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A neglected essentialA neglected essential

By David Jack Kenny

Pop quiz: Can you name one maneuver that is (a) so basic that it must be mastered before the first solo, (b) apt to be needed on absolutely every flight, but (c) rarely practiced by certificated pilots?

If you answered “the go-around,” give yourself 20 points and a pat on the back. A typical year sees about 40 accidents during the seemingly simple process of converting a descent into a climb. Many are induced by an overreaction to some unexpected event, turning a transition that should be smooth and controlled into a jerky, uncoordinated emergency.

On the morning of July 19, 2014, a 1967-model Mooney M20F departed Potsdam, New York, Municipal Airport. At the controls was its owner, a 63-year-old, 730-hour instrument-rated private pilot. Along for the ride were his college-age daughter and one of her classmates. No flight plan had been filed, and according to family members, they had no particular itinerary. It was just a sight-seeing flight.

Some time after 10 a.m., an air-tour pilot waiting for customers at the Lake Placid Airport heard a Unicom transmission from an inbound Mooney requesting an airport advisory. The tour pilot replied that winds were calm, with no reported traffic in the area.  The Mooney pilot then announced his intention to land straight in on Runway 14. A few minutes later the tour pilot heard the Mooney make several attempts to contact another airplane that was not yet visible from the airport grounds, apparently without success. Five minutes after that, the pilot of the Mooney announced that he was on a two-mile final for Runway 14.

At least five witnesses at the airport saw what happened next, including a second pilot for the same air-tour outfitter, the airport’s office manager, and a mother and son taxiing out for departure in a Diamond DA-40. Several other witnesses saw some part of the accident sequence from off-airport locations. Their accounts generally agreed—except on one key point.

As the Mooney approached the threshold of Runway 14, a Luscombe 8A based at Lake Placid turned final for Runway 32.  Apparently seeing one another, both pilots then side-stepped to their respective rights and began to go around. The Luscombe pilot re-entered left traffic for Runway 14 and landed without incident, unaware that anything had happened.

At the sound of the Mooney’s engine going to full power, the witnesses at the airport looked over to see it pitch up steeply while simultaneously banking right so hard that several thought the wingtip must have hit the ground. (The wingtip and nav light were subsequently found undamaged, so apparently this was not the case.) Its pilot “then appeared to recover the airplane” and began a gentler right turn. An angry transmission on the CTAF frequency was followed by a calmer, “I will follow you in,” as the airplane began a shallow climb.

The first air-tour pilot watched it pass the runway threshold and noted that its landing gear was still down, and it was climbing “at a steeper than normal angle at a slow speed.” As soon as the airplane began turning left, its nose dropped and it entered a counterclockwise spin, hitting the ground in a steep nose-down attitude before it had completed a single turn. Fire consumed most of the cabin before first responders arrived.

The Luscombe had no electrical system. Its pilot relied on a handheld radio for communications but acknowledged that it delivered “varying degrees of performance and reliability.” He insisted that he had made standard position calls but had not seen or heard any other aircraft. The two pilots in the Diamond told investigators that they’d heard his transmissions but none from the Mooney, while the first tour pilot reported having heard the Mooney but not the Luscombe. His colleague and the office manager thought they heard both, but hadn’t paid close attention.

His abrupt reaction suggests that the pilot of the Mooney never heard the Luscombe’s transmissions. The events that followed are typical of far too many go-around accidents. Surprised by a situation that while alarming, wasn’t yet a true emergency, the pilot made too many abrupt inputs too quickly—full power, pitch up, a hard bank—rather than stabilizing the airplane, regaining airspeed, and reconfiguring for climb. Once both aircraft side-stepped to the right, the danger of collision vanished. All that was left to do was climb and fly a normal pattern.

In the shock of the unexpected, it’s easy to forget that a go-around doesn’t usually require an immediate climb. All that’s immediately necessary is to not land—but to not land, the airplane must be configured to fly. The climb will come after building sufficient airspeed, which usually requires cleaning up—retracting the gear and raising the flaps in small increments. Done smoothly, it’s a nonevent. It should be second nature.