Proficient Pilot

Landing expectancy

August 1, 1998

A friend had recently purchased a used Cessna 182RG, and I was providing him with the 10 hours of instruction that he needed to comply with his insurance requirements. About halfway through the checkout, we were on final approach to Southern California's Big Bear Airport with two other friends in back. The long-range fuel tanks were nearly full, too, which meant that the airplane was almost at its maximum-allowable gross weight.

Big Bear is an uncontrolled airport with an elevation of 6,748 feet, and the density altitude reported on the AWOS frequency on that summer day was 9,700 feet.

While we were on a one-mile final approach to Runway 26, a Piper Warrior was on the run-up pad adjacent to the approach end of the runway. "Uh-oh," I thought, "he's starting to move." But my friend was concentrating so intently on his approach that he wasn't aware of the drama about to unfold.

When we had descended to about 150 feet, it was obvious that the Piper pilot was oblivious to our presence. He nonchalantly taxied onto the runway for takeoff without so much as making an S-turn to look for traffic or uttering a word on the CTAF frequency. I said nothing and waited for the go-around to begin. After what seemed like an interminable delay, my friend gingerly applied partial power, but the heavy airplane was configured for landing and failed to respond with enthusiasm. Instead, it sagged toward the runway in a nose-high attitude.

Had it not been for my intervention, the result of my friend's timidity with the airplane would have been predictable and unappreciated by his new insurance company.

My friend made two major mistakes. The first was not recognizing soon enough that a go-around was necessary; he failed to shift mental gears quickly enough to reverse his course of action even after the need to execute a go-around had become obvious to him.

Aviation psychologists refer to this form of denial as landing expectancy, a perception that conditions are not as threatening as they really are and that a satisfactory approach and landing can be completed. Consequently, a pilot tends to continue beyond the point where safety and logic warrant otherwise. Tragedy is often the result of not taking positive action soon enough.

Experience does not offer immunity from landing expectancy. The more successful approaches and landings a pilot has made, the more deeply ingrained will be his confidence that the next approach will be as successful as all others have been.

Many accidents occur every year because pilots are not as prepared to abandon an approach as they are to continue.

This provides a clue to a reliable and simple technique that can be used during every approach to combat and eliminate the complacency associated with landing expectancy. All a pilot has to do is ask himself at some point during every approach, "Am I as prepared to reject this approach or landing as I am to continue?"

My friend's second mistake was being timid during his attempted pull-up. There is only one way to execute a go-around: aggressively. This escape maneuver demands the immediate application of maximum-allowable power (especially when heavily loaded at a high density altitude). Because a go-around typically is begun with the airplane in a high-drag configuration, full power is required to arrest the descent and begin a climb. Pilots often apply only partial power in a misguided attempt to "save the engine" (especially when turbo charged). Although it usually is admirable to avoid rapid and large throttle movements, the rare occasion of a go-around is not the time to exercise conservatism. Concurrent with the application of full power, the pilot should comply with the memorized go-around instructions provided in the pilot's operating handbook. This includes adjusting aircraft pitch to achieve the maximum climb rate possible. Consider that this might require a somewhat nose-low attitude and having to accept a sink rate until the flaps are retracted sufficiently to enable the airplane to climb.

With the operation of a heavily loaded aircraft at high density altitude, it is possible that even an aggressively executed go-around might not prevent a loss of altitude while retracting the flaps (and landing gear) because of the limited power available from normally aspirated engines.

One way to determine the go-around capability of an airplane at high density altitude is to practice the maneuver with a full load when a mile or two above sea level. At 9,000 feet, for example, begin a simulated approach with the airplane in the landing configuration to, say, 8,500 feet, not an unusually high density altitude for many airports in the western United States.

Upon reaching 8,500 feet, initiate a go-around to determine how much altitude might be lost during (partial) flap retraction and before the aircraft begins to climb. This provides some indication of what can be expected during an actual go-around under similar conditions. Unfortunately, the loss of 100 feet or so of indicated altitude during the maneuver might not seem dramatic when practicing at altitude. Try, however, to imagine what losing this altitude would be like when on short final and experiencing the visual and unnerving sensation of the ground rushing up to meet you.