Go-arounds: what’s the big deal?

The go-around. Also known as the missed approach. I’ve never understood the panic that the go-around instills in non-pilots. I ride in the back of airliners to and from work every week and go-arounds sometimes happen. The gasps, white-knuckles, and wide-eyed gazes directed at the flight attendant(s), during this maneuver seem unwarranted, but it happens every time. Since I’m often in my airline uniform, I also get the eye-daggers directed at me–like I can do something about it.

My guess is that the go-around anxiety/panic is the result of the fact that the expected–a landing–has just become the unexpected–climbing back into the air.

airliner go-around
Be careful about mashing the power when you're low, slow and dirty.

A go-around is a necessary inconvenience. It’s used to fix botched approaches and to create more spacing between the airplane on the runway and the one that’s about to be on the runway. For pilots, go-arounds are taught early in primary training since only the best of us can line up on a runway in the right place, at the right speed, and the right altitude that early in training. We know that the go-around is aviation’s equivalent of a Mulligan or do over.

But when an airliner has to go-around, beware the fallout. A woman interviewed following a go-around on an approach to Washington’s Reagan National Airport described to The Washington Post her “life flashing before her.” Really? Others were concerned about terrorism during the go-around. And the pilots get skewered for not saying anything for several minutes. As we all know, the go-around is a maneuver that can be quite busy, especially in a large jet where numerous callouts and configuration changes are accomplished while simultaneously receiving heading and altitude instructions from ATC. So it may take us awhile to make an announcement on the PA in flight. Sometimes, we just make one when we arrive at the gate since the FAA frowns upon making unnecessary PAs when below 10,000 feet.

There was more go-around gab last year when an airplane carrying the First Lady was sent around on its way into Andrews Air Force Base. In this case, a go-around was called a “near-miss” in a sensationalized story on the CBS Evening News. The First Lady’s airplane, a military version of a Boeing 737, was sequenced behind a heavy C-17 cargo airplane. A five-mile separation is required behind a heavy, but in this case there was only three miles between the two. Recognizing this situation, the tower controller sent Mrs. Obama’s airplane around. In my opinion, three miles does not make a “near miss.”

Besides the hijacked expectations that passengers experience during a go-around, there can be some sensations created by pilots that make the event more exciting than it should be. Slamming the throttle or power levers forward and pitching up to a high angle of attack would certainly cause passengers to squeeze their armrests with gusto.

I did this once with a nervous passenger on her first flight in a small airplane. She seemed to be tolerating, possibly even enjoying the flight in my Cessna 172 until I had to perform a last-second go-around. The airplane landing ahead of us had passed the taxiway that I was sure it would clear the runway on. “No big deal, I still have enough spacing for it to get to the next taxiway,” I thought. Unfortunately, though, the pilot elected to stop and back taxi to the exit he just passed up rather than continue ahead, forcing me to go-around from a very low altitude.

From idle to full power and a pitch-up that were both too hasty, our first-time flier was clearly not happy. In fact, 20 years later she often retells the story of how we “zoomed” back in the air because we “almost crashed into” the airplane ahead of us. She even has a hard time flying on airliners. Needless to say, I’m not proud of how this first-timer’s experience went on my watch. She has definitely not been spreading good PR for GA.

Having spent a lot of time going over go-arounds after this incident, I first consider the airplane I’m in and how it’s loaded. If I’m in a fully-loaded light single with full flaps extended, I’m going to use full power on the go-around. With a load like that and the drag of the flaps, that one engine is simply going to get flogged. On the other hand, if I’m in my family’s Beechcraft Baron with a light load, I don’t need all 600 horsepower to keep the airplane in the air. In fact, simply going to cruise power and cleaning up the flaps and gear is usually plenty. If an engine fails on the missed, I’ll certainly go to full power on the good engine.

In high-powered propeller airplanes and some jets, using full power on a go-around can cause quite an alarming pitch up if you’re not ready for it. In the Boeing 737 I fly for work, the engines, which are hung under the wings, create a huge amount of thrust and–because of the geometry of the engines’ location–an equally massive pitch-up force that must be countered with gobs of nose-down trim. If ordered to go-around in the 737 at anything above 500 feet or so, I prefer to add the power slowly enough that the electric trim can easily keep up with the power change. Simultaneously, I get the flaps coming up to an intermediate setting to eliminate the massive drag they create. By now, the airplane is climbing at a nice and easy 1,000 foot-per-minute rate that shouldn’t alarm passengers–as much.

Try some go-arounds in the airplane you fly to see how smooth and easy you can make it. When the real deal comes, hopefully you won’t be the negative ambassador for GA or make the headlines on the news.

 

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13 Comments

  • Great explanation! I forwarded it to my mother to reassure her-she almost flipped when our 737 had to go around at SFO.

  • The go-around is one of the first things my instructor taught me. He said that if the approach to landing does not look right, go around. You do not have to land the plane. That advice has served me well.

  • Hi Guys

    many years ago when I was in the RAF as an air trafficker, missed approach was very common for training and sometimes quite spectacular. Years later as a private pilot (PPL) we do this as a matter of course and I for one enjoy doing it. Only one have I had to perform the manoeuvre for real when another puddle jumper crept out onto the active as I was at committed to land (he could not have heard my calls). Getting airborne again was carefully handled even to the point of turning over the miscreant (offender). I had made my calls but as I was entering into the live downwind, another miscreant joined late, ignored my calls so I had to immediately take avoiding action. fly a 270 to get in behind him, extend over a noise abatement area, before getting onto the runway. with that I gave and went to the bar for the rest of the day…..

  • I’ve had to do some for animals on the runway at night. Once heard an airliner declare a missed at a Class B airport on a VFR day. After he was on heading and at altitude, ATC asked why and the answer was “non-stabilized approach”. Bet the employer wasn’t too happy with the extra fuel used.

    • The employer would have been more displeased if the aircraft had landed long and rolled off the end of the runway because of the non-stabilized approach. My company, like most that I am aware of, has a no-fault go around policy. If you have to, no problem. No questions asked. It’s better than the possible alternative.

    • Better than an un-stablized crash. When you are “Cleared for the Approach” Visual or Not..you are also Cleared for the Go Around or the Missed Approach. For the employer…the price of doing business here was cheaper!

  • From a pilots perspective, Ronnie has it right. From a passengers prospective, anything that is not what they have experienced continuously in the past, like a landing, causes a problem. A go around experienced a second time for BOTH a pilot and a passenger is much, much easier to handle…especially done correctly and smoothly. I am a retired airline captain with LOTS of missed, a few because I was not in a position to land for a variety of reasons. I am not ashamed to say that a couple of times, I “did it to myself”. Land no plane, before it’s time!

  • As a passanger, the one go around I experienced on a comercial flight was expected. I looked out the window and noticed we had about twice the altitude as on previous flights at that location on approach. I was relieved that we didn’t land as I thought it might be quit a drop.
    I look forward to reaching that point in my newly begun flight training.

  • Pete,

    As usual, a great post, and you’re “right on”, the go around doesn’t have to be dramatic, and is pretty much performed SOP, without issue.

    Just a minor point, based on some of the comments ……

    There is a difference between a “go around”, ie missed approach… the maneuver that’s made after an instrument approach and the plane does not land, and a “balked landing” in when a potential landing is aborted. The “go around” is an IFR procedure, and the “balked landing” is a VFR procedure, and are VERY different (but “ma” be similar).

    The “balked landing” could be made at an altitude where it resembles the “go around”, however, it could be made with the wheels on the pavement, in a critical situation when it becomes an outright emergency. (And, yes, the “go around” could have the wheels touch…. but an entirely different maneuver).

  • As a pilot since 1966 and a retired Flight Attendant (28 years), I always just made the announcement for the cockpit. Without knowing specifics, I would simply explain that the Captain decided that for safety, we needed to go around and fly the approach again. It was a normal flight maneuver and to listen for the gear and flaps retract as we climbed out. Giving them something to watch and/or listen for took their mind off of the maneuver itself. Worked every time.

  • Really enjoyed the explanation on missed approach/balked landings. I will use this the next time I have some nervous people flying with me. Thanks Capt
    Bedell.

  • A number of years ago, on a business trip into NY LaGuardia, the airliner made a go around. It was neat to see the landmarks a second time around with light cloud cover and a late afternoon sun. I thought it “cool” especially since we found out the entire crew was female. I wouldn’t have expected anything less and remarked to the crew member greeting exiting passengers I was very pleased with the flight.

    Mike

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