Think about all of the decisions a pilot makes every moment he or she is in command — choices that must fit together just so to ensure a safe flight. Sometimes the choices are simple, like correcting for a gusty crosswind in a light trainer. Other times they’re considerably more challenging, like successfully controlling an airliner when the electric trim goes nuts. Of course, there are thousands more decisions in between these extremes.
Consider for a moment just one decision, an item that seldom garners much attention except when things go haywire: How do pilots decide when to abandon an approach and go around for another try? Some pilots say they go around if things get really bad, although the definition of “really bad” seems to differ from pilot to pilot. Others offer up the equally vague “I know the situation when I see it.” Some cringe at the mention of a go-around, reasoning that it points to a pilot’s inability to make the landing work the first time. But knowing when to say enough during an approach, whether in the clouds or the blue sky, is an important decision we train for, or at least one we should be training for.
“Instructors don’t spend time telling pilots they need to be as good at go-arounds as the landings themselves,” says Tom Turner, a 31-year flight instructor and the executive director of the American Bonanza Society’s Air Safety Foundation. “Many think they’ll be criticized for whatever techniques they used to get themselves into the go-around situation in the first place.”
All too often, pilots don’t make a go-around work when they need it most, as many accident reports confirm. Are pilots just out of practice, not only in the elements of the maneuver itself, but in the decision process that leads to a go-around — so out of practice, in fact, that they don’t even consider the option?
In July 2010, a Cirrus SR22 crashed half a mile north of the Caldwell, New Jersey, airport in clear weather and calm winds. Witnesses said it appeared to be high and fast on final and touched down about halfway down the airport’s 4,552-foot runway. After what witnesses called a bounce, the pilot executed a go-around, during which another witness observed the airplane pitch up and enter a left turn before dropping and impacting the ground in a steep, nose-low attitude. Three people, including the pilot, perished in the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation uncovered no evidence of mechanical malfunction or failure, although the flaps were found in the fully extended position. The Cirrus’ pilot operating handbook calls for flaps to be retracted to 50 percent during the go-around, then fully retracted once obstacles are cleared. The board determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot’s failure to maintain aircraft control during the go-around following a hard landing. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s continuance of an unstabilized final approach and the improper use of flaps during the go-around.”
Poor training or a lack of training when things go wrong with home plate in sight is not a problem limited to low-time aviators. In July 2013, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 stalled and struck the seawall near the approach end of Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport. In that accident, three type-rated pilots sitting in the cockpit watched the airspeed steadily decreasing during the approach. When the flying pilot finally attempted a go-around, it was too late and the airliner fell out of the sky, striking the tail first.
In August 2016, an Emirates Boeing 777 crashed during a go-around attempt at Dubai International Airport. A post-impact fire destroyed the airplane, although everyone on board managed to escape the inferno that followed the crash. While the United Arab Emirates’ General Civil Aviation Authority is still writing the final report, the preliminary edition offers a chilling look at the pilot’s decision process during the final few minutes of the arrival.
The Emirates crew was alerted on final approach to something unusual when the airliner’s automated “wind shear, wind shear” alert sounded in the cockpit, having sensed a headwind that changed to a tailwind before switching back again. The airplane’s actual speed is still unknown, as is the reason why it touched down farther along the runway than normal. The nose gear remained in the air long enough after the mains were planted, however, that the Boeing’s onboard computers again alerted the crew they’d had a “long landing,” beyond the optimal point on the runway.
The captain initiated a go-around and pitched the 777 for a climb in preparation for a second landing attempt. The gear began to retract six seconds later. Most pilots can imagine the activity in the cockpit at this point — probably something along the lines of “positive rate, gear up.” In this case, however, the airplane didn’t climb above 85 feet before it began to settle back to the runway. The Boeing’s ground proximity warning system warned, “Don’t sink, don’t sink,” at about the same moment — much too late, of course — that the two giant Rolls-Royce Trent engines powering the 777 began spinning up toward full power. With the landing gear still in transit and a speed of only 125 knots, this Boeing’s fate was sealed. The aircraft struck the runway, tearing the right engine away and igniting a fire that eventually destroyed it.
What Are We Doing Wrong?
Every one of us remembers our training days, when our instructor would wait until we appeared to have the runway made. That’s when the instructor would point out the imaginary cow or deer crossing the runway. After the right number of practice attempts, the reaction became almost automatic, almost always from the same point in the approach. Students pour the coals to the motor, pitch up a bit, and usually rid the airplane of the drag items sure to slow the climb, such as gear and flaps.
I remember my first go-around, with a fresh private pilot certificate in my pocket, in a Cessna 150 many years ago at Sky Harbor Airport, north of Chicago. Looking back, I still can’t remember ever having practiced a go-around before my private check ride. But I do remember the fear I saw in the eyes of the people on the ground I passed over as I tried to make the 150 fly — with full flaps still extended. After what seemed like an eternity of nosing over to keep the little airplane flying and pulling back to clear the buildings, I happened to milk up a notch of flaps. The little red Cessna lunged forward. I realized the connection barely in time to be able to come back around for a full stop. I never wanted to try that maneuver again, and I didn’t for many years.
The reason for a botched go-around isn’t always so easily determined. Examining the August Emirates crash requires that we consider what role the aircraft’s automation, as well as the pilot’s understanding of the operation of that technology, played in the outcome. To be clear, the Boeing 777’s automation apparently functioned precisely the way it was designed. Initial reports indicate the Emirates crew believed the autothrottles were responsible for bringing the engines up to full power during a go-around, a fact they realized too late was incorrect.
Once the Boeing’s main gear touched the concrete, the autothrottles were removed from the solution and the engines remained at idle until someone jammed them forward just seconds before impact. The question in this and other accidents, of course, is why pilots are often unaware of how the automation can be expected to function in a go-around. Regularly practicing the go-around maneuver from a variety of arrival situations would seem to be the only solution for pilots to reach the necessary level of performance and proficiency.
A stable approach is the best indicator of a good landing. It’s a theorem pilots hear whether they’re in the left seat of a Beechcraft Bonanza or an Airbus A380. “Stable” can be defined, of course, but what about the precise location of the final decision point on the approach when being unstabilized means going around?
Pilots of transport-category aircraft normally explain “stable” as, at the 1,000 agl point, having the gear down, final flaps set, and the aircraft’s speed within a predetermined safety margin above reference speed. If the flying pilot is correcting to the standard, he or she will continue to the 500 agl point. The idea is that a go-around should be initiated. It just doesn’t work out that way in reality, however, with pilots continuing despite clearly unstable indications.
In a Cirrus SR22, a stabilized approach might mean final flaps are set by 300 to 500 agl with a speed within 5 knots of the 75 required across the fence. But like the jet jockeys, how far outside these parameters means a go-around is necessary? Is a 74-knot speed cause for panic? If the Boeing’s ref speed is 121 knots and the flying pilot sees 123 on short final, does he or she bail? Clearly, there are standards somewhere. The problem is the standard is not necessarily the same for everyone.
Think back to the last time you practiced or flew an actual go-around, and you’ll realize why many pilots struggle with the “when” aspect of the go-around decision. Knowing when can really only be based on experience, mated to some predetermined guidelines. Success also means more than simply knowing when. Once the decision to go around is made, pilots must also understand precisely what steps are necessary and in what order for a safe climb away from the runway, lest training shortcomings are demonstrated the hard way, as they were to the Emirates crew at Dubai.
Dave Carbaugh, the retired chief pilot of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes Flight Operations Safety group, co-authored the Airplane Upset Recovery Training Aid. This book has become the de facto guide in the recent push for upset prevention and recovery training to be added to flying curriculums around the globe. Carbaugh believes one of the problems causing pilots to lose control of airplanes during go-around maneuvers is that all too often the maneuver is practiced from exactly the same point every time: decision height. Anyone who has attended jet recurrent training knows full well that on the single-engine ILS, you’ll see nothing at minimums and will need to go around. But how realistic is the effort when everyone knows it’s coming? Here the pilot had time to think through the process of applying power, deciding when to pitch the aircraft and when to begin gently cleaning up offending drag to prepare for another try.
All well and good, except that many go-arounds don’t begin at decision height. They might start at 500 above minimums or on a 3-mile final, where flying the go-around the way a pilot was trained on that single-engine ILS could lead to blowing through a relatively low-altitude restriction, or overspeeding the flaps or landing gear in a rush to comply with ATC or some other issue. Carbaugh confirms that these kinds of errors evolve from pilots trying to accomplish too much too quickly. He says changing an airplane’s configuration from heading down toward the runway, with everything hanging out, to climbing and being cleaned up is no small task. He advises pilots to slow down and methodically accomplish one item at a time, ensuring it’s all working the way they want before they turn their attention to some other task.
Turner says another reason for the go-around mess is that “we don’t train and evaluate stalls, often a major factor in go-arounds, the way they occur. There’s a strong correlation between stall mishaps in go-arounds being made worse if the aircraft happens to be heavy or loaded toward a rearward center of gravity, making the aircraft more difficult to control.”
Whose job is it, then, to set pilots straight about the elements of a go-around? Looking deep into the new Airman Certification Standards recently created for private pilots, you’ll find some, although honestly not much, guidance for the go-around maneuver that has the potential to cause so many problems. Still, the ACS is a vast improvement over the explanation of the go-around found in the original Private Pilot Practical Test Standards.
The ACS expects an applicant “to exhibit satisfactory knowledge, risk management and skills associated with a go-around/rejected landing with emphasis on factors that contribute to landing conditions that may require a go-around.” What’s missing, of course, are the individual steps, the guideposts, for a successful go-around, which leads us back again to the guidance that can be offered by an experienced instructor, one who has done a little homework. There’s considerable guidance about the go-around maneuver in the Practical Test Standards for the ATP certificate, a place few might ever look.
Inside the PTS, under the rejected-landing option, flight instructors, pilots and safety managers will find meaty topics to discuss, such as being able to detail the rejected-landing procedures and the conditions under which the pilot will use them, or the appropriate power settings and pitch attitudes demanded to create a particular desired performance, as well as when the pilot will retract the gear and flaps, and in what order, while maintaining a predetermined airspeed. There’s even a topic to guide a discussion about the appropriate use of trim during the go-around maneuver, no small issue when pouring the coals to most any aircraft already trimmed nose-high usually calls for immediate, considerable and sometimes unexpected forward pressure on the control column or stick to avoid a stall.
In June 2013, the Flight Safety Foundation joined with experts from the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, the International Air Transport Association, the European Cockpit Association, Eurocontrol and others, convening a Go-Around Safety Forum in Brussels to study the go-around problem. The teams used the IATA GADM-STEADES database and discovered just over 28,000 air safety reports filed between 2003 and 2011 coded with a mention of “go-around.” The forum presented data showing that for every 1,000 flights, somewhere between one and three executed a go-around, a tiny number compared with what anyone expected. The researchers also realized how rare the maneuver is for most commercial pilots. On average, short-haul pilots perform a go-around once or twice a year, while long-haul pilots may make one only every two to three years. Even in the face of an unstable approach, less than 5 percent of these professional pilots executed a go-around. The stats also showed that one in 10 of the go-around efforts resulted in a potentially hazardous outcome, such as exceeding aircraft performance limits or fuel endurance.
A stable approach, whether in a Cessna 150, a Pilatus PC-12 or a Boeing 777, means understanding the safety margins that exist on every approach, and understanding they were created in the hope of never actually being needed. To help prevent accidents stemming from poor go-around techniques, though, pilots need to not only train more often, but also understand that realistically, a successful landing from an unstable approach means nothing more than having gotten away with it this time.
Pilots must maintain situational awareness of their aircraft on final approach. Even if the company that operates the aircraft has no set criteria for a go-around, each and every pilot in command can create his or her own — standards they simply refuse to violate because of their understanding of the risks involved. We must demand training that includes work on go-arounds.
No matter the category of our pilot certificate, we need to train the way we fly, and the go-around must be recognized as a normal segment of any flight, despite the fact that it’s not used on each and every trip. The point of training, after all, is to keep us sharp both physically and mentally for what could happen as well as what will happen.