Pilots, what would you do in this situation?

I’m interested in hearing from the pilots out there. How would you handle this situation? I was a passenger in the small airplane described below; I’ll tell you what our pilot did in a spoiler box at the end (I actually described this incident in another thread so if you read that you know what happened).

You’re flying a Cessna 206 (or a similar small single-engine aircraft) full of passengers so you’re at or near your weight limit. You’re taking off from this airport and you’re heading east (right). It’s a beautiful summer day and conditions are ideal- visibility is unlimited, humidity is low and winds are light & variable. You’re taking your passengers on a sight-seeing flight and will be landing at the same airport.

Almost immediately after take-off (at approx. 500 ft/150 m AGL) you develop engine trouble- a cracked cylinder head, but you don’t know that. You only know that you have lost most of your power and cannot maintain altitude.

So what do you do? As you can see from the photo, you are surrounded by open fields in almost every direction so you have plenty of outs. The terrain is flat for miles around (this is northern Indiana) so no hills or mountains to worry about.

The paved runway is approx. 6000 ft/2000 m. Perpendicular to the paved runway (running north-south) is a grass runway approx. 3000 ft/1000 m long. Completing a large triangle on airport property and visible in the photo is another grass runway approx. 3000 ft/1000 m long; I believe the heading is 45/225.

You have a lot of options- you can continue east and land in the open field in front of you, you can try to turn around and land on the paved runway- either by making a 270 degree turn right or left, then a 90 degree turn in the opposite direction to line up with the runway heading west, or by making a 360 degree turn and landing headed east. Or you can go for one of the grass runways.

Here’s what our pilot did:

[SPOILER]He flew a big 360 and landed on the paved runway headed east, our original take-off direction. We were at most 100 ft/30 m AGL when we turned onto final. I’m not going to criticize him since it worked, but at the time I thought he should have landed on the grass runway (heading 225). I wasn’t sure we had enough altitude to complete the 360 degree turn. But we all survived unhurt and the plane was not damaged, other than the cracked cylinder head.

Oh, and we weren’t sight-seeing passengers, we were skydivers planning to jump out over the airport when we got to 10,000 ft/3000 m. I was sitting on the floor beside the pilot and when the engine went out he asked me if we could get out. “No, we’re too low,” I said. He was stuck with us and our additional weight.[/SPOILER]

I haven’t flown for years, but at that altitude and with light and variable winds, I’m pretty sure I’d head for grass runway 22 (or whatever it is).

ETA: my last choice would be to land in a field. Never know what kind of ruts, holes, or other obstructions are hidden there.

I think it’s funny he asked if you guys could get out at 500 feet. I don’t think a parachute drop would work very well at that altitude. Isn’t the pilot a jumper too? Aren’t they required to wear a chute on jump runs?

CFI here. While the conventional wisdom is to land straight ahead in most takeoff emergencies, I’m always hesitant to Monday morning quarterback these things. Apparently his judgment proved correct, which says a lot.

Would I have done the same? No idea. I think it’s useful to think about these scenarios a lot, absorb the lessons from known accidents and drill drill drill on them in the plane. Rehearsal generally gives a good chance for correct actions when the real thing occurs. But as Eisenhower said, the battle plan rarely survives contact with the enemy. I’m sure your pilot knew the drill, but something about the actual circumstances made him act differently, and with success.

Well, according to the Regulations For The Operation of Aircraft, January, 1920:

That’s what I was taught when I learned to fly.

However, my instructor chopped the power at 400 feet on takeoff once, and I elected to make a 180 and line up downwind with the taxiway. Had it been a real emergency, I would have made it easily. This was in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk with only the two of us aboard. The airport was WJF in the Antelope Valley area of the Mojave Desert, so there was a lot of flat, empty space in every direction. Field elevation is 2,347 feet. Winds were calm (which does happen sometimes there!), and it was a warm – but not hot – day.

There are some videos online showing ‘The Impossible Turn’. Pilots are taught that attempting to turn around after a takeoff power failure is a deadly invitation to a stall/spin accident; yet it’s done and documented. (The other day I happened to look for the one posted by AOPA, showing a Mooney turning back after a power failure in some snowy location, but it has apparently been taken down.)

A 206 Stationair is bigger than what I’ve flown, but I presume it handles like a 172 or 182. I love Cessna’s wing. One day in training I was to slow the Skyhawk down (power on) until it stalled – but to keep it from stalling as long as I could. I did everything I could. I had 40º of flaps, full throttle, and the yoke was back to the stop. The darned thing wouldn’t stop flying. So I reached down to the trim wheel, hoping to get just enough to stall the wings. The instructor said, ‘Forget it. I’m calling it stalled.’ Obviously in the situation described in the OP, using the engine is out of the equation. But I have a lot of faith in the ability of the Cessna wing to generate lift. A 180 would not be unreasonable. Still, at the beginning of a flight, with full seats, I’d be near gross weight and I’d be aware that such a maneuver would be more risky than it would be with just one or two people aboard.

My rule of thumb, since the simulated engine failure and 180º turn, has been that in a Cessna I’d attempt the 180 if I had a minimum of 400 feet AGL. Since the incident aircraft in the OP had 500 feet, I would have turned right 180º to line up with the taxiway. If I still had enough altitude and airspeed, I’d attempt to land downwind on the runway. But everything would depend on how it ‘felt’ at the time. I know a half-loaded Skyhawk can be landed safely from 400 feet after a takeoff power failure. But in the event of an actual emergency, I’d have to feel how the aircraft was flying and make the decision based on that. If it didn’t feel right, I’d have to choose a field and land parallel to the furrows.

EDIT: I hope I’d evaluate and react faster than I type. There were no replies when I started! :stuck_out_tongue:


No, our parachutes would not have done us any good from that altitude- and no, the pilot was not an experienced jumper. I can understand him wanting to lighten the load but it would have been suicidal for us to jump.

I don’t think pilots are required to wear emergency chutes when flying jumpers but I could be wrong. I’ve seen pilots who wore them and pilots who didn’t (they may have been violating FAA regulations).

That’s what I was trying to say at the end of the last paragraph.

After doing a bit of research, it appears that FAA regulations do not require a jump pilot to wear a parachute. However, according to P-8740-62 Flying for Skydive Operations:

IANAP but it seems that one of Murphy’s laws applies here.
If it’s stupid but it works it ain’t stupid.

It’s entirely possible that our pilot started his turn with the intention of landing on one of the grass strips. As he brought the plane around he could have realized that he still had enough altitude to make a full turn and land on the paved runway.

I found myself in a similar situation with a student a few years back in a Cessna 150 on a hot, muggy summer day. About 80’ above the trees after takeoff, the airplane suddenly started vibrating violently, the engine slowed significantly, and we completely stopped climbing. There wasn’t much in the way of options out ahead of us, and it was clear we wouldn’t be flying for long. I took the controls and luckily was able to nurse the nose around and execute the ‘impossible turn’ for an opposite direction landing on the departure runway (possible because we had partial power). It turns out that rather than cracking a head, we coked a valve. A $1 hose clamp on an intake port had worked its way loose, allowing the cylinder to go lean, which heated the exhaust valve until it stuck. It was one of the more exciting moments of my flying career thus far.

If I understand your description of the incident, the plane must have been developing some power, though not all. You describe the situation as being at 500 ft agl, and then executing a 360 degree turn back to the field.

A 360 turn usually takes about 2 minutes, and that indicates a sink rate of no more than 250 ft/min, assuming it was a circle (with no straight segments) back to the runway. I don’t know the exact glide ratio of a 206, but I can assure you it’s far greater than 250 ft/min with no power and a windmilling prop. I’ve been teaching these in a customer’s 182 (kinda similar) recently, and we generally end up with 7-800 fpm (not at max gross though, we’re about 250 under).

Unless I’ve misunderstood your description, it seems there was some power available.

Um… There’s no way anyone would be turning at standard rate in this sort of scenario (which I assume is where you got the 2 minutes), even though we’re only talking about a 180. So I’m not sure that’s a good basis for calculation.

Yes, I believe the plane still had some power. I’m not a pilot and I don’t know what effect a cracked cylinder head would have. But the pilot flew a very wide circle with a very shallow banking turn. As I said, he may have intended to land on a grass runway. The layout of our airport (with the grass runways to the north) gave him the option of swinging pretty far to the north.

So you were directly east of the field when the problem happened? About how far?

I’m guessing around a mile or a bit more from the takeoff point, since that’s the sort of distance it takes to climb 500’. (This obviously depends on wind, and the weight of the plane.)

From there with no power at all, it would be marginal to return to the airfield. A 206 has a best glide ratio around 10:1, which means it loses around 520’ per mile (or more, if not flown at the right speed and configuration). Add in the distance necessary to complete the turn, and you’d need some help to make it from an altitude of 500’.

So it looks like the pilot still had some power available, and thus his decision to circle the field and land on the paved runway. At some points during this, if he’d lost all power the grass runways would have been available.

It’s way too low for full confidence, but 500’ is enough to give a reserve parachute a fair chance of deploying.

Yes, we were directly east of the field; I can’t say exactly how far. I was sitting on the floor facing the tail (the only seat was the pilot’s seat) so I couldn’t see the ground. How much of a 6000 ft runway would a 206 with 6 people aboard use for takeoff, does anyone know? Of course it depends on a variety of factors but I don’t remember us ever using the entire runway. We were in the air long before that. So I can’t really say where we were when the problem developed.

There was no way I (or any of the other jumpers) was going to try. I looked around the plane and everyone was shaking their head “No”.

In fact, an acquaintance was killed in a similar scenario years ago. The plane ran out of gas(!) on takeoff. My friend was by the door and jumped, pulling her reserve ripcord. The canopy was just getting fully inflated when she hit the ground. The rest of the occupants of the plane died when it crashed into the ground.

1,860 feet over a 50-foot obstacle.

Thanks, Johnny!