February 18, 2014
By Thomas A. Horne
What’s the maneuver most fraught with indecision? Hands down, one of the biggest contenders for this prize is the decision to abort a landing. In psychological parlance, this decision, often made on very short notice, is the classic approach-avoidance conflict.
You’ve done all the preparatory maneuvers, and are in full expectance of a normal landing. But at the last minute—or even second—the situation changes. Now you have to throw out the original plan and go through the steps for making a go-around. Are you ready?
You should be. During primary flight training go-arounds receive a fair amount of emphasis—and rightly so. After all, a big part of learning to land is knowing how to judge your touchdown spot on the runway. After enough practice, we get proficient enough to hit our targets most of the time. That target, by the way, is typically defined by most instructors as being within the first third of the runway. If it looks like you’ll sail past, then that’s the cue for a go-around.
What can cause the sorts of conditions that set up a go-around scenario? The list is vast, but the most common causes boil down to:
• A final approach that’s flown either too high, or too fast—or both. The solution: making sure the airplane is configured properly early in the approach sequence, and knowing the power settings needed for maintaining the proper approach speed. Good approaches make good landings, the saying goes—and it’s true.
• Failure to take corrective action soon enough to ensure a touchdown at or slightly beyond the runway threshold. Here, developing the judgment and skill needed to quickly react to unwanted changes in an approach profile is key. As for landing on shorter runways—well, there’s no substitute for experience.
• Poor situational awareness. Let’s say that a tailwind kicks up on final, that another pilot turns final ahead of you, that an airplane taxis into takeoff position as you near the threshold, that a gust of wind sends you into an unwanted crab just as you’re flaring to land, or that a fuel truck crosses the runway. All of these situations, and many more, dictate going around for another landing.
• Indecision. Sometimes, when faced with the unanticipated, there’s a tendency to lock up and continue as though things will somehow change for the better. That, or vacillate between deciding to go around and trying to “save” the landing by pressing on in hopes that technology or exceptional pilot skill will ensure a safe outcome. The July 6, 2013, crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport appears to be a good example of crew lock-up, not to mention just plain poor pilot judgment and proficiency. Even though the airplane’s approach speed was low and decreasing, the crew failed to go around, and failed to understand that the autothrottles were disengaged.
Want a simple rule? Let’s just say that if there’s any doubt about a landing’s outcome, go around. That goes double for landings in instrument meteorological conditions—especially when ceilings and visibilities are in the low IFR range (ceilings below 500 feet, visibilities at or below one statute mile). In this kind of weather pilots have very little time to commit to a landing. Precision approach profiles must be spot on if the airplane is to be in the proper position to make a safe landing. The pressure to continue the approach to a landing can be immense—whether because of dwindling fuel reserves, a distant alternate airport, worsening weather, “get-home-itis,” or simply a pilot’s natural goal-oriented mindset.
Things really become complex when shooting nonprecision instrument approach procedures in adverse weather. While precision approaches, such as the ILS and WAAS-LPV, boost final approach course accuracy by providing excellent lateral and vertical guidance to a decision height or decision altitude, there’s no such help when flying nonprecision approaches. With them, lateral course guidance tolerances are much less accurate, and as for vertical guidance—well, you’re basically on your own.
It can add up to a situation in which you’re close to the ground, with flaps and landing gear extended, and at a relatively low airspeed. You could say the same about flying on short final in good VFR conditions, but in low IFR weather there’s the added danger of flying in clouds while constantly shifting your attention from the instruments to the outside, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the runway.
Let’s say the runway hasn’t appeared yet, and the decision height, decision altitude, or elapsed time is coming up quickly. Now’s the time to perform the missed approach procedure—and don’t forget to inform ATC of your decision. You have to power up, climb away, and clean up the airplane while simultaneously following the published missed approach procedure.
It can be a high-workload, confusing time as you deal with the torque, P-factor, and other aerodynamic effects associated with suddenly transitioning from a descent to a climb—all without the benefit of outside visual references, and all while activating and navigating the missed approach procedure. Dangerous complications can arise if you’re not absolutely familiar with the GPS or other navigator; the steps in activating and carrying out a missed approach are not standardized, and can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Even airline pilots seldom find themselves performing missed approaches; the ability to fly coupled approaches to Category II, III, and IV minimums nearly obviates the need. Crews, airplanes, and approaches certified for autoland can even permit landings without any decision height or runway visual range limitations.
Regular practice and better prelanding briefings are the best ways to prepare for go-arounds and missed approaches. But so is self-awareness. Does something feel not quite right on an approach? Have you missed an altitude, airspeed, or configuration target? Is the descent rate too high or low? If the answer is yes, then be ready to take it around for another try. AOPA
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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