However, some maneuvers are inherently riskier than others. Anyone who flies helicopters will not be surprised to learn that some 40 percent of all helicopter training accidents happen during practice autorotations. In the fixed-wing world, ground reference maneuvers, simulated engine failures, and the 180-degree power-off spot landing all involve reduced margins for error in the actual flying plus limited options in the event of a power loss, bird strike, or other emergency.
The fact that the majority of accidents occur during takeoffs and landings is partly explained by exposure. Every flight begins with a takeoff attempt and, unless something goes seriously wrong in between, ends with a stab at making a landing. The same can’t be said for power-on stalls, turns around a point, or go-arounds, which continue to cause altogether too many accidents for a skill that’s supposed to have been mastered before the first solo.
From 2006 through 2015, incompetently executed go-arounds wrecked some 374 airplanes, an average of more than three per month. Only a dozen were on revenue flights. Twenty percent of the rest were instructional accidents. That’s one and a half times their 13 percent share of the overall accident record, so the excess hazard is significant. Just over half were on student solos, which is understandable—students will have less experience both in judging when a go-around is warranted and in actually carrying it out—but unsettling given, again, that mastery of the go-around is a prerequisite for the solo endorsement. Of course, the fact that the other half happened despite a CFI’s best efforts to prevent them isn’t exactly reassuring, either.
Solo students had the most trouble with maintaining directional control, meaning timely and appropriate rudder pressure. Half their go-around accidents were lateral excursions. This was also the most common type on dual flights, where it accounted for one-third. Stalls ran second in both categories, making up one-third of solo and just over one-quarter of dual accidents. Curiously, errors in aircraft configuration caused three times as many crashes on dual as on solo flights, and only one-third involved complex and/or high-performance airplanes. Flights with instructors in fixed-gear singles still experienced twice as many misconfiguration accidents as student pilots flying similar airplanes by themselves.
The converse of 20 percent happening during training is that nearly 80 percent resulted from certificated pilots failing to apply—or maybe remember—what they’d once learned. (There were also a handful on flights by nonpilots or unauthorized student solos.) Failures to maintain directional control were the single most common here, too, at just under 40 percent. Excessive delays in initiating the go-around were slightly more common than stalls, both of which accounted for just over one-quarter, while configuration errors were relatively rare.
Collectively, these details suggest room for fine-tuning the way that go-arounds are taught. We’ve talked to a number of CFIs who, at least early in their career, taught their students to jam in full power as fast as they could shove the throttle forward because that’s the way they’d learned to do it themselves. This, of course, exacerbates both the pitch-up and left-turning tendencies that accompany increased power. In truth, the go-around is almost never an emergency maneuver, and the earlier it’s initiated the less of an emergency it is. Except for a last-minute obstruction blocking the runway on short final (or in the flare), it’s not necessary to start climbing immediately, but merely to arrest the descent. Teaching a more gradual application of throttle to level off and build airspeed makes it easier to synchronize and calibrate the rudder pressure needed to stay on course and provides more time to retrim and retract flaps or otherwise reduce drag. Done smoothly, a go-around is unexciting—indeed, almost leisurely.
While we’re on the subject, we’d also like to come out against teaching students to trim off all control pressure during the descent. This also produces extreme pitching-up moments and the corresponding need for rapid retrimming when a go-around is required. Instead, we’d suggest trimming just enough to make the back-pressure required to maintain the desired pitch attitude light, which offers the added benefit of improving one’s feel for the airplane. And it’s not just students who should drill go-arounds early and often. The record suggests that a great many certificated pilots never rehearse them between flight reviews, leaving them unprepared to execute a maneuver so basic and routine that it should be second nature.