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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
- SU95, Moscow Sheremetyevo Russia, 2019 (On 5 May 2019, a Sukhoi RRJ-95B making a manually-flown return to Moscow Sheremetyevo after a lightning strike caused a major electrical systems failure soon after departure made a mismanaged landing which featured a sequence of three hard bounces of increasing severity. The third of these occurred with the landing gear already collapsed and structural damage and a consequential fuel-fed fire followed as the aircraft veered off the runway at speed. The subsequent evacuation was only partly successful and 41 of the 73 occupants died and 3 sustained serious injury. An Interim Report has been published.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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, 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.)
- 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