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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, en-route, east of Cork Ireland, 2017 (On 2 November 2017, the flight crew of an Airbus A320 climbing out of Cork detected a “strong and persistent” burning smell and after declaring a MAYDAY returned to Cork where confusing instructions from the crew resulted in a combination of the intended precautionary rapid disembarkation and an emergency evacuation using escape slides. The Investigation highlighted the necessity of clear and unambiguous communications with passengers which distinguish these two options and in particular noted the limitations in currently mandated pre flight briefings for passengers seated at over wing emergency exits.)
  • 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.)
  • B772, en-route, northern Indian Ocean, 2014 (On 16 April 2014, a pre-flight concern about whether a Boeing 777-200ER about to depart Singapore had been overfuelled was resolved by a manual check but an en-route fuel system alert led to close monitoring of the fuel system. When a divergent discrepancy between the two independent fuel remaining sources became apparent, an uneventful precautionary air turnback was made and overfuelling subsequently confirmed. The Investigation found that a system fault had caused overfuelling and that the manual check carried out to confirm the actual fuel load had failed to detect it because it had been not been performed correctly.)
  • DH8C, vicinity Abu Dhabi UAE, 2012 (On 9 September 2012, the crew of a DHC8-300 climbing out of Abu Dhabi declared a PAN and returned after visual evidence of the right engine overheating were seen from the passenger cabin. The Investigation found that the observed signs of engine distress were due to hot gas exiting through the cavity left by non-replacement of one of the two sets of igniters on the engine after a pressure wash carried out overnight prior to the flight and that the left engine was similarly affected. The context for the error was identified as a dysfunctional maintenance organisation at the Operator.)
  • B773, Abu Dhabi UAE, 2016 (On 27 September 2016, the left engine of a Boeing 777-300 failed on takeoff from Abu Dhabi after it ingested debris resulting from tread separation from one of the nose landing gear tyres and a successful overweight return to land then followed. The Investigation found that FOD damage rather than any fault with the manufacture or re-treading of the tyre had initiated tread separation and also noted the absence of any assessment of the risk of engine damage and failure from such debris ingestion which it was noted had the potential to have affected both engines rather than just one.)
  • A320, Singapore, 2015 (On 16 October 2015, the unlatched fan cowl doors of the left engine on an A320 fell from the aircraft during and soon after takeoff. The one which remained on the runway was not recovered for nearly an hour afterwards despite ATC awareness of engine panel loss during takeoff and as the runway remained in use, by the time it was recovered it had been reduced to small pieces. The Investigation attributed the failure to latch the cowls shut to line maintenance and the failure to detect the condition to inadequate inspection by both maintenance personnel and flight crew.)

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