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Air Turnback

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Article Information
Category: General General
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Description

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

  • A320, Auckland New Zealand, 2017 (On 27 October 2017, an Airbus A320 returned to Auckland after advice from ATC that the right engine may have been affected by ingestion of FOD during engine start - a clipboard and paper left just inside the right hand engine by an employee of the airline’s ground handling contractor acting as the aircraft loading supervisor. The subsequent inspection found paper throughout the engine and minor damage to an engine fan blade and the fan case attrition liner. The Dispatcher overseeing the departure said she had seen the clipboard inside the engine but assumed it would be retrieved before departure.)
  • DH8B, en-route, west northwest of Port Moresby Papua New Guinea, 2017 (On 4 August 2017, a de Havilland DHC8-200 was climbing through 20,000 feet after departing Port Moresby when a sudden loud bang occurred and the aircraft shuddered. Apart from a caution indicating an open main landing gear door, no other impediments to normal flight were detected. After a return to the point of departure, one of the main gear tyres was found to have exploded causing substantial damage to the associated engine structure and releasing debris. The Investigation concluded that tyre failure was attributable to FOD damage during an earlier landing on an inadequately maintained but approved compacted gravel runway.)
  • DC93, en-route, north west of Miami USA, 1996 (On 11 May 1996, a DC9-30 crew were unable to keep control of their aircraft after a hold fire started in live chemical oxygen generators which had been loaded contrary to applicable regulations. The Investigation concluded that, whilst the root cause was poor practices at the maintenance contractor which handed over oxygen generators for loading in an unsafe condition, the context for this was a failure of the air carrier to effectively oversee the shipper and of the FAA to oversee the air carrier. Failure of the FAA to require fire suppression in Class 'D' cargo holds was also cited.)
  • B743, vicinity Tehran Mehrabad Iran, 2015 (On 15 October 2015 a Boeing 747-300 experienced significant vibration from one of the engines almost immediately after take-off from Tehran Mehrabad. After the climb out was continued without reducing the affected engine thrust an uncontained failure followed 3 minutes later. The ejected debris caused the almost simultaneous failure of the No 4 engine, loss of multiple hydraulic systems and all the fuel from one wing tank. The Investigation attributed the vibration to the Operator's continued use of the engine without relevant Airworthiness Directive action and the subsequent failure to continued operation of the engine after its onset.)
  • B735, vicinity Madrid Barajas Spain, 2019 (On 5 April 2019, a Boeing 737-500 crew declared an emergency shortly after departing Madrid Barajas after problems maintaining normal lateral, vertical or airspeed control of their aircraft in IMC. After two failed attempts at ILS approaches in unexceptional weather conditions, the flight was successfully landed at a nearby military airbase. The Investigation found that a malfunction which probably prevented use of the Captain’s autopilot found before departure was not documented until after the flight but could not find a technical explanation for inability to control the aircraft manually given that dispatch without either autopilot working is permitted.)
  • B752, en-route, Northern Ghana, 2009 (On 28 January 2009 the crew of a Boeing 757-200 continued takeoff from Accra Ghana despite becoming aware of an airspeed discrepancy during the take off roll. An attempt to resolve the problem failed and the consequences led to confusion as to what was happening which prompted them to declare a MAYDAY and return - successfully - to Accra. The left hand pitot probe was found to be blocked by an insect. The Investigation concluded that a low speed rejected takeoff would have been more appropriate than the continued take off in the circumstances which had prevailed.)

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