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Stay up where it's safeStay up where it's safe

Student pilots shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the surface. At healthy altitudes they usually manage pretty well, but let them get close to terra firma and mischief frequently results. More than 80 percent of all accidents on student solos take place during attempts to take off, land, or go around. The common element? Proximity to Mother Earth. They should just stay away from the ground.

Unfortunately, most of them happen to live there, and the aircraft in which they train also need to come down every once in a while. Given that inconvenient reality, we’ll have to settle for some less perfect way of keeping students from tangling with terrain. Not letting them take off would be another approach, but wouldn’t improve the health of the flight training industry. We’ve previously noted that taking off is not without its hazards, and once it’s accomplished successfully, there’s still the problem of getting back down in one piece. Skillful landing technique may be the ideal solution in the long run (say, by the day of the checkride), but the risks that lurk between here and there can be greatly reduced by early mastery of the go-around—meaning not just how, but when.

The how can’t be ignored. A quick review found 89 accidents during attempted go-arounds on instructional flights over the past 10 years. While that’s less than 5 percent of all fixed-wing training accidents, it’s still about one every six weeks—a lot for a maneuver every student supposedly has down cold before getting signed off to solo. And for at least two reasons, it’s almost certainly an undercount. When certificated pilots suffer accidents while flying solo, the NTSB almost always labels them “personal” flights even when said pilots were known to be practicing maneuvers for more advanced certificates. And classifying touch-and-go accidents as takeoff, landing, or go-around is often arbitrary.

Of the 89 we know about, more than half (47) happened on student solos, suggesting that a maneuver that ought to be second nature isn’t automatic once things start getting crazy. More than a third (17) were losses of directional control, mostly off the left side of the runway. Coordinating that rapid increase to full power with sufficient right rudder takes some practice. Another quarter (11) were chiefly due to errors configuring the aircraft, most often retracting the flaps too suddenly or failing to retract them at all. Neglecting to turn off carburetor heat also figures into the picture. In 10, the students simply waited too long and found themselves without room to climb, while nine stalled after pitching up too hard. Nose-up trim meant to ease the landing contributes to this, as can the sudden effects of full power at low airspeed.

Only three of those 89 accidents were on solo flights by pilots with recreational or higher certificates, underlining the difficulty of identifying that kind of training in the NTSB records. The 39 during dual instruction were evenly divided between primary (20) and advanced (19). Having an instructor say “Go around!” at least helps students make that decision in time; only two of the 20 in primary instruction were blamed on excessive delays. Configuration errors, other stalls, and runway excursions caused six apiece.

Curiously enough, late decisions caused more accidents in advanced dual, where there were four—all while practicing emergency approaches after simulated engine failures. This was the second most common cause in advanced instruction; six accidents resulted from attempted single-engine go-arounds in multiengine training (a maneuver strongly discouraged by the flight manuals of many light twins). Between them, pretend powerplant problems accounted for more than half the total, another reminder that instructors need to be careful about when and where they close the throttle and when to admit that it’s not working out. Losses of directional control, configuration errors, and stalls for other reasons each led to three.

Of course, accidents during go-arounds are the least of our worries. Nearly two-thirds of all crashes on student solos are landings gone wrong, and half of those begin with veers or swerves off the side of the runway. Many, if not most, of those might have been avoided had a timely decision to go around been followed by competent execution. That might not help as much with avoiding problems timing the flare, the other gremlin bedeviling student landings. Still, some pull up prematurely or drive the nose gear into the pavement in a panic after seeing too much runway slide behind them. Those students, too (and their aircraft) could have flown again the next day if they’d just remembered that while they do have to come down sometime, they don’t have to do it on the first try.

Or the second. Or the third …

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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