How realistic should impossible turn practice be?

Last month, I practiced Barry Schiff’s maneuver for the impossible turn at altitude and recorded it on AOPA Live. As expected, many pilots wrote in offering their own advice.

The most common suggestion was to make the practice maneuver more realistic. Schiff recommended turning 270 degrees and noting the altitude loss. That’s because in a real emergency, a pilot is going to turn 180 degrees, then 45 more to end up over the runway, and back another 45 degrees to line up on the runway. It totals 270 degrees of turn. Others suggested practicing at altitude over a straight road to simulate a runway.

So I went up with my instructor, Sandy Geer, again and tried both scenarios in a Cessna 172, same model as before. I also applied some of what I had learned from practicing Schiff’s maneuver the first time.

First, I made sure that I added pitch-up trim during the maneuver (yes, I’m a weakling). I’ve been trained to do this in other practice emergency scenarios (pitch for best glide and trim), but I had forgotten to do this for the impossible turn maneuver. By using trim to relieve some of the control pressures, it was easier for me to maintain the 45-degree bank and airspeed while looking outside. Last month, each time I did the maneuver, I looked only at the instruments.

Setting up on a westerly heading, I climbed to 3,000 feet msl, pulled the throttle to idle, held the pitch-up attitude for five seconds, and then started the turn to the left. After turning 225 degrees, I immediately rolled out and into a 45-degree-bank turn in the opposite direction for another 45 degrees. After stopping my sink rate, I noted my altitude loss: 400 feet. That’s 100 feet more of altitude loss than when I practiced the maneuver with a constant 270-degree turn. But, Schiff also said that after doing the turn he described, add a 50-percent margin. After losing 300 feet with a constant 270-degree turn, that safety padding would put the minimum altitude to turn back in an emergency at 450 feet. With the more realistic 225-degree left turn and 45-degree right turn back to the imaginary runway, my altitude loss was still within the limits set by following his checklist.

Next, I decided to make the scenario a little more realistic by setting up the maneuver above a straight road simulating a runway. The first time, not so good: I lost 600 feet. But, I had let my airspeed slip from best glide (65 knots) to 80 knots. So, I tried again, focusing my attention outside, and lost about 400 feet. Now, I still did all of this at altitude, so I didn’t have the rush of the ground coming up.

I think Schiff’s recommended 50-percent cushion to altitude loss is wise and encompasses a number of factors that can crop up. However, I know my personal comfort level, and I still wouldn’t feel confident making 450 feet my turn-back altitude. However, I would keep the 750-foot mark that I established as my personal minimum after practicing Schiff’s maneuver the first time. Perhaps I will lower that altitude as I gain more practice, but I will probably never lower to it 450 or 500 feet agl.

One reader commented that he had practiced the emergency maneuver earlier in the year at an airport and learned a lot of useful information. That’s not something I’m comfortable with, so I will draw the line at practicing over a road at altitude.

Other readers pointed out the effect that wind could have on the maneuver, which Schiff addressed in his article, and that altitude loss will be greater with a dead engine than one at idle power. Readers also discussed the difference in aircraft loading, whether you have passengers or not. If you haven’t read Schiff’s article, I recommend it—he addresses many factors as he describes the maneuver.

They key is to set your own personal minimum. Practicing Schiff’s maneuver, or one of the others described above can help you establish that minimum, which may be never to turn back to the airport.

Hopefully an engine out after takeoff isn’t something I ever experience. But if it is, I am glad that I am practicing for such an emergency—whether I land straight ahead or turn back. None of my other emergency training had included that, and I would have been horribly unprepared.

So how realistically have you practiced turning back to the airport? Do you prefer Schiff’s 270-degree turn, do you use a road or other straight reference, or something else?


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