When asked to name the single most important skill to impart to a new pilot—or a pilot checking out in a new model of airplane—most of us would probably say landing without giving the matter much thought. It’s certainly a reasonable choice: Sooner or later, you’ve got to get the thing back on the ground, and it’s a big plus if it doesn’t require repair before the next flight. But if learning to land is Job One, learning how to go around has to place a very close second. After all, new pilots often discover they didn’t actually line things up quite as well as they’d hoped—and even the best of us are liable to find the aircraft we’re following still hasn’t cleared the runway.
Going around seems simple enough. Give it full power—you did set the mixture correctly as part of your pre-landing checklist, right?—and arrest the descent. Begin retracting flaps and gear, if applicable, in small increments as you attain a positive rate of climb. By the time you’re ready to turn crosswind, it should be indistinguishable from any other climb to pattern altitude. In larger, faster, more complicated airplanes, more steps have to be accomplished in less time, and coordinating the throttle with enough rudder to counteract the resulting yaw becomes more critical in higher-powered models. Still, the basic problem is straightforward enough: Make a smooth transition from landing to climb configuration without hitting anything in between.
But simple doesn’t always mean easy, and the data suggest that go-arounds are one essential skill that pilots don’t practice enough. Over the past decade, mishandled go-arounds have resulted in an average of 40 accidents per year. That’s a lot for a maneuver that’s supposed to be automatic by the time a student’s signed off to solo—especially considering that every flight involves a takeoff, and preferably a landing afterward, but it’s possible for a pilot to go from one flight review to the next without ever attempting a go-around. Which, of course, may be part of the problem.
Experience helps. So does training. More than 70 percent of go-around accidents happen to student or private pilots; for all other types of accidents, the figure is less than 60 percent. This is one of several features that accidents during go-arounds share with accidents during landing attempts, which isn’t surprising. What’s the last resort when a landing is going bad?
The high proportion involving private and student pilots helps explain another thing that at first glance seems surprising: Despite the presumably greater difficulty of going around in complex or high-performance models, almost three-quarters of the accident airplanes were fixed-gear singles, and of the 10 model lines that show up most frequently, eight are rated for 200 horsepower or less. Only one of the 10 has retractable gear (the Mooney M20 series).
Other details, however, are genuinely puzzling. Cessna 172s suffered more than twice as many go-around accidents (69) as fixed-gear Piper Cherokees (33) even though their handling characteristics, typical use, and fleet sizes are all fairly similar (by the most recent estimate, about 17,000 172s were active compared to around 15,000 Cherokees). There were only 12 among the 12,000 active Cessna 182s, which see less training duty and whose pilots probably, on average, benefit from a little more experience. Even though they haven’t been built for decades, Cessna 150s still ranked fourth on the list with 20, largely because their pilots occasionally forget that 100 horsepower just isn’t enough to force a climb with all 40 degrees of flaps still hanging out.
What actually goes wrong during go-arounds? All the things you’d expect. Waiting too long to make the decision leads to overruns, failures to climb enough to clear obstacles off the departure end, or stalls if the pilot tries to will the airplane over the trees with back pressure and body English. Configuration errors—particularly forgetting to begin retracting the flaps during climb-out—likewise lead to stalls or straight-ahead collisions. Losses of directional control are always popular; naturally, excursions off the left side of the runway are considerably more frequent than departures to the right.
What can a school (or an instructor) do to help address this problem? As with voting, students should be taught to go around early and often. Consider requiring at least one go-around on every flight, or at least in every session of pattern work, and to encourage students to make that commitment while there’s still plenty of altitude below them. During flight reviews, consider having the pilot demonstrate the first go-around from a generous altitude, maybe 500 agl, so the instructor has plenty of time to assess the technique and take any needed corrective action. Particularly if the pilot owns the airplane, and it’s a model the CFI hasn’t flown much recently, there’s a lot more to be gained than lost from approaching that first go-around with considerable caution.