It has been said that every approach to a landing—whether from the VFR traffic pattern or an ILS, and everything in between, should be treated as a a go-around situation. If conditions are conducive to actually, you know, landing, then by all means do so. But be prepared—spring-loaded, some advise—to execute a go-around balked landing or rejected landing, whatever the term du jour is.
That’s all well and good, but there are two problems. The first is determining when to go around. The other and larger problem is what happens when pilots make that decision. Sadly, they often mishandle the maneuver and wind up in the weeds next to the runway or prang it onto the pavement just past the threshold. The accident record is littered with examples of go-arounds that didn’t work, for whatever reasons. Let’s try to demystify some of this, and provide a set of procedures which should suit almost everyone, IFR or not.
Deciding to Go Around
There are two basic reasons to go around: an obstruction on the runway or something amiss with the airplane’s configuration or position relative to the runway. Let’s tackle them both.
That obstruction? It’s usually another airplane, but it can be a vehicle, animal or other object. Plus, it might be something you can’t determine on your own and ATC has done it for you. (The tower controllers presume pilots can handle the maneuver and likely are as shocked as anyone when they discover the truth.)
And the reason you’re going around may not even be something you can readily identify; controllers frequently command a go-around when the preceding traffic is slow to exit the runway. You may or may not be able to identify the offending airplane, even if you were looking for it, since you should be more focused on the landing you’re about to make, not the one just before you.
Executing a missed approach is a similar maneuver, but only because what had been an approach to landing a moment before is now something different. It’s similar because of the need to abort an approach and landing, but that’s where it ends. For one, the airplane probably doesn’t have full flaps deployed and usually is motoring along at a high enough speed that it has plenty of energy. Instead, the biggest challenge of the missed approach is yet to come: Flying the miss itself, getting back in the clag (if you ever flew out of it) and maneuvering the airplane for another stab at the approach.
Three final points about going around. First, the mindset that says a go-around is normal, a landing isn’t, is a good one to have. If, in fact, you’re spring-loaded to reject the landing, actually doing so shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise. And—short of an unforecast tailwind—surprise in an airplane is never a good thing.
The second thing is once you’ve made the decision to go around—or it’s been made for you—don’t reverse it and try to land out of an attempted go-around. We’d argue strongly that once power has been increased, you’ve changed the airplane’s configuration and should follow through.
The third and final thing is to take things as deliberate, planned steps. This is another reason we never should be surprised by a go-around: Surprises often result in us doing things incorrectly, in the wrong sequence or not at all. In a go-around, just as with so many things we do in an airplane, there’s a sequence we should use. Here’s why.
Once we’ve decided to go around, the first thing to do is increase power. Various references suggest adding climb or full power, but we can think of at least one fatal accident—involving a P-51 Mustang that got low and slow—in which immediate application of near-full power resulted in the airplane rolling over on its back and crashing.
This isn’t the kind of behavior one would expect from, say, a Cessna 150, but the immediate application of full power when low and slow can create more problems than you already have, depending on any number of variables.
Instead of slamming on full power, we’d argue for a more measured approach to the go-around. Add power, sure, but smoothly bring up enough of it to arrest the descent and begin trending the airplane into a climb. As you do so, you’ll need to either add some nose-down pitch or re-trim, presuming the airplane is trimmed for its approach speed. Once you’ve verified the airplane is no longer in a descent and the airspeed is stable or increasing, we can begin to tackle the other chores a go-around presents. They’re outlined below.
Two final words about bringing up the power. Many of us flying big-bore piston engines run them lean of peak EGT. We often leave the mixture control alone during descent rather than go full rich. If so, when you begin to add power, lead with the mixture control. Put it where you want it, then begin adding power.
Finally, once we’ve arrested the descent and the airspeed is coming up, we have other things to do. Mainly, we’ll be changing the airplane’s configuration from landing to climbing. That means raising the flaps and gear, perhaps, and resetting the pitch trim. As we’ll argue below, the exact sequence depends on the airplane and its systems (i.e., how quickly the flaps and gear come up). Especially when flying something with a good climb rate.
Once the power is coming up, we must establish the proper pitch attitude. This might not be as easy as it sounds since we likely have at least some flap extended, plus the gear. As mentioned, we’ve likely also trimmed the airplane for the approach at a slower speed. When we bring the power up, the airplane will naturally seek an attitude consistent with its trimmed airspeed. That may or may not—likely not—be the attitude you want. So, some nose-down force on the pitch control will be necessary.
Here’s one place the go-around can get tricky: Presuming you’re a single-pilot operation, you only have two hands. In some sequence, you need to add power—which can involve manipulating four or five different controls—while establishing and maintaining the desired pitch attitude. Then you need to start retracting gear and flaps, both of which may require re-trimming. Fun times.
The attitude you want to establish will vary with the airplane and conditions, but a five-degree nose-up attitude is a good place to start. This attitude will help ensure the descent is arrested. By the time power is added in most airplanes’ landing configuration and its descent toward the runway is arrested, you’ll likely be forced to generate some hefty nose-down force on the pitch control. Once power and pitch are set according to your desires, removing the nose-up pitch trim you added likely is next. The setting you’re looking for probably is close to that used for takeoff.
But don’t worry about the trim too much, especially since you haven’t even started changing the airplane’s configuration. The key at this stage is arresting the descent, establishing and maintaining an appropriate pitch attitude and bringing up the power.
Transitioning the airplane from one configured for landing to one optimized for climb should not be a huge challenge, yet the accident record (see sidebar at left) contradicts us. Too often, pilots executing a go-around do things in the wrong sequence, or fail to do some other things.
For most airplanes in the landing configuration, flaps are the greatest drag-producers when compared to landing gear. To minimize drag, maximize climb capability and help maintain directional control, we need to get the flaps at least partially retracted before worrying about the gear. This has the added benefit of giving you something to land on—wheels—if the descent cannot be arrested for some reason.
To us, a normal landing uses full flaps. Unless the runway is way longer than we need, we’ll also use full flaps in a crosswind. The point is you’ll normally have full flaps deployed when you decide to go around and will need to get rid of some of them. On airplanes with manual/Johnson Bar flaps, retracting a notch or two is immediate. On those with electric flaps, not so much: A flap-position detent is your friend. Put the switch in the detent you want and fly the airplane.
We’ll basically conduct the early part of a go-around with partial flaps, then raise the landing gear, ensuring we have a positive rate of climb and plenty of airspeed before we raise all the flaps.
We can’t stress strongly enough the need to change the airplane’s configuration in the correct order. The last thing you want to do is pull off all the flaps in a nose-high, full-power configuration. That sinking feeling you get will remind you.
What comes after the go-around is up to you. If you’re IFR and are executing a missed approach, going back for another look probably isn’t the smartest thing, unless you know what went wrong and can fix it on the next approach. If you’re VFR and a crosswind is the reason for the aborted landing, it might be time for a different runway, either here or at another airport. This might also be a good time to climb out, leave the pattern and calm down a bit before making another attempt.
Like any other maneuver we’ll execute in an airplane, the go-around’s success depends on whether we’re doing things in the correct sequence. To make sure, grab a CFI and go out and practice, letting the instructor decide whether each landing should continue.