accidents? Takeoff and landing accidents are often just dumb pilot tricks, simple poor technique, especially in tail wheel aircraft. But nose wheel airplanes have their share of runway accidents, too. Are those types of accidents fundamentally different than in-flight loss of control accidents? No, they’re not. Loss of control is loss of control and is almost always avoidable. Proper training and continued practice to develop and maintain skills are fundamental prerequisites to safe flying. GPS and glass panels are great, but you still have to be able to fly the airplane. Robotic light airplanes and “autoland” are still a long ways off for most of us.

Every pilot receives in-flight loss of power and off-airport emergency landing training, because the FAA requires it. Although fuel starvation is the number one cause of off-airport landings, mechanical problems and engine failure do occur, though not often. But when it comes to loss of power during the most dangerous phase of flight—the takeoff—scant attention is paid. It often boils down to the “impossible” turn: if you suffer power loss on takeoff just say “no” and land straight ahead, maybe small turns to dodge trees and houses, but basically, just land straight ahead. The thinking is if you botch the turn a loss of control will probably result, followed shortly by a fatal crash. So just go straight ahead. Better to land in the trees or houses than to risk a low altitude turn, stall, spin and fatal crash.

Really? Is that the only/best option?

Takeoff is the most dangerous phase of flight, low and slow but with high power and climb requirements. If you think a power loss in your single engine airplane would be scary, consider what happens if you have a power loss in a multi-engine airplane. If one engine fails you’ve got a “spare,” right? Really? Although most pilots never take multi-engine training or fly multi-engine airplanes, and most pilots think that “spare” engine provides a safety cushion, and sometimes it does, it also introduces some very serious—and very dangerous--problems. The engines on most multi-engine airplanes are mounted on the wings. If one fails the resulting asymmetric thrust produces a very dangerous yaw toward the dead engine. Whether on the takeoff roll, the takeoff, climb, cruise or descent, if the yaw isn’t immediately corrected the yaw induces a roll, loss of control and a fatal accident. Above a certain speed called Vmc (or minimum controllable airspeed) recovery may be possible. Below Vmc the power must be immediately reduced on the remaining engine to maintain control. Think about that: you’ve just taken off, begun the initial climb, an engine fails, you’re below Vmc, the airplane yaws, rolls and you lose control and the the only way to regain control, maybe, is to reduce power on the good engine. Not a very inviting scenario. And you thought single engine airplanes could be dangerous.

Given the hazards of power loss in multi-engine flying, multi-engine pilot training introduces a couple of very useful new training concepts not covered, at least not seriously, in single engine pilot training: namely, what to do in those situations. Because partial loss of power in a multi-engine airplane can cause loss of control while on the takeoff roll and, especially, shortly after takeoff during the initial climb, multi-engine pilot training is primarily focused on dealing with those  possibilities. The training is all about what to do if an engine fails on the takeoff roll, during the initial climb, enroute, approach and rejected landing go arounds. You learn how to control the airplane in all those scenarios. If a normal take off can be called Plan A, call the power loss scenarios Plans B, C and D.

Loss of control on the takeoff roll or shortly thereafter is a very real possibility with single engine airplanes, too. But it just never seems to come up in single engine pilot training--at least not seriously--because the FAA doesn’t require it.

Why not?

The concept of minimum controllable airspeed in single-engine airplanes is usually related to stall induced loss of control, usually a recoverable situation, but nonetheless often fatal, especially at low altitudes. In fact, loss of control at low altitude, either on takeoff or approach to landing, is the number one killer of pilots and passengers in single-engine airplanes. Again, a dumb pilot trick, easily avoidable. Single-engine pilot training devotes considerable time to stall recognition, avoidance and recovery. Good stuff. Spin recovery used to be required, too, but that was a long time ago. Guess what? Airplanes still spin. Recently the FAA has begun to give spin recognition a little more attention, but not much. That’s a subject for another time. In the meantime, how can we avoid loss of control? What can be done to prevent predictable accidents, especially the most deadly ones that often occur on takeoff and initial climb?

Since many general aviation flights are repeated “hamburger runs” to nearby airports, pilots usually don’t give much thought or study to possible “surprises”. You’re generally familiar with your airplane’s performance and the destination airports, you’ve made the trip for coffee and pie many times, same old stuff, what could possibly go wrong? But: Suppose you go somewhere new, loaded to max allowable? Old hat or big adventure, the airplane doesn’t know, doesn’t care and its up to you, the pilot, to know what might happen—surprise!--and how to do whatever’s necessary. 

Otherwise you, and your passengers, could get killed.

All type certificated airplanes have an FAA approved Flight Manual, Pilot’s Operating Handbook, Owner’s Manual or other source of information about the airplane to help the pilot fly the airplane within its limits. Performance Charts of various kinds are a normal component of the manual, providing lots of information about takeoff, landing and climb performance, performance speeds, fuel consumption, range etc. Every pilot is tested on their ability to find and use that information as part of the written and flight exams required to obtain a Pilot Certificate. Unfortunately, that’s often the last time many pilots ever look at the information. 

So how to prepare so a “surprise” doesn’t turn you into a statistic? 

It is very easy to make a standard form, specific to your airplane, that you fill out before every flight that will give you the information you need. It only takes a couple of minutes the first time, and even less after you’ve done it a few times. The first part should be a simple weight and balance “spreadsheet” that allows a quick check to make sure the aircraft center of gravity is within acceptable limits and will remain there for the duration of the flight. Does the cg move as fuel is consumed? If you fly a Bonanza that can be a serious consideration. What is the useful load with full fuel? Can you fill the tanks, the seats and the baggage compartment? Maybe. Usually not. You need to know. You need to be able to quickly calculate cg location before every flight, especially if you are going to carry more passengers, fuel or baggage than usual. Add high density altitude and you could get into serious trouble. Many fatal accidents were entirely predictable, the result of out-of-limits aircraft loading and unrealistic performance expectations. 

Here is a sample Dispatch Sheet we use:

​ Aircraft Dispatch Sheet


Weight and Balance: N5520D Cessna 172N/180

Item:                                         weight                   arm                         moment          

Empty weight:                          1524.6 lbs.            37.34                         56929.80          

Unusable fuel (3 gal.) __________18__________46.0_______________828.0___

Usable Fuel (40 gal. max)                                       48                                                   

Pilot:                                                                         37                                                   

Front seat pax:                                                         37                                                   

Rear seat pax 1:                                                       73                                                   

Rear seat pax 2:                                                       73                                                   

Baggage Area 1 (120 lbs. max):                              95                                                   

Baggage Area 2 (50 lbs. max):                              123                                                   

Totals:              TO wt.                                CG:                                                               

Utility Category maximum gross weight is 2000 pounds and the allowable CG range is 35.0 to 40.5 inches aft of the datum (with exceptions).

Normal Category maximum gross weight is 2550 pounds and the allowable CG range is 35 to 47.3 inches aft of the datum (with exceptions).

See Center of Gravity and  Loading Diagrams for specifics. 

Takeoff and Landing Performance:

Speeds: Vx: ________              Vy: _____________  Va: _____________

Final Approach: Vref _________

Field Elevation:__________ Temperature:__________ Pressure Altitude:__________

Density Altitude:_______ Takeoff roll:________ Takeoff Distance over 50 ft. obstacle:________

Landing distance over 50 ft. obstacle:________ Landing roll:________

Takeoff, climb to 50 ft., abort, land, stop, total distance reqd.: _________ 

Plan “B” engine failure:

On the runway: ____________________At 50 ft. _______________________________ 200 ft. _____________________________ 500ft. _________________________________


Because takeoff is the time an aircraft is most vulnerable to serious consequences that could result from mechanical problems, especially powerplant failure, it is deserving of the pilot’s serious attention before leaving the ground. Given the airport elevation and temperature, can you find the density altitude? Some manuals provide performance figures that make allowance for density altitude based on temperature and airport elevation, but not all. In any case, given the takeoff density altitude, can you find how much runway your airplane needs to take off, actually leave the ground? To takeoff and climb to clear a 50 foot obstacle? It’s all in the manual. If you have an engine problem on the takeoff roll, can you abort the takeoff and come to a stop on the runway? If not, and you have a problem, what will you do? You may need to look at the landing performance figures to get the landing distance to stop number and add it to the takeoff distance number to get the total distance required. What rate of climb should you expect, given the density altitude? At your initial climb speed and rate of climb, how far will you go to reach 100 feet? 200 feet? 500 feet? Can you clear obstacles ahead? Where are possible landing areas? 

Do you have a plan? What about taking off, climbing to 50 feet and having an engine failure? Can you land straight ahead and stop before running out of runway? If not, what alternatives are available? How much would you have to turn to clear obstacles and get to a spot to land? Is it feasible? Are there trees, buildings or other obstacles you’d need to avoid? What would you do? Suppose you have a problem at 100 feet? 200 feet? 500 feet? All these things are, or should be part of your training and preflight preparation. You need to know what your airplane is capable of and then, before you get into your airplane and roll onto the runway, take a good look around, consider your options under different scenarios and make definite plans, just in case.

If you need to make an emergency turn, how much altitude will be lost in a 45 degree or 90 degree, power off turn? 180 degrees? Surprise! It’s not in the manual. You’ll have to become a test pilot and actually find out for yourself.

Now we come to the controversial part—options—and the “impossible” turn. Many pilots believe—because they’ve been told or read—that in every takeoff power failure situation the only option is to land straight ahead. Many pilots believe that in any emergency situation encountered up to 1000 feet AGL—and even higher--the only option is to land straight ahead. Really? That’s traffic pattern altitude for most GA aircraft. Don’t you make a 180 turn from downwind to base to final on EVERY standard traffic pattern approach? Is that an “emergency” situation? Would you EVER make a straight ahead, off-airport landing if you had an engine problem while on downwind in the traffic pattern? Maybe, but probably not. 

Here’s a suggestion: Offer to take your favorite CFI for a ride, climb to a safe altitude and determine just exactly how much altitude you will lose while making turns after you simulate an engine failure. Here’s where you get to become a test pilot. 

First, try making the transition from climb power and speed to power off approach attitude while going straight ahead. The pitch attitude for many light airplanes during a flaps-up, best glide is very nearly level, maybe even slightly nose up, so that’s an easy first approximation pitch attitude target. No need to get it exactly right first time you try, and it will vary with bank angle if you turn, but with practice you will know exactly what pitch attitude you need. How do you get the nose from climb attitude to level/approach attitude? Presumably you always fly in trim. Trim is speed and power sensitive, so when you reduce power the airplane slows and when it slows it will pitch down. Unless you fly something like a Lake amphibian with an unusually high thrust line, the nose will pitch down all by itself with a power reduction. In any case, pay attention and learn exactly where to set the pitch. If that means you have to push the nose down to get the desired attitude, push it down or vice versa if it pitches down too much. With a power reduction most airplanes will just pitch down all by themselves and will try to maintain the trim speed set prior to the power change. Normally, during the initial climb segment you will fly at or near best rate-of-climb airspeed so the trim should be in the ballpark for approach speed also and the attitude will naturally follow suit, but practice, see what it takes and do it, over and over again until you know exactly what to do. Get to know your airplane. Practice until it becomes instinctive.

Next, let’s make some turns. What is the best bank angle?  Glider pilots know that the best bank angle for minimum turn radius and minimum altitude loss is 45 degrees. That’s pretty steep, so consider it the maximum bank angle you will use, though in an actual emergency there is no need to make it any steeper than the minimum necessary for the circumstances you actually encounter. The load factor at 45 degrees of bank is 1.4. Stall speed increases with the square root of the load factor. Since the square root of 1.4 is 1.2, that means the stall speed in a 45 degree bank is 20% greater than at wings level. So, if your airplane stalls at 50 wings level, it will stall at 60 in a 45 degree bank turn. Fly accordingly, with a reasonable error factor, don’t get too slow. Better to be a bit fast, but not too fast—you’re trying to minimize altitude loss.

Just make a normal climb at Vx, Vy or even enroute climb speed, make a nice smooth power reduction to idle, pitch down to approach/best glide attitude, and while maintaining a speed with a safe margin above stall, considering the angle of bank, not necessarily best glide speed, roll into a nice smooth turn to the new heading. Start off with a nice 30 degree bank turn like you might use to dodge an obstacle. Make a 45 degree heading change. Do it several times. Then try 90 degrees, 135 degrees and finally 180 degree heading changes. Keep the ball in the center, hold the pitch and speed steady. Now do it again, but with a 45 degree bank angle. Pull the nose around smoothly to the new heading. Note your altitude before and after completing the turns. Practice until you can do it instinctively with minimum altitude loss. 

You will be surprised at how little altitude it takes to make a 180 degree turn. With a little practice your Cessna 172 can easily make a 180 turn with an altitude loss of less than 200 feet. That’s not to say you should make a 180 turn if you have an engine failure at 200 feet AGL. Probably not at 250 feet, either. At 300 feet or higher, a 180 degree turn is definitely worth considering. A 45 or 90 degree turn will require even less altitude etc. 

Keep in mind that density altitude affects glide performance. Give yourself lots of margin. The important thing is to know what you and your airplane are capable of so that you are prepared to do it if necessary. Carefully consider your situation and options BEFORE you take off. 

Maybe the possibility of a problem is remote, but that doesn’t it mean it can’t happen. In nearly 50 years of flying, including 10,000+ hours as a CFI, I have had two engine failures on takeoff, both below 500 feet AGL and two control system problems on takeoff. In each case I was able to make 180 degree turns and land on the departing runway. I’ve also had one partial engine failure while en route and, again, was able make a safe, on airport landing. Any of these could have killed me and my passengers. Call me lucky. I’m also prepared. I know these things can happen, usually when least expected, I think about my options and am prepared to act accordingly. If “surprises” can happen to me, they can happen to you, too. 

Know your airplane. Compute the distances you need for your airplane at the day’s density altitude, look to see what options you have, where you could go from different altitudes. Write down the numbers you’ll need before you get into the airplane. Before you roll onto the runway, during the pre-takeoff checks, say out loud what Plans B, C and D are and be prepared to execute them if necessary. You’ll be prepared and, if the time comes, you’ll know exactly what to do and how to do it. 

Having said all that: making 180 turns at low altitude following engine failure is not for the unprepared or for those lacking proficiency. Practice, practice, practice. If you don't know what you're doing, don't do it.

Plans B, C and D.