Surviving The Missed

Plan for missing the approach before you leave the FAF. And remember: The first step on every miss is to initiate a climb before turning.


As a student of NTSB reports and an active instrument flight instructor, I have come to the conclusion we do not stress preparedness for the missed approach procedure enough, either in initial instrument training or in instrument proficiency checks. In addition to collisions with obstacles because of an improperly flown missed, the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, an FAA/industry working group charged with identifying and mitigating the causes of fatal general aviation accidents, has identified loss of control during a missed approach as one of its focus scenarios. This suggests that—even when the pilot attempts to fly the missed approach procedure properly—the workload of doing so may be greater than the pilot is prepared to handle.

So how can we make certain we are properly briefed for the missed approach, so we know how to fly it correctly? What can we do to reduce pilot workload while flying the missed?

Preparing For The Missed
A big part of safely flying a missed approach is to avoid being surprised by what you’ll need to do. As you’re briefing yourself to fly an instrument arrival procedure, be sure to include a briefing on the missed approach procedure as well.

Missed approaches all have one thing in common: They all begin with the word “climb.” In many cases, you’ll initiate a climb straight ahead until you reach a specified altitude, then turn toward a fix or a heading to a holding point. The initial straight-ahead climb will get you safely above obstacles before you have the clearance necessary to initiate a turn safely.

Take for instance the RNAV (GPS) Runway 4 approach at El Dorado, just east of Wichita, Kan., pictured at left. The missed approach procedure calls for climbing straight ahead until reaching 3700 feet, and then turning toward the holding fix. You need to know at least the “initial climb” part of the procedure by heart before you ever begin the approach—because if you have to look down to the chart or your iPad to find and read the missed approach procedure when it’s time to start climbing, you may be distracted enough you continue to descend into the ground, or drift off the safe initial heading. This is true for every other missed approach procedure you’ll fly. To repeat: All missed approach procedures begin with a climb.

Another great way to reduce workload by preparing for the missed approach procedure is to have the airplane trimmed for the missed approach climb. Most IFR airplanes are fairly stable, especially in pitch. This means they tend to seek the airspeed for which they are trimmed. If you fly approaches at the VY or cruise climb speed for the airplane you’re flying, using flaps, landing gear and power to control descent, you’re golden. When you apply power and clean up for a missed approach, the airplane will trend toward the speed and attitude you need for climb.

Fly approaches faster than climb speed and the airplane will not tend to climb at its optimum rate until you change its attitude with either the pitch control or trim. Fly your approach more slowly than your optimum missed-approach climb speed and the airplane will pitch up excessively when you apply missed approach power. In the bargain, drag will increase and climb rate will suffer; the airplane may even stall.

Flying The Missed
Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. This time-honored wisdom of priority applies to flying a missed approach also. Aviate means to turn the airplane’s high-drag descent into a low-drag climb with a minimum of altitude loss in the transition (zero altitude loss if flying a traditional MDA-level off or circling approach technique).

In general, this means advancing the power controls, removing carburetor heat as appropriate and guiding the aircraft into the climb pitch attitude. After verifying a positive rate of climb, retract flaps (consistent with Pilot’s Operating Handbook or other type-specific guidance) and, in retractable gear airplanes, raise the wheels. If you’re flying a piston airplane equipped with cowl flaps, open them up (barring any POH guidance to the contrary).

Only after you have aviated your way into a climb should you begin to navigate through the missed approach. You’re already climbing straight ahead. If you’re using a GPS, it will automatically go into “suspend” (or similarly named) mode as soon as you cross the missed approach point. Why? Because the GPS knows you need to climb to some safe altitude before you may safely turn, if the missed approach procedure calls for a turn. But because it doesn’t know how rapidly you’ll climb at your airplane’s current weight and density altitude, and depending on your flying technique, it does not know how far you’ll travel across the ground before you’ll reach that altitude. It goes into suspend mode until you tell it you’re ready for course guidance by hitting the OBS (or similarly labeled) button.

If you’re flying the old-fashioned way, with ground-based navaids and using course needles or bearings for your missed approach, get the airplane to this minimum-turn altitude before retuning anything you had not set for the missed before leaving the final approach fix inbound.

You’ve aviated, you’re navigating…now you can communicate to the controllers that you’ve missed the approach. Most pilots will make that radio call as soon as they get the airplane configured for climb. Some will be so anxious to talk that they make the radio call before configuring the airplane—these are the pilots I often saw crash in the simulator, and may be those who collide with terrain in an actual missed approach.

Take Your Time
What’s your hurry? When you’re cleared for the approach you’re also cleared for the missed approach; ATC doesn’t need to move anyone out of your way. And when you report “missed approach,” you’re going to start a rapid-fire chain of radio calls:

-“Tower, 329PT, missed approach.”
-“329PT, contact departure, 134.825.”
-“134.85, 329PT.”
-(After retuning the radio…) “Departure, 329PT, missed approach Runway 1R.”
-“329PT, radar contact one-half mile north of the airport, say altitude.”
-“9PT is at one thousand seven hundred, climbing 3000.”
-“9PT, fly the published missed approach, what are your intentions?”

And so on. Instead of focusing on getting the airplane established in climb and then beginning your navigation toward the holding fix, you’ve set yourself up for some serious distractions close to the ground and to obstacles you cannot see (which is why you’re “missing” in the first place…).

You’re also being forced to make critical decisions—whether to try the approach again or proceeding toward an alternate—when you haven’t even finished flying the first approach procedure. If ATC throws in a change to the missed approach or doesn’t receive your squawk and asks you to cycle or retune your transponder, there’ll be even more to distract you from flying the airplane.

Aviate, navigate, then communicate. ATC and decisions can wait a few minutes while you get to a safe altitude.

Practicing The Missed
Lastly, you’ll be far safer flying a missed approach if you frequently practice flying missed approaches. A “missed” isn’t an emergency, and should never come as a surprise—but it will only be as natural to the way you fly as takeoffs and standard-rate turns if you’ve flown missed approaches, actual or simulated, in the recent past.

In visual conditions, manufacture conditions of near-maximum airplane weight, aft center of gravity (while still within the envelope, of course) and/or high density altitude (simulated by climbing at reduced power), and practice turning descent into climb from altitude minimums, so you’ll be ready the next time you have to miss the approach for real.

The accident record too clearly shows that losing control and controlled flight into terrain frequently lead to crashes in real-world missed approaches. To combat these tendencies—and to break one of the first links in the accident chain—prepare for the missed, fly the technique correctly and practice missed approaches frequently and under varying aircraft and environmental conditions to be ready to safely fly your next missed approach.

Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.






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