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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
- B773, Singapore, 2016 (On 27 June 2016, a Boeing 777-300ER powered by GE90-115B engines returned to Singapore when what was initially identified as a suspected right engine oil quantity indication problem evidenced other abnormal symptoms relating to the same engine. The engine caught fire on landing. The substantial fire was quickly contained and an emergency evacuation was not performed. The cause of the low oil quantity indication and the fire was a failure of the right engine Main Fuel Oil Heat Exchanger which had resulted in lubrication of the whole of the affected engine by a mix of jet fuel and oil.)
- 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.)
- B744, vicinity Dubai UAE, 2010 (On 3 September 2010, a UPS Boeing 747-400 freighter flight crew became aware of a main deck cargo fire 22 minutes after take off from Dubai. An emergency was declared and an air turn back commenced but a rapid build up of smoke on the flight deck made it increasingly difficult to see on the flight deck and to control the aircraft. An unsuccessful attempt to land at Dubai was followed by complete loss of flight control authority due to fire damage and terrain impact followed. The fire was attributed to auto-ignition of undeclared Dangerous Goods originally loaded in Hong Kong.)
- 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.)
- B38M, en-route, northeast of Jakarta Indonesia, 2018 (On 29 October 2018, a Lion Air Boeing 737-MAX 8 crew had difficulty controlling the pitch of their aircraft after takeoff from Jakarta and after eventually losing control, a high speed sea impact followed. The Investigation found that similar problems had also affected the aircraft’s previous flight following installation of a faulty angle-of-attack sensor and after an incomplete post-flight defect entry, rectification had not occurred. Loss of control occurred because the faulty sensor was the only data feed to an undisclosed automatic pitch down system, MCAS, which had been installed on the 737-MAX variant without recognition of its potential implications.)
- 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.)
- 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