Easygoing Gary Meermans, at the time chief pilot for United Airlines, smiled from the right seat as I taxied out at Long Beach for my second hour of multi-engine training in one of the world’s most tired Piper Apaches. “Just remember, Bill, you need to PLAN on losing an engine on every takeoff,” he said.
The same training philosophy might serve a student well for go-arounds. Imagine that you’ll need to go around on every approach. When I was working with Gary a few years before on my commercial license, he used to prompt me to imagine all the possible scenarios that could result in a go-around. He advised that a good examiner will nearly always ask a commercial candidate for a go-around at an inopportune time, like 20 feet upon short final. “There’s a horse on the runway, go around.”
Pilots at all levels become conditioned to believe that all landings will work out. According to former TWA captain Barry Schiff in his excellent book, The Proficient Pilot II, “Psychologists attribute this to what is called the landing expectancy, or set, an anticipatory belief (or desire) that conditions are not as threatening as they are. The more experience a pilot has, the more likely he is to be the victim of landing expectancy. This is because years of successful approaches and landings reinforce confidence in the ability to overcome adversity.”
The process of shifting mental gears to prepare for a go-around is one you should start considering when you’re still far from the runway. Even the so-called “key position” (abeam the threshold on the downwind leg) isn’t too early to begin contemplating how you’d transition from a normal glide to a rejected landing.
Problem is, many pilots not only don’t plan ahead for a go-around, they won’t even consider the possibility of a rejected landing when it’s the only logical choice. A few pilots even become upset with themselves for having to go around, apparently because they regard an aborted landing as a disgrace, especially when there are other pilots aboard the airplane.
Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. Many years ago, I rode with a young woman who owned a half-interest in a nice V-tailed Bonanza. I had flown with her many times before, and she was a fairly low-time but conscientious pilot who had been well-trained and rarely made mistakes. We were coming back from a weekend hamburger flight, and the wind at her home airport of Torrance, Calif., was gusty and unpredictable.
She made a nice approach, but it soon became obvious that she should go around. She fought the gusty wind practically the full length of runway 29R before finally admitting defeat and pulling up for another attempt. The second landing was successful, but as we taxied in, she was extremely apologetic and practically sobbing from having to do a go-around.
I tried to explain to her that there was no disgrace associated with a go-around, especially in the gusty wind conditions we were experiencing. It was the only logical thing to do, but she nevertheless felt she should have been able to ground the Bonanza on the first try. She was inconsolable and only continued to apologize for her poor landing attempt.
There are a number of eventualities that might demand a go-around, another airplane turning onto the runway for takeoff, the aforementioned horse or dog crossing a rural strip at an inopportune time, self-timed runway lights turning off when you need them most or any of a dozen other scenarios. Perhaps the most common of all is unexpected turbulent air flowing across a runway.
Many years ago, I was delivering a Beech Duke to Orlando International in Florida, and after listening to the ATIS and monitoring the tower inbound, it was apparent that everyone, including Delta, United and American, was going around repeatedly. Winds were direct 25-knot crosswinds with occasional higher gusts, and I arrogantly told my passenger we’d have no trouble getting in. After three tries, I ate crow and admitted that perhaps the pilots with Delta, United and American were smarter than I was.
I made three attempts, then finally slunk away to Lakeland where the winds were more cooperative. At least, I didn’t make a mess of the go-arounds, but I did scare the hell out of my passenger. As in the title, the trick is to make the go-around decision as early as possible. I should have made mine by diverting to Lakeland before I embarrassed myself.
One situation where every pilot needs to exercise special caution is flying into a high-density-altitude airport. If you’re not sitting behind a turbo, or sometimes even if you are, you need to be especially wary of conditions that might demand a go-around. The air is thinner, the prop has less bite, and the wings won’t develop as much lift, so you may need to make such a decision much earlier than you normally would.
Here in Southern California, we have a great mountain destination—Big Bear Airport 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The airport is at an elevation of 6,750 feet, and in summer, the temperature can easily rise into the mid-80s, elevating density altitude to well over 10,000 feet. Most pilots who fly into Big Bear in the summer are careful to calculate the density altitude for takeoff, but not everyone does the same math for the landing. A go-around in warm conditions at an airport at nearly 7,000 feet elevation may be an experience you’ll remember for a long time—or a very short one.
Just as with the old saw about the least valuable things to a pilot (fuel in the truck, runway behind, altitude above, 10 minutes ago), the more deliberate, methodical and less rushed the go-around, the more likely it is to be successful.
Unlike some procedures in aviation, a safe, well-organized go-around should follow a fairly predictable checklist. If you initiate a go-around early enough, you shouldn’t feel rushed. If you wait too late, you very well may wish you had an extra hand.
1 Immediately upon recognizing the need for a go-around, add full power (or, on some airplanes, maximum climb power). Remember that you’re attempting to transition from an extreme high-drag condition to a max climb. By definition, that means you’ll need to use all the power you can muster. If you’re flying behind a carbureted engine fitted with carb heat, turn off the heat during the climb. Carb heat serves a useful purpose at low power settings, but depending upon the engine, it will rob you of as much as 25% of horsepower.
2 Don’t automatically push the mixture to full rich for the go-around, incidentally, especially if you’re operating a normally aspirated engine well above sea level. If you’re looking for max power, you’ll want the engine leaned to the mixture setting that will deliver optimum performance, and that may not be with the red knob at the forward stop.
3 Immediately begin to trim the nose down to avoid a severe pitch up with the application of full power. You’ll probably need significant forward pressure to keep the nose from rising precipitously.
4 None of this is to suggest that you need to respond with lightning speed. Too often, pilots assume that a go-around must be performed with extreme dispatch, the same way you might handle an engine failure on takeoff in a twin. By definition, you need to act deliberately, but not so quickly that you miss an item in the checklist. The idea is to get it done properly, but not necessarily in heat.
5 Monitor airspeed closely during the go-around, especially if you suspect wind shear is present and you’re close to the ground. The airplane will be especially susceptible to downdrafts at low altitude while it’s transitioning from landing to climb mode.
6 Retract the flaps (to best climb position, usually full up) as quickly as possible, but slow enough to avoid the pitch up and resulting loss of stall-speed margin.
7 Monitor airspeed and don’t allow it to bleed off during the transition to Vyse or Vxse, whichever is most critical. You need to maintain your margin between stall and climb speed.
8 Don’t initiate gear retraction until reaching positive rate, especially if conditions are gusty and the wings are spilling lift. Remember that the drag configuration is still high. You’d feel pretty stupid if the airplane began to sink toward the runway with the wheels halfway into the wells.
9 Reposition cowl flaps when it’s comfortable, depending upon CHT. Chances are they were closed during the approach, so you may want to open them for the climb.
10 Remember that performance and handling will both be marginal until the airplane is fully reconfigured, so don’t expect the same performance you’d experience during a normal takeoff.
A few years back, I had a most unusual go-around while delivering the very first Extra 400 from the factory in Aachen, Germany, to Phoenix, Ariz. Unlike all other Extra models, the Extra 400 was a six-seat pressurized single powered by a Continental Voyager engine, a water-cooled, 325 hp powerplant, and mine would be the first Atlantic delivery of the type.
I had gotten off from Aachen late in the day and overnighted at Wick, U.K., far up on the northern coast of Scotland. The following morning, I lifted off from Wick for Reykjavik, Iceland. The weather in Reykjavik was forecast to be acceptable IFR, 400 and two in light rain.
Three-and-a-half hours later, I passed the outer marker on Reykjavik’s runway 19 ILS and started down for the airport. I popped out of the overcast at about 500 feet, and there was the runway straight ahead, exactly where it was supposed to be.
As was my habit, I slipped my toes up to the brakes and pumped them to make sure I’d have hard pedals for landing. I didn’t. The brakes went to the floor. I pumped furiously on the pedals, but the brakes refused to stiffen up, and it became apparent I’d have no brakes on landing.
I had been into Reykjavik perhaps 100 times before, and I knew runway 19 has a slight hump in the middle followed by a downhill slope that terminates in a lava field, and finally, Reykjavik harbor. The Extra 400 rolled over the top of the hump and started downhill toward the bay, barely decelerating. Accordingly, I pushed the throttle full forward and went around.
The tower immediately asked, “N400EX, what are you doing? The airport is IFR.” I told him I had lost my brakes and wanted to circle out over the bay and come back in for a landing on uphill runway 01 as soon as traffic was clear.
The controller said, matter of factly, as if this sort of thing happened all the time, “Oh, alright, there’s no one on the approach. You’re cleared to land on runway 01.”
Now forewarned about the brake problem, I circled over the water at 300 feet, touched down on 01 as short as possible, rolled out straight ahead and managed to pull off the runway to a stop right at the top of the hump. I shut down and a “Follow Me” truck pulled up, the driver probably wondering why my Extra’s prop was stopped. Unfortunately, I couldn’t follow him.