Real world missed approaches – 6 tips for staying safe

I recently flew one of the rarest maneuvers in aviation: a real missed approach in instrument conditions. While we all practice them during initial instrument training and (hopefully) as a part of regular proficiency flights, actual missed approaches are pretty rare. The combination of widely available WAAS approaches and in-flight weather tools means that we usually have a pretty good idea we will get in before starting an approach.

Final approach on the ILS
Don’t cheat – you either see the runway environment or you don’t.

Not so on this day. The weather wasn’t terrible, but a low cloud layer sparked by isolated rain showers made it tricky. The METAR was fluctuating from just above minimums to just below minimums, so we decided to take a shot. Unfortunately, at the missed approach point there were no lights so the power came up and we diverted to our alternate.

Simple, right? Not so much.

While I was intellectually prepared for a missed approach, I really wasn’t emotionally prepared (spring-loaded, as my instrument instructor might have said). I hadn’t done this for real in years. So when it came time to execute this seemingly simple maneuver, I ended up getting behind the airplane just a bit. I was coping, not flying. You might call it the three stages of the missed approach mindset: shock at having to go around, a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the tasks that needed to be completed, and finally a temptation to try it again. None of these are good.

To combat that mindset, here are a few rules I made for myself:

  • Use the autopilot. While you should be able to hand fly an approach down to minimums, that doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. When it’s really low, I think it’s much safer to let the autopilot fly. That makes you management, not labor, so you can keep the big picture in mind and be ready to react. It’s hard to be spring-loaded to go around if you’re task-saturated and busy keeping the wings level.
  • Plan ahead – and don’t change your mind. Cruise flight is a good time to make a plan for your approach and potential missed approach procedure. Think through exactly what the approach sequence will look like: what power settings will you use, what descent rate will you use, what are you looking for at DA/MDA and what is the first thing you’ll do if you go missed? Talk it through before you get busy and commit to this plan.
  • Don’t cheat – don’t even hesitate. Easier said than done, but it’s critical to stay disciplined here. On my missed approach, we saw glimpses of the ground right as we started the missed approach. But this was a sucker hole – we could see down, but not ahead to the runway. Don’t dive for a hole, don’t “go down another 50 feet,” and don’t drive on passed the MAP in the hopes that something miraculous will happen. Stick to the plan. There is no gray area here and no negotiation: land the airplane because you see the runway environment at minimums or go around.
  • Approach lights matter. I once knew the difference between REIL, MALSR and all the rest of the approach lighting systems, but I long ago forgot the particulars. These may seem like academic nuances, but on a low approach, briefing the approach lighting system and knowing what to expect can make a big difference. In my case, the runway only had the two REILs, which are not nearly as visible as a full “rabbit.”
  • Climb and maintain control; the rest can wait. When you decide to execute the missed approach, it’s time to climb – now. Don’t mess with the GPS and don’t look at the approach chart. The essential first step is to add power and climb out quickly, while keeping the airplane under control. If you’ve briefed your approach (and your missed approach), you already know what to do. ATC can wait, your passengers can wait and even your avionics can wait until you’ve started climbing and are stabilized.
  • No second approaches. It’s so tempting to come back around for another try, especially if you saw one of those sucker holes at minimums. Don’t do it. The accident record shows that second approaches often end badly, because the temptation to cheat is very strong. Unless you did something badly wrong on the first approach, don’t even give yourself the opportunity to mess up on round two.

Although we don’t usually think of it that way, the missed approach is really a maximum performance maneuver. In the span of about 60 seconds – and at very low altitude – you are forced to climb at Vy, change the aircraft configuration, reprogram the GPS and talk on the radio. All this while maintaining control in the clouds. The key is to make your decisions long before you ever start the approach, so a missed approach is an automatic reaction. MDA is no time to be making decisions; it’s a time for executing what you’ve already planned.

And as always, fly the freakin’ airplane!

13 Comments

  • John’s advice regarding additional approaches is well-intended but incomplete – which has imbued it with a (perhaps unintended) air of dogma. If you’re fat on fuel, and the weather is forecast to improve, there’s usually nothing wrong with holding for a while, and seeing what actually develops. I’ve missed a VOR approach to a north-facing runway, only to request and complete an ILS approach to that runway’s south-facing end. I’ve also done the same, and had to miss the ILS, too. (In each related instance, there was no weather observer at the field at that time of night.)

    My own mantra is: never begin ANY approach that you’re not fully prepared to miss.

  • As for second approaches, I think the real answer is: “It depends”. If the weather is picking up; early morning fog burning off, or being on the the backside of a cold-front, going back and trying again makes complete sense. Other times it doesn’t!

    Here’s another real-world story that John’s post reminded me of: We were landing at our home airport about 15 years ago. My partner at the time was flying and I was in the right seat. Reported weather was 300 OVC and 1 mile. Forecast was for better than that. No big deal for an ILS. I actually wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention just assuming we’d break out. Down we came, fully coupled on autopilot right on the localizer and glideslope. Fortunately, my partner (who had spent over 10 years as a charter pilot) was paying more attention. The radar altimeter (set to 250′) went off, I looked up and saw nothing. Now both of us were fully paying attention!! Power up, gear up, positive rate, and flaps up. As we are executing the missed, the tower clears an airliner for takeoff.

    As we were discussing whether to try another approach, the tower announces the “new” weather — 100′ OVC and 1/4 mile in fog. (Yeah, this stuff happened sometimes back then.) So, we we ask departure for the weather at two airports both about 30 miles from our home field. One is also below minimums and the other is MVFR. So off we went to the MVFR field, landed without incident and drove home. As we headed “up the hill” to our home airport to pickup our cars, we drove “into a cloud”! The airliner that left as we were in our miss was the last airline arrival or departure for about the next 30 hours.

    From that experience, I learned that there’s no such thing as a benign instrument approach and weather (even at your home airport) can change dramatically, quickly and sometimes in surprising ways.

    • It’s a tricky situation, Larry, and you make a good point about having absolute rules. I’m sure there is a circumstance where I’d try an approach again (certainly no problem trying a different one to a different runway perhaps). In general, though, the point is to be very skeptical of the urge to “try it again.” If something has changed or you have reason to think you can get in, fine. But if you’re just mad about not getting in, that second approach is a trap.

  • Don’t forget to practice missed approaches using your autopilot. I spent more time in instrument training on hand flying, and my entire check ride was hand flying, than on use of the GPS and autopilot. It didn’t take me long to realize that what I really needed to learn was how to use and monitor the tools you need in real IMC.

  • I had something VERY VERY similar happen to me a few weeks ago in Denver. A 1 AM (yes I was tired) missed approach into KAPA (Centennial) in 200ft / fog (FYI when I stated the approach it was 1500/800 temp and 3 miles). It went to hell VERY fast. NEVER should have tired with those jets behind me.

    First approach they had 3 jets behind me (I fly a Baron 56TC, GPS but no WAAS, just ILS/DME on this approach and I chose to hand fly it because I thought I might want to go missed) and I was going way too fast FORGOT how bad 200ft looked in real life at night.

    Went missed right after I broke through the clouds, no way I was making the landing with my speed and vector (which wasn’t right down the runway). Came around again (yes I should have went back to Col. Springs where it was VFR) and ran the approach WITHOUT jets behind me. Went much better but I still broke out at the wrong spot and couldn’t see the runway (just a tree line, scared the crap out of me).

    Was starting a missed and then saw the runway right in front of me with lots of nice lighting, pulled power and landed. Fog at night, nasty.

    The interesting thing is I was due for my yearly IPC the next week, and my “very experienced” instructor (29K hours airline, miliatary + charter and 2000 in a 56TC) cleaned me up over a 3.5 hour ground and flight. I was perfect until about 700ft (when things get dicy hand flying an ILS but now am tuned up to the numbers).

    IN any case, I wasn’t using DME as well as I could have (he cleaned that up), wasn’t timing my approaches well with the clock and I have a radar altimeter that I forgot to turn on and bug (ya when tired watch out). Anyway, we ran quite a few to the numbers but I won’t be doing 200″ and fog again for a LONG time (or until I can afford a CATII/III certified plane.

    Good stuff, live and learn.

  • this is truly fantastic commentary. as a studying CFII (checkride this month) I am saving this to show my students…

  • Interesting article, interesting and thought-provoking commentaries. As for the “never a second try” mantra, I think it depends on several factors: Fuel, weather and icing conditions forecasts, what’s going on in the cabin, etc, etc, any number of factors. Also, who owns the machine, and what is your mission? The flying environment is ultra dynamic, of course. Things (environmental conditions) change constantly. I would say: “Don’t be unyielding about avoiding holding and second approach attempts no matter what.” These aspects of instrument flying are valid members of the whole repertoire. Plan, think tactically as well as strategically.

  • My most memorable missed approach came at the end of a night flight from Belize City to Cozumel, Mexico. Cozumel traffic was controlled from Cancun, which in this case didn’t help very much. It was a rainy night, but the air was quite stable and the two-hour flight in my turbocharged C-206 amphibian had provided three of us with a most comfortable flight.

    Cancun Approach had given me the 10-mile DME arc approach to Cozumel’s RWY 29, and the whole transition had been quite smooth. With the rollers down, full forty degrees of Cessna’s huge Fowler flaps, and on short approach, all the airport lighting suddenly went dark. I can’t tell you how dark it had suddenly become!

    Decades of flying the mountains of Alaska had contaminated my thinking, and I thought I had suddenly dropped behind a ridge line. Though I didn’t remember having seen any mountains around the island of Cozumel, this wasn’t the best time to ponder that fact.

    I immediately went missed approach, and with that loaded amphibian, not the world’s best performer, it’s quite a process. Too,the gear on the Wipline amphibious floats were notoriously slow both ways.

    Cancun Approach keyed their transmitter and asked, “Cessna 9975Z, what is your position?”

    I told them I had been on a low approach, was about to land, and all the lights had gone dark. “Oh,” came the reply, “Sorry . . .,” and the airport environment was suddenly back in the center of the windshield. The guy had just hit the switch and shut down all the runway lighting! I immediately went back to full flaps, gear down, and descended rapidly to the runway.

    It isn’t always a low ceiling and poor visibility that calls for a missed approach. Sometimes it’s your fellow man . . .

  • On my last instrument flight before I recognized that old age was creeping in on me and quit doing instruments I was headed into a field in Georgia in very bumpy clouds, no autopilot. Had studied my approach chart for an ILS approach on runway 22 (I think) and was mentally set up for it.But, when I got just a few miles out and letting down for the approach the female controller suddenly advised the approach had changed and now was a different approach to a different runway. I was working hard to keep upright and wondered how I was going to get preprared for a different approach with no co-pilot and no autopilot. To my great relief I suddenly popped out of the clouds at about 2000 ft and saw my runway right ahead (apparently). I quickly advised the controller that I was VFR and cancelled the instrument approach. She OK’d it and down I started. When I was just over the end of the runway she suddenly shouted my number and told me I was landing on the wrong runway and to pull up at once!
    Of course, my original runway was several miles ahead and had the same runway heading as my attempted one, or nearly so.
    There is no doubt that that heifer knew full well the trap I was falling into and no doubt some good laughs were had in the control tower at this idiot.
    Ah well, no one wins them all.

  • Planning a possible missed approach during cruise (at least), is essential. I usually go as far as planning it during the flight planning process. So that if a missed approach is required at my destination, then I have a general idea of the MAP and can go missed if required, without any stress.

    Also fully agree with not trying a second approach if the situation isn’t going to change any time soon. Obviously if I went missed due to my own fault, will give it another go, but if the weather is set, and not going anywhere any time soon, will divert. This has sometimes resulted in a few irate pax (I fly charters), but at least we landed safely, with any re-routing or other transport arrangements being a minor inconvenience.

  • Better words regarding pilot actions when executing a missed approach have never been spoken. As a CFII, a military instrument flight examiner, and an examiner instructor, you would be surprised how many pilots I have encountered, some with many, many flight hours, who arrive at the Missed Approach Point and either they want to make a radio call, unsuspend their GPS, discuss why they didn’t see the landing environment or perform some other distracting activity not associated with executing the missed approach procedure. The very first word of EVERY missed approach procedure is “Climb”, not talk or push buttons, or whatever. “Climb”. So climb immediately and don’t worry about anything else until you get some distance between you and the earth. As I always say “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” IN THAT ORDER!

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