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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
- B764, en-route, Audincourt France, 2017 (On 23 August 2017, a Boeing 767-400ER which had departed Zurich for a transatlantic crossing experienced a problem with cabin pressurisation as the aircraft approached FL 100 and levelled off to run the applicable checklist. However, despite being unable to confirm that the pressurisation system was functioning normally, the climb was then re-commenced resulting in a recurrence of the same problem and a MAYDAY emergency descent from FL 200. The Investigation found that an engineer had mixed up which pressurisation system valve was to be de-activated before departure and that the flight crew decision to continue the climb had been risky.)
- 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.)
- S92, en-route, east of St John’s Newfoundland Canada, 2009 (On 12 March 2009, a Sikorsky S-92A crew heading offshore from St. John's, Newfoundland declared an emergency and began a return after total loss of main gear box oil pressure but lost control during an attempted ditching. The Investigation found that all oil had been lost after two main gear box securing bolts had sheared. It was noted that ambiguity had contributed to crew misdiagnosis the cause and that the ditching had been mishandled. Sea States beyond the capability of Emergency Flotation Systems and the limited usefulness of personal Supplemental Breathing Systems in cold water were identified as Safety Issues.)
- 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.)
- MA60, en route, west of Bima Indonesia, 2011 (On 12 December 2011, the crew of a Xian MA60 delayed their response to an engine fire warning until the existence of a fire had been confirmed by visual inspection and then failed to follow the memory engine shutdown drill properly so that fire continued for considerably longer than it should have. The Investigation found that an improperly tightened fuel line coupling which had been getting slowly but progressively worse during earlier flights had caused the fire. It was also concluded that the pilots' delay in responding to the fire had prolonged risk exposure and "jeopardised the safety of the flight".)
- A321, vicinity London Gatwick, UK 2020 (On 26 February 2020, after difficulty starting an Airbus A321 left engine for the first flight of the day, the same difficulty recurred on the third flight followed by subsequent en-route abnormalities affecting both engines. After no fault was found during post flight maintenance investigation, similar problems occurred starting the left engine and after takeoff from Gatwick, both engines malfunctioned and a MAYDAY return followed. The continuing Investigation has already found that the engine problems were attributable to fuel system contamination following the addition of 37 times the maximum permitted dosage of Kathon biocide during prior scheduled maintenance work.)
- 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