How Do You Handle an Engine Failure on Takeoff?

3 min read
Sep 29, 2021

Q: When is the impossible turn actually impossible, and when should I deploy a CAPS parachute if my aircraft is equipped with one?



Ah yes, the so-called impossible turn. Is it really impossible? Well, let me answer by telling you a story.

As we rocketed down the runway, my trusty copilot Milton barked out my v-speeds like a seasoned pro. V1! Rotate! V2! At a blistering 57 knots, my trusty Ercoupe gently floated off the runway and bounded into the wild blue yonder like an unbridled mustang. Higher and higher we flew! When we crested the treeline in front of us, I knew in my gut that nothing could stop us now.

Then, complete silence. My engine had decided it was done for the day even though we were just starting to climb into the cerulean blue sky.

Let's think about this.

We were nose high, close to the ground, and had a fairly low airspeed. So, of course, I followed my instincts and turned back toward the big, beautiful 5,000-foot runway we had just departed.

Don’t worry; my cracked ribs and broken leg eventually healed. The Ercoupe...not so much. 

Thousands of words have been written by hundreds of experts warning pilots about the so-called impossible turn, and yet, there are real-life examples of pilots both failing and succeeding at turning back to the airport after losing power during takeoff.

So, how should you prepare for the possibility of power failure on takeoff? 

Should you practice impossible turns at lower and lower altitudes until you can practically drive the airplane like a car back to the runway? Or, should you swear never to turn back no matter what?

Well, as with anything in aviation, it depends. 

  • What kind of plane are you flying? 
  • What is its glide ratio? 
  • Did you lose all power, or is your engine still sputtering forth a little thrust? 
  • What is the wind doing? 
  • How badly would things go if you landed straight ahead? 
  • Oh, and just for fun — exactly how high above the ground are you and how far are you from the runway?

Those are just a few of the many factors you need to consider. 

Let's say you are in a Cessna 172 at 1,000 feet AGL. You performed a Vx climb, so the runway is still relatively close.

You may very well be able to make an impossible turn that is extremely possible, even requiring a little forward slip to burn off excess altitude on your way to an uneventful deadstick landing.

Pilot turning back to runway in Cessna 172 Skyhawk

But what if you are in that same Skyhawk at max gross with floats attached, and there was no headwind when you took off? Unless your name is Capt. Harv (and it isn’t), the equation is difficult to solve. So, you are better off doing everything you can to solve it before you take off.

Commit to yourself that, based on the weather, your plane, your level of proficiency, and even the angel sitting on your shoulder that you must reach a certain altitude before even considering turning back, and play through the scenario in your head as if it is actually happening. That way, if your engine decides to go on strike during departure, you will already have rehearsed what to doespecially the part about immediately pitching for best glide speed.

Another extremely helpful exercise is to hop on a flight simulator that simulates your aircraft type and practice killing the engine in different conditions and at different altitudes and airports. Not only will this give you an idea of what the impossible turn is like in your plane, but it will also give you a chance to practice landing straight ahead, which is very often the safest thing to do.

Related Content: 8 VFR Emergencies Perfect for Flying in a Simulator

What if you fly a Cirrus equipped with a CAPS parachute system?

The CAPS system is an excellent piece of safety technology that has already saved dozens of lives. Cirrus has specific training for its pilots that addresses when to deploy your parachute. So, go take the training.

That said, you can pretty much yank the handle if you are higher than 500 feet above the ground. Of course, if you are lower than that and your only two options are to pull the handle or dig a 300-foot long trench, then pull the handle. 

But go take the Cirrus training. Do what your PoH and the manufacturer say.

Once again, thanks for reading, and keep those questions coming! 


Capt. Harv is the greatest pilot to ever live...if you ask him. When he isn't flying circles around you without ever leaving straight-and-level flight, he's straightening out your questions about aviation on the worldwide web. Follow him on Twitter and YouTube to become a better pilot.