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.
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.