Although I had practiced go-arounds during my primary training, it was a few years after earning my private certificate before I had to perform one in anger. I was on final for a small, non-towered suburban airport, having made my radio calls all the way around the pattern. About a half mile from the runway threshold, the Piper Warrior I had spotted in the run-up area taxied onto the runway and began its takeoff roll. I was not happy.
I sidestepped to the right as I added power and started climbing away. At one point, I was about 100 yards off the Warrior’s right wing and more or less level, so I shallowed my climb to let it get above me, and then followed from a distance until it was time for me to turn crosswind and try again. I made a normal pattern and landed.
Later that morning, I was still at that airport when the Warrior landed with its student and instructor. The instructor indicated the airplane I arrived in and said something about seeing it as they took off. In response, I said something about checking final approach before taking the active runway and walked away.
I don’t know what was going on in that cockpit, but one thing the student/instructor didn’t do was turn their airplane toward the runway approach path to check for landing traffic. It’s something that was drilled into me early on, and to this day I always either take a long look at the approach path from the perpendicular taxiway before entering the runway or do a 360 in the run-up area to scan for traffic. It’s saved me from being the Warrior’s instructor a few times.
One of those times was when I was departing Class B International. I had been holding on a taxiway perpendicular to the runway when tower cleared me for takeoff. I also had canted the airplane a bit toward the approach path to enhance my view and when the clearance came through, looked up the final before acknowledging. That’s when I saw the light twin about a quarter-mile from the threshold, gear and flaps out, seconds away from touching down on the runway I had just been cleared to use.
I told the tower controller I’d hold for landing traffic and was greeted with silence as the twin landed and rolled out. After it cleared the runway, a different voice on the tower frequency cleared me for what turned out to be an uneventful takeoff.
The lesson I learned from both of these events was a fairly simple one: Always visually check the final approach path for landing traffic before taking the active, even at towered airports but especially at non-towered ones. The corollary? Always expect the airplane in the run-up area to taxi onto the runway in front of you approach the runway threshold. If you think of it in those terms, you’ll always be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t.