The Human Factor: Overcoming Go-Around Hesitation

Learning to abandon a risky approach early.

Go Around

Go Around

A 727 was approaching Ketchikan, Alaska, high and fast. Despite several warnings from the copilot, the captain elected to continue the visual approach. The airplane landed long and fast on the slush-covered runway, and the captain quickly deployed the spoilers and thrust reversers and applied maximum braking. Then, when it appeared they would not be able to stop the airplane before reaching the end of the runway, the captain said, “We’re going around!” He attempted to stow the thrust reversers and shoved the thrust levers forward. It soon became apparent the engines would not come out of reverse thrust, so the captain reverted to trying to stop the airplane, but by then it was too late, and the airplane crashed into a ravine off the end of the runway, resulting in one passenger fatality. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the airplane should have been able to stop on the runway even with the higher-than-normal landing speed if the pilot had not tried to abort the landing. Company procedures specified that an airplane is committed to a full-stop landing after the thrust reversers are deployed, and warned that attempts to rapidly stow the reversers and add power often result in failure of the reversers to stow properly.

A missionary pilot on base leg to a very short landing strip located on the side of a valley at almost 6,000 feet elevation was blinded by the rising sun. As he turned onto the short final approach, he realized he was higher than specified on the strip chart. Rather than simply turning back down the valley at the specified missed approach point on the chart, beyond which he was committed to land, he began doing an S-turn on final to try to lose altitude. When he realized he was still too high and saw that there were people gathered at the far end of the runway, he decided to go around, even though he was far beyond the point where he was committed to land. The airplane crashed into a banana tree, but the pilot and passengers only suffered minor injuries. Missionary organizations stress that a go-around is usually not possible past the go-around point.

The pilot of a CE-501 SP flew the ILS to Runway 04 at North Bend, Oregon, and landed on the wet runway with a gusty tailwind. Water on the runway caused hydroplaning, so the pilot decided to abort the landing. The airplane struck five localizer antennas, but the pilot was able to return for a landing on Runway 13.

Many articles have been written on the subject of going around, and a go-around is one of the more difficult maneuvers a pilot has to learn, especially when it is initiated late in the approach or in the flare. But as difficult as a last-second go-around is, it is not nearly as difficult as making the decision to abort the landing. This could be because most pilots are optimists. After all, even on a clear day, the very act of flying requires leaving the ground and trusting our lives to a machine and our own skill. On stormy days when people are looking up at the clouds and lightning and saying how bad it looks, pilots are searching the clouds, the radar and the weather reports to figure out how they might be able to make it through the storm. It takes a person with an optimistic confidence in himself and his equipment to take off into the same weather that others are looking at in fear.

By the same token a certain amount of optimistic confidence is natural in a pilot, an overly optimistic attitude can lead to wishful thinking. This attitude leads to many of the common human factor accidents, and it is more likely that a pilot will fall prey to wishful thinking on final approach, so the closer a pilot is to his destination, the less likely he is to turn around, divert or abandon the approach. For example, a pilot who realizes he is low on gas many miles from the destination is going to find some place to stop and fill the tanks. As a pilot who is low on gas approaches his destination, wishful thinking can start to kick in. Because of a desire to avoid stopping for gas that close to the destination, the pilot might decide he has enough gas to make it without any specific data to support that decision.

A desire to look good also can lead to wishful thinking. A go-around on final approach is noticeable to everyone on the ground and in the airplane, so the pilot might rationalize the situation to the point that he decides he can make the landing safely and avoid the embarrassment of a go-around. The pilot also might want to avoid wasting the additional time and fuel expended as a result of aborting a landing.

It is a relatively simple and straightforward task to learn how to do a go-around and maintain the ability to do so. However, there are no obvious simple answers to how we can mentally prepare ourselves to actually make the decision to abort the landing in the face of the internal and external pressures we face to get the airplane on the runway at the destination. As I pondered how we might be able to enhance the likelihood of abandoning an unstable approach early in the approach, when it is much safer, I realized one problem is that pilots flying visually rarely initiate go-arounds under operational conditions. It is almost always something we practice on a flight or simulator training session dedicated to those types of maneuvers. Thus there is little or no mental or muscle memory of doing a go-around in normal flight operations, and no significant expectation that the approach might end in a go-around. The expectation is that we are going to land the airplane.

The only way to establish the mental and muscle memory of doing operational go-arounds is to do them on some sort of a regular basis. There is obviously no “one size fits all” solution here. Missionary pilots typically do many takeoffs and landings every day, so I proposed to the missionary aviation community that each pilot be required to do one operational go-around every month. Doing at least 12 operational go-arounds each year would establish the perception that go-arounds do happen. It would keep a pilot current and competent at accomplishing a go-around. Best of all, if an approach was a little off but the pilot was still tempted to try to make it, he could say to himself, “I might as well make this my monthly go-around.” Likewise, if someone asked him why he abandoned the approach, he could say, “I was doing my monthly operational go-around.” Someone who doesn’t fly much might want to do one each quarter or twice a year, or maybe every time he flies. With the airlines’ emphasis on reducing fuel consumption and being on time, this would obviously not be a practical exercise for them. Perhaps the operational go-around could be included in a LOFT (line-oriented flight training) scenario in the simulator.

The other part of this equation is that once you are on the runway, it is too late to do a go-around. If the runway is too short to stop the airplane in time, it is almost certainly too short to take off again, especially if thrust reversers have been deployed. As the captain at Ketchikan experienced, it can take a significant amount of time to stow the reversers and get the engines back up to full power, or the reversers might not stow properly, making it impossible to take off again. It is much better to go off the end of the runway at idle power with the airplane decelerating to the slowest possible speed compared with going off the end of the runway at full power with the airplane accelerating.

This would seem to be an obvious point, but there continue to be accidents in which pilots attempt to take off again after landing long. Having given in to the lure of wishful thinking and continuing the approach in the face of obvious indications that the airplane is too high and too fast, the pilot hears the siren call of wishfully thinking that maybe he can still salvage things by taking off again. Even experienced professional pilots can be sucked into this type of thinking, so I would challenge every pilot to accomplish a reasonable number of operational go-arounds throughout the year. This will prepare you to take the conservative response and abort an unstabilized approach early, when it is a non-event, eliminating any temptation to take off again after landing long.