Impossible or “Improbable” Turn?

How can something as simple as takeoff and climb-out be responsible for 24% of fatal GA aviation accidents? According to NTSB data, this is the most fatal phase of flight. Perhaps it’s the very non-threatening appearance of this maneuver (“hard to miss the sky…”) that causes pilots to under-appreciate the risks, and fail to prepare thoroughly? Some simple preparation and vigilance in this area of flight can yield a big payback in your safety.

Join us on February 8th for a livestream called “The Improbable Turn” with Rod Machado. We will examine the entire takeoff/climb-out process and talk about the sometimes controversial idea of turning back in the case of an engine failure. This show is interactive (thanks to our friends at Gold SealGround Schools). Your input is encouraged (as are comments below). If anyone can shed light (and avoid argument) on this issue it is Rod Machado with his vast experience and also nuanced understanding of pilot psychology. If you register with the FAA for Master Wings credit, you will also have a chance to win a Zulu 3 Headset generously donated by Lightspeed for this show!


FAA Glider Flying Handbook

My formal introduction to the “impossible turn” was during glider training. In the soaring world, on every takeoff, a pilot is required to call out “200 feet.” If a tow rope breaks above this magic altitude, a pilot executes a  turnback to land on the departing runway (conditions permitting). This turnback maneuver is required in all the training courses. During flight training, a glider student will absolutely expect their CFI to pull the tow release (same as loss of power) frequently. The procedure is 45 degrees of bank at approach speed-to lessen the radius of turn. This becomes a pretty “normal” maneuver for a current glider pilot.

For a power pilot that has not practiced (or even seen) this maneuver, turning back to the runway is a very bad idea. The risks are especially escalated if the pilot has not done a “pre-takeoff-brief of expected emergency actions” or the maneuver is precipitated by an unreasonable effort to “save the aircraft.” Remember, this is a pretty extreme maneuver very close to the ground. Airspeed, coordination and judgment of drift are all critical for success here with little room for error. Remember also, it requires more like 270 degrees of total turning to get back over the runway and lined up. Add to this a downwind landing (perhaps with less than full flaps) and you have a recipe for disaster.

This is why the common wisdom has defined this maneuver as “the impossible turn” and recommends landing straight ahead if your engine fails. Find a clearing and miss the big things, touching down as slowly as possible with the fuel, power and electrics off. The statistics on surviving this maneuver are very good if a pilot is mentally rehearsed in the procedure and you avoid hitting hard objects.

The real “lightning rod” question is “are there cases where a return to the airport is a reasonable choice?” One of my aviation heroes, Barry Schiff speculates a turn back can be a viable option as does Rod Machado-but only in certain well-defined cases.  The AOPA has a program dedicated to this question. It is certainly a question every pilot should answer for themselves in case they encounter this challenge. Please join us for that discussion.

The [critical] difference between success and failure is not only having sufficient altitude, but knowing how and when the turnaround maneuver can be performed with relative safety [and being pre-briefed-“locked and loaded”-for this eventuality].

Register with the FAA Safety website (for WIngs *and* you might win a headset) and join us at GoldSealFebruary 8th so we can all share our experiences and hopefully develop a personal plan that is comfortable and assures greater safety on takeoff and climb out. More next week!


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Stall Spin on Final; Are CFIs (Partly) to Blame?

Sorry, but yes we are. Read on to see why and how we can fix this.

We all know that stall/spin “upset” incidents on final (some of which become accidents) – close to the ground – are a major hazard and a killer of pilots and, unfortunately, also passengers. We know that the onset of this situation seems to be a complex one with many implications for aircraft control, but really it is a simple one. The pilot yawed and stalled the airplane. Also, when this type of upset occurs, even the very best pilot will initially have a period of “startle” while trying to understand what is happening and what is needed to correct it, this despite the fact that they created the situation. So, there would seem to be a disconnect between what the pilot wanted the airplane to do and what they “told” it to do by their control inputs. The problem is, of course, that this often occurs close enough to the ground that the time needed for that analysis and reaction takes more time than is available – or should we say more altitude than is available. While we train in power off turning stalls (formerly called approach to landing stalls) at altitude, that is a planned exercise and the student/pilot is prepared for them. On short final, or turning to final – not so much! It is also surprising how many pilots have never done a turning stall – only the wings level variety!

A key question needs to be asked here. Why do pilots find themselves in this position in the first place? There are numerous answers – the pilot got slow, the pilot got slow and cross controlled, the pilot overbanked, and the list goes on. While these are all valid points, and there are many others, it still doesn’t get to one of the real “causal” factors that got them there. HOW did the pilot get low, slow, cross controlled, and overbanked in the first place?

I know that there are probably many potential primary causal factors that could be listed, but I would like to suggest that there is one fairly prominent one – and we instructors are partially to blame for its occurrence. I know that sounds like a strong statement, but I hope to provide, in the information that follows, two things – a rationale for that statement and a potential solution for it as well.

Again, there are many ways that a student/pilot can get into the situation, but if we instructors think about the times that we have seen the potential, many of those are the result of a common incident – flying through the final approach course during the turn to final. Distractions undoubtedly played a role in a number of those. I have seen it many times with students, and also with pilots on flight reviews and proficiency flights, and after we got on the ground I asked a question. “Why did you do that steep, pulling bank on your final turn?” And, almost universally they will say, “Because my instructor told me I (had to/needed to) roll out on final lined up with the runway.” And when they didn’t? Their instructor further stressed the importance of doing so.

We must remember that while lining up with the runway is the “end game”, we also do a disservice to students/pilots when we imply that lining up means “NEVER” going beyond the extended centerline. There is not a wall there (though there are issues if there are parallel runways). Overshooting the centerline may, in some cases, have some worth, such as initiating an s-turn process to bleed off excess altitude rather than skidding or slipping (cross control).

Put yourself in the place of the pilot or student that slightly misjudges the wind or the turn (or is distracted) and winds up going slightly through the runway centerline as they are turning – or even more than slightly, which increases the problem. More often than not, what is their response? Steepen the bank and pull, which increases the g-loading and angle of attack, to try and “get back over to the centerline”. And, here comes the stall/spin on final.

Sometimes I don’t think that we instructors, myself included in the past, have realized the impact of some of the things we say, like – “You really should roll out lined up with the runway.” Granted that IS the desired result, and our training should be to teach them how to do that – judging the wind effect, etc. so that they can safely compensate and roll out on final lined up. But, I am reminded of some cartoons I have seen, notably Charles Schultz in Peanuts, where an owner is talking to their pet to try and train them and what they hear is – “/// ////// Line up with the runway /// ///// /////”. You get the drift (pun intended). They hear only part of the message and it is strongly heard and remembered. The Law of Primacy applies here, and it will stick with them, with the strong emphasis, as we know from our study of the Fundamentals of Instruction!

I certainly agree that what we should teach is the analysis that gets the student to see in advance what the air mass movement is doing to them so that they can anticipate what is needed in the turn to final. But, I also know that even the best “air gods” will occasionally misjudge the flow and either undershoot or overshoot the centerline. Undershoot is NOT a problem and much easier to resolve – but overshoot IS a problem as our stall/spin statistics will tell us – and they don’t really go down. It is a problem because of the way we instructors treat it – as a big deal, instead of a teachable moment.

While it will not eliminate the stall/spin situation on final, I would suggest that we need to spend quite a bit more time teaching how to recover/fly out of the overshoot with our students to significantly reduce the problem. They need to understand that it is not an “offense” to fly through, and that the solution is to either continue the normally banked turn to fly back to the centerline or, if they are way off, to go around and do it again. In most cases, the former is the ideal solution – just continue the NORMAL turn to a heading that is a good re-intercept angle to the final course, then make a normal turn back to the final approach course at the intercept. At that point, make a decision as to whether a normal approach to landing is possible. If so, continue, and if not, go around.

WE, as instructors, must understand the import given to what we say to our students and the weight that it carries, whether intentional or not. The next time you are with a student or pilot, listen to what you say and consider modifying it to start teaching this way to resolve it. It is a lot harder to “unteach” something than it is to teach it right in the first place. We need to work on the initial teaching part with students, and spend a LOT of time working on the unteach/reteach part with our fellow pilots.

Will this eliminate the stall/spin on final? No, but it can go a long way to preventing some future ones that might otherwise occur! In fact, it might even be a good idea to practice some intentional overshoots with the corrections so that the students/pilots understand and get comfortable with them.

(with grateful acknowledgement to Rich Stowell for review and input! This article is part of the extensive SAFE on-line Resource Center one of the benefits of SAFE membership)


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

I Wish All Emergencies Ended This Well!

This is the ninth anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson”.  And though this was an amazing demonstration of cool decision-making and piloting skill, the pilots, Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles were completely overwhelmed by the national media attention and their sudden fame. They repeatedly emphasized they were just “pilots doing our job” (humble always trumps hubris). And while it is true every professional pilot is trained continuously in Crew Resource Management and also generating successful outcomes in emergencies, we all can continually draw golden lessons from this amazing historic flight; here are a few thoughts.

What happens over time is we tend to forget how badly this situation could have ended. Remember the ugly Colgin crash that followed soon after Sully or the Air France 447? This highlights the amazing constellation of luck and skill that made the “Miracle on the Hudson” all work out. Here are three very important pitfalls to avoid in every emergency and some techniques to “prepare” for surprise occurrences.

The major obstacle to effective action in every emergency is the startle/surprise incapacitation. This is when our mental circuit breaker trips off line and the human psychology says “why me?” or “this can’t be happening.” Even the most prepared and experienced pilot is going to have a moment of inaction, but we have to reboot and get functioning ASAP.  Step one in every emergency has to be “fly the plane; then analyze, engage and work the problem.”  Using a checklist and standard operating procedures is essential to get your mind functioning and back to work. This requires resilience, grit or emotional fortitude and as pilots, we work hard to develop and maintain these qualities. The best antidote to surprise/startle incapacitation is maintaining constant mental alertness in flight (especially at critical phases of flight). If we can maintain alert awareness and try continuously to “expect the unexpected” (Marines call “code yellow”) it is less likely that surprise will overwhelm us in these situations. (Watch for our upcoming LiveStream with Rod Machado on “The Improbable Turn”)

A second common problem in emergencies is being rendered ineffective by trying to achieve a “perfect” outcome. In business decision this is called “overfitting.” The unique and endlessly variety of possible emergencies almost precludes a “textbook solution.” This is a time for a TLAR (that looks about right) solution; a time for inginuity and getting the “best of the worst.” Once we accept and engage the emergency situation, it is essential to remain flexible, and use as many resources as possible to share the cognitive load (so we are not “swimming in glue”) and creatively visualize the outcome we need to survive; optimize. This technique is called “satisficing” and it means getting as much as you can of the required parameters while accepting the outcome that will not be perfect. (Check out the amazing Nobel Laureate Herb Simon and heuristic decisions; when time, resources and processing power are limited)

A last major failing in emergencies almost follows directly from the previous advice of soliciting resources. We can get so much help and so many good ideas that this confuses the situation and dissipates effective, decisive action. Think of all the runways Sully was offered in those 208 seconds of glide. There are either too many contrary solutions or just plain bad advice. In an emergency you have to aggressively assert command authority at some point and decide on a course of action and commit to the plan “we’re going in the Hudson” If you waffle on KLGA and KTEB as options, you ruin your glide and miss the river. “I really would prefer a runway” (the perfect solution) but a large flat area without combustible materials will have to do ( “satisficing” )  As pilots we can all rejoice at this wonderful example of piloting skill and decision-making. Hopefully we all can model some good lessons for future challenges; watch out for geese!


Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!