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An air turnback is a situation where an aircraft returns to land at the departure aerodrome without having initially planned to do so.
The most common reason for air turnback is an emergency or abnormal situation during or shortly after take-off, the most common being engine failure. If the problem happens during acceleration, the crew might attempt to reject the take off depending on the speed and the nature of emergency. Sometimes a safer option is to get airborne and then make an approach and land. A probable complication in this case is that the aircraft's current weight may be greater than the certified maximum landing weight (MLW). If the crew opts for a turnback in this case, there are three options:
- Make an overweight landing. The pilot in command has the right to deviate from prescribed procedures as required in an emergency situation in the interest of safety, i.e. they may choose to land even though the aircraft is heavier than the MLW if they consider this to be the safest course of action. The landing will be more challenging and require longer runway, thus increasing the chance of a runway excursion. Also, a special post-landing inspection will have to be carried out.
- Burning the excess fuel, e.g. by entering a holding pattern. This is a safe option in many cases but if it is considered that by the time the weight is reduced below the MLW the aircraft will no longer be airworthy, or there is another urgent matter (e.g. a medical emergency) another course of action will be taken.
- Dump fuel. This option is not available for most aircraft types and even if it is, the respective system may not have been installed on the particular aircraft. Additional restrictions may also apply, e.g. a minimum level to perform the operation or the need to reach a dedicated fuel dumping area.
Air turnback may happen during all phases of the flight, e.g. climb, cruise or even when the aircraft has reached the vicinity of the destination aerodrome (but is unable to land due to weather conditions). Any significant problem with the aircraft during the climb phase is likely to result in a turnback because of the closeness of the departure aerodrome. During the cruise, if an engine fails (or annother emergency situation arises, e.g. loss of cabin pressure), the flight crew will evaluate the situation and decide on the further course of action. Depending on the circumstances (severity of the situation, available fuel, company policy, weather, etc.), the choice may be to continue to the planned destination, to divert to the planned alternate, to land at the nearest suitable aerodrome or to return to the point of departure.
Accidents and Incidents
- B789, en-route, eastern Belgium, 2017 (On 29 April 2017, a Boeing 787-9 which had just reached cruise altitude after despatch with only one main ECS available began to lose cabin pressure. A precautionary descent and PAN was upgraded to a rapid descent and MAYDAY as cabin altitude rose above 10,000 feet. The Investigation found that aircraft release to service had not been preceded by a thorough enough validation of the likely reliability of the remaining ECS system. The inaudibility of the automated announcement accompanying the cabin oxygen mask drop and ongoing issues with the quality of CVR readout from 787 crash-protected recorders was also highlighted.)
- DC93, en-route, north west of Miami USA, 1996 (On 11 May 1996, the crew of a ValuJet DC9-30 were unable to keep control of their aircraft after fire broke out. The origin of the fire was found to have been live chemical oxygen generators loaded contrary to regulations. The Investigation concluded that, whilst the root cause was poor practices at SabreTech (the maintenance contractor which handed over oxygen generators in an unsafe condition), the context for this was oversight failure at successive levels - Valujet over SabreTech and the FAA over Valujet. Failure of the FAA to require fire suppression in Class 'D' cargo holds was also cited.)
- A332, vicinity Brisbane Australia, 2013 (On 21 November 2013, an A330 rejected its take off from Brisbane after an airspeed indication failure. Following maintenance intervention, a similar airspeed indication fault on the subsequent departure was reported to have been detected after V1. Once airborne, reversion to Alternate Law occurred and slat retraction failed. After an air turnback, it was discovered that the cause of both events was blockage of the No. 1 Pitot Head by a mud-dauber wasp nest which was created during the initial two hour turnround at Brisbane. Investigation of a 2014 event to a Boeing 737 at Brisbane with exactly the same causation was noted.)
- AN26, vicinity Cox’s Bazar Bangladesh, 2016 (On 29 March 2016, an Antonov AN-26B which had just taken off from Cox’s Bazar reported failure of the left engine and requested an immediate return. After twice attempting to position for a landing, first in the reciprocal runway direction then in the takeoff direction with both attempts being discontinued, control was subsequently lost during further manoeuvring and the aircraft crashed. The Investigation found that the engine malfunction occurred before the aircraft became airborne so that the takeoff could have been rejected and also that loss of control was attributable to insufficient airspeed during a low height left turn.)
- L410, Isle of Man, 2017 (On 23 February 2017, a Czech-operated Let-410 departed from Isle of Man into deteriorating weather conditions and when unable to land at its destination returned and landed with a crosswind component approximately twice the certified limit. The local Regulatory Agency instructed ATC to order the aircraft to immediately stop rather than attempt to taxi and the carrier’s permit to operate between the Isle of Man and the UK was subsequently withdrawn. The Investigation concluded that the context for the event was a long history of inadequate operational safety standards associated with its remote provision of flights for a Ticket Seller.)
- MD81, vicinity Stockholm Arlanda Sweden, 1991 (On 27 December 1991, an MD-81 took off after airframe ground de/anti icing treatment but soon afterwards both engines began surging and both then failed. A successful crash landing with no fatalities was achieved four minutes after take off after the aircraft emerged from cloud approximately 900 feet above terrain. There was no post-crash fire. The Investigation found that undetected clear ice on the upper wing surfaces had been ingested into both engines during rotation and initiated engine surging. Without awareness of the aircraft's automated thrust increase system, the pilot response did not control the surging and both engines failed.)
- Decision Making
- Decision-Making (OGHFA BN)
- Fuel Dumping: Guidance for Flight Crews
- Fuel Dumping - Guidance for Controllers
- Engine Failure: Guidance for Controllers
- Engine Failure After TakeOff - Light Twin Engine Aircraft