Airline 101: Anatomy of a “Go-Around.”

The engines were still growling down when the agent popped open the forward cabin door and reached for the P.A. handset to welcome the passengers to John Wayne Orange County Airport just south of Los Angeles. I shot the gap between her and the door and escaped up the jetbridge so as not to encounter what I knew a large percentage of the deplaning passengers were going to say or do on their way  out.


I’ll rewind a bit. On approach at about 3 miles from touchdown and at a thousand feet, I told the First Officer, who was flying the approach, “Go around.” He looked at me once to be sure he’d heard me correctly, then he executed the maneuver; he knew if he didn’t, I’d take control of the aircraft and do it myself. That works both ways: if I’m flying and the F/O says “go-around,” I’ll initiate the procedure immediately and ask any questions after landing.

We followed the litany and procedures to transition from a descent to a climb, then around the traffic pattern for another approach and landing. That’s what “go-around” means: “go around the traffic pattern one more time for landing.”

No big deal. Right?

If you don’t agree, don’t bother reading any further. You’re the type who needs to have an embellished horror story to tell your friends; you’re the one I avoid by heading up the jetbridge before you deplane–and I dodge you at social gatherings for the same reason: a go-around really is no big deal, and I hate having to play along with the growing mythology of your near death experience.

But if you’re not the hysterical type, and if you’d like to know what goes on beyond the cockpit door so you can better understand go-arounds and take the maneuver in stride like a seasoned traveler rather than as one who doesn’t fly much–read on.

At a thousand feet, we must be in landing configuration, stable at approach speed with a normal descent rate–or a go-around is required. Besides common sense, that’s our standard procedure–and it’s set in stone.

There are different kinds of go-arounds, and I’ll explain those too. But first, the reasons. Usually, it’s a spacing issue. That is, there’s not enough time for you to land given that another aircraft is still on the runway either for take-off or landing. That can be caused by a number of factors, but the simplest is just spacing: the aircraft on the runway took longer to start its take-off roll, or the landing aircraft took longer than planned to exit the runway. That too can have several “no big deal” causes: the aircraft on take-off roll may have discovered a problem that needed momentary attention; the landing aircraft might not have achieved deceleration as planned for an upfield exit.

Or, in instrument conditions, we might not have satisfied the approach requirements for seeing the runway for landing at the lowest allowable descent altitude, in which case we immediately execute the missed approach procedure.

Finally, as in our case, we were not “in the slot” with the specs I mentioned above–so we go-around. Why weren’t we “in the slot?” Lots of factors can cause that, like a tailwind or a speed or altitude restriction or tight vector by air traffic control; the point is, like at any busy intersection on the ground, spacing requires analysis and conservative thinking–you just don’t plunge ahead regardless.

Now, we didn’t “abort the landing” as the uninformed, yarn-spinning passenger might say. “Aborted landing” is actually the term for when you’ve touched down on the runway, then decide for another set of good reasons, that you must take off again. In twenty-six years of airline piloting, I’ve never encountered this–quite possibly due to the conservative “go-around” parameters I already mentioned.

Now, for the three types of go-arounds.

When we were at 1,000 feet, the maneuver can be done less aggressively than if it occurs at our lowest descent altitude, which for a pilot with my qualifications is 50 feet. You can see why, right? I mean a thousand feet is plenty of margin for safety between us and the ground. If however, I don’t see the runway by fifty feet (the first officer’s eyeballs are locked on the navigation displays inside), we will without hesitation go to the full go-around procedure to maximize ground separation as quickly as possible.

That’s two types, and the third is when we’re somewhere in between those two extremes. For that, we just need a deliberate go-around.

Now, the dynamics of the go-around and why that seems more extreme from the cabin than it is.

First, on approach you are at a relatively slow speed–as a wag, say 160 knots, in my jet–and at a shallow rate of descent, usually about 700 feet per minute. On a go-around, the power is going to come in fast and with force, which means in order to maintain the given approach speed, we’ll need the nose pitched up from 2-3 degrees all the way to 15-20 degrees, depending on aircraft weight. That will give you 3,000 feet per minute or more of climb–quite a radical change from 750 feet per minute of descent, all within a matter of seconds.

That’s by design: holding the minimum airspeed for configuration guarantees the fastest separation between jet and runway. But, at the designated missed approach altitude–3,000 feet at Orange County–we must level off. If I were to add full power, pitch the nose up to 20 degrees from 1,000 feet where we were, we’d need to shove the nose forward and pull the power way back about 15 seconds later–and you definitely wouldn’t like the way that feels in back.

So for that, we could ease the power forward, stop the descent, then climb smoothly and safely to the go-around altitude. But if we were only a hundred feet above touchdown when a go-around was required, we’d use the full power setting which would pitch the nose way up for 30 to 40 seconds before reaching the go-around altitude.

For that, Boeing has wisely given me two throttle options: one press of the go-around toggle on the throttles sets a medium power, two sets the full power–52,000 pounds of thrust in a matter of seconds, so hold on. But in our case at 1,000 feet, a smooth application of just enough power to arrest the descent and then climb was done manually.

All three come with a catch, particularly the first two: you must retract the aircraft flaps before you exceed the structural design limit speed of the flaps. The limit for the typical landing setting (30 degrees) is 175 knots. Getting the picture here? Understand why the pitch-up is so pronounced? If we were to add the go-around power without pitching up, we’d accelerate from our approach speed, say 155, through 240 knots in about twenty seconds–overspeeding the flaps along the way. And we want separation from the ground as aggressively as possible, another reason to hold the airspeed constant.

Regardless, the go-around procedure from any altitude requires full pilot attention: immediately stop the descent, then retract the gear–and when you do, there goes the drag so you’d better keep the nose tracking upward to control the speed–then immediately get the flaps to 15 degrees, because anything more than that is not only too much drag, it also has too low a max speed. Fifteen degrees allows for 200 knots, giving you at least a few seconds to attend to other things.

Those things are, setting the missed approach altitude and, to outthink the Flight Director engineering and regain control of pitch and speed commands, turn both Flight Directors off then back on again, then reinstate the Autothrottle system with a new speed command–say 210 knots. Then get the flaps retracted on schedule and level off on speed, on altitude.

It’s definitely a busy operation.

Add to that the typical southern California high density air traffic, much of it small, hard to spot light aircraft, plus the radio frequency changes from tower to approach and then the traffic sequencing (“See the 737 turning base at 3 o’clock? He’s you’re sequence, plan you base turn above the Cessna at your twelve o’clock.”) and you’d better have both sets of eyeballs concentrating outside and both heads in the game, period. Nothing else is as important.

Plus, we still accomplish the normal landing checklist, make multiple configuration and speed changes within certain limits, secure landing clearance and fly yet another final approach glide path. Are you really going to ask me why I didn’t make a P.A announcement about the go-around? My priorities are the safe accomplishment of a few dozen critical tasks in the air, not yacking on the P.A. about the obvious.

And now it is obvious for you, having read and digested all this: the whole go-around thing is clearly just a normal, if busy, day on the airways, right? Explain all that that to the guy next to you if he starts pinging or griping–I’ll have already disappeared by then, and now you know why.


A good reason to get off the plane quickly in Orange County:

Doug’s Dogs, Santa Ana Airport.

34 Responses to “Airline 101: Anatomy of a “Go-Around.””

  1. UberMitch Says:

    Look at that, make a comment from my blinkered point of view one week, inspire a post the next

    • Well actually, it was because on my last flight Friday at John Wayne-Orange County, I told the F/O to go around, exactly as I described. And I bolted before the pax got off, to get the next flight plan, and to not hear any griping.

      But what evs–

      • UberMitch Says:

        Wait, are you trying to say the universe doesn’t revolve around me? But what about my griping about no pa announcements on go arounds on your post on the first officer who had to pee?

      • Like I keep track of who said what? I’m lucky to keep my flight showtimes straight from week to week.

  2. Cedarglen Says:

    I’ve ridden through ore than a few ‘GAs’. The first one, in perhaps the late 60s was interesting. At this point, it is a non-event and someone will tell me when it is time to get out of my seat. Not mentioned is that a GA is also expensive and never executed without good reason. That’s why they call you Captain – and me SLC. Great post!

  3. I hear ya, bro. The deplaning pax you avoid are the same big mouthed idiots who get on and say “I hope you ain’t drunk!” Since the marketing department doesn’t like us to punch them in the face like they deserve, avoiding them is the best answer.

    • Well that, plus just enough time to pull a flight plan and grab a Doug’s Dawg by the SWA gates. No need to waste any time with the Greyhound crowd, who are the only ones not smart enough to shut up and deplane.

  4. Thanks, Chris, for the post. I don’t mind go-arounds…just more time in the air. (What a loser, I know…) 🙂

    Oh and thanks for explaining–“aborted landing”. I’ve heard a lot of people use this term (incorrectly).

    Doug’s Dawgs? Is that the place where you take all your yummy lunch photos?

    Take care.

  5. Gosh, you trash-haulers are deeply into caring for the counter-weights. In 23 years driving tactical I never made a “real” go around, i.e. one necessitated by being in a position from which a landing was not possible. I will confess to having made some that I shouldn’t have though including one at Sigonella Sicily in a thunderstorm in which the Italian controllers all fled the GCI van and the first time people on the ground saw the jet it came out of the overcast abeam the touchdown zone thirty degrees nose low and in 45 degrees of bank. Got a standing ovation from the USN approach control crew. Under control all the time!

    • A certified “BMTIF:” “Brought Mobile To Its Feet!” I’d blame the USN no matter what–they have no business flying airplanes, or providing facilities for those who do.

      You’re right, though, with 164 critics, potential lawsuits plus an equal number of dry-clean only seat cushions on board, the perspective is decidedly defensive in the pointy end.

      • We didn’t get a choice. We launched the force against Carrier USS America on an exercise in severe clear. The storm blew up during the mission and covered the penetration turn and approach zone as we all stacked up under procedural (non-radar environment) control. No alternates available by that time.

      • And therein lies the difference between duty and discretion. That’s the underlying reality of military flying, and while I don’t miss the obligations of duty, I sure do miss the ethical commitment of duty among military pilots compared to the self-serving nature of civilian pilots.

    • One of the hardest lessons for a (especially fighter) military pilot to learn is that in civilian aviation, there is no mission.

      Commercial “mission hackers” get dead- or worse, get to sit behind a table with a green table cloth, a microphone and glass of water- after the company has disavowed any knowledge of him because they’ve found a sim instructor/check airman you flew with one time 10 or so years ago who remembers that you were “too aggressive” as a pilot.

  6. Deeeelish! Food porn. LOL

  7. Wow. Fascinating. So that’s a big part of having two or more pilots on board – checking the specifications like you mention. I read “Ask the Pilot” on Salon a lot, but I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten as much sense of the decision making process in “the pointy end” from Patrick as I get from your columns.

    And thanks for keeping us – what are we, the self-loading freight?, stomach contents intact. Much nicer for everybody.

  8. Cedarglen Says:

    I guess this has come up a couple of times… Perhaps some clarification is in order. We know that you are ‘certified’ for Cat-III landings and probably have some additional, airport-specific training. Just like a GA (or not), certified for cat-III landing does NOT mean that you have to make all of them. If ithe blind approach does not feel right – in that special sensory organ that only captains have, you will GA – or DIVERT (even more expensive) rather than complete an approach and landing that you don’t like. Trust me, Captain, I do NOT want to be let off your airplane in the wrong city. That said, it is far better than the alternative. I’ll never bitch about a GA or a diversion. If I say anything, it will be “Thank you, Sir.” Got it?

  9. Great, detailed explanation of the GA. I usually try to get on the PA after the busy dies down and give them all a brief summary of the situation, emphasizing the “routine go around” phrase. Hopefully that keeps the drama types at bay and Tweeting, “We almost died!” to a hundred peeps.

    I’ll have to try Doug’s Dawgs in SNA some time…but the new Pei Wei keeps getting in my way!!

    • The Pei Wei looks a little more involved than I want to get in the 45 minutes between flights.

      Looks like more restaurants opening soon in SNA, but SFO still beats them all on the left coast, except for maybe SEA.

  10. James Aydelott//meteorologist, Tulsa Says:


    When I’m VFR g/a, I’m self-briefing the go-around on the downwind, and I try to have the mind-set that my approach will be a go around unless I have a good reason to land.

    That’s probably over-cautious, but especially VFR, people are up in their spam cans, or worse, taxiing to places on the airport that they don’t need to be (runway incursion anyone?).

    When I’m IFR, I’ve got a good idea (based on METARs) on whether or not the ceiling is even close, but briefing the missed approach procedure is a must every time once established on the LOC in my cockpit.

    What would you say the most likely reason is for most commercial VMC go-arounds? someone lolly-gagging on the runway? approach out of spec?


    • I think it’s a toss-up: sometimes spacing problems leave you too high or unstable, like at DCA when they ask you to S-turn for spacing so they get squeeze in another departure before you land. Salvaging ain’t worth it–let’s go-around and set up again.

      For weather-related go-arounds, just my personal standard: I don’t believe there’s anything I’m going to see on a second approach that I didn’t see on the first. Probably time to get out of town and head for the alternate with as much fuel as possible.

  11. Chris

    Just finished listening to the Wolfpack podcast. It was very interesting, and I hope your buddies take up your request to get some stories out of your Vietnam vet colleagues before those stories are gone for good. We still see B-52’s fly by regularly where I live…..

    I just wanted to thank you for your podcasting efforts, they have all been great with awesome guests. Lately it seems that the author of a lot of the books I have read lately (Rasimus, Mullane) turn up as guests on your show. The airline, military and space mix is great and the depth of content is great, so please keep it up! Thanks again.

    I did have one question for you….now that AA has ordered A320’s, have you ever flown one, and do you think you ever will once those make their way into the fleet?


    • Ed Rasimus said he’d consider coming back to discuss his other two excellent novels, _When Thunder Rolled_ and _Palace Cobra_. I’m on page 283 of PC, kind of rationing it out because I don’t want it to end: excellent personal narrative, historically grounded. Hope to have him back to contrast the war in the 60s with his experience on his second combat tour in the 70s.

      As for the A-320, I don’t plan to bid into that fleet, for several reasons. First, whenever an airline gets a new fleet, the flying schedules for pilots are very limited and poor quality, both because of the few and slow-growing number of jets–maybe 2 per month. That means turnarounds with 3-4 hour sit-arounds for the crews, not many schedules to choose from. Second, procedures and tech support are a learning curve that has to evolve and that’s a pain in the butt from the pilot standpoint.

      Meanwhile, after nearly 27 years at American, I have my pick of the 737 schedules, we have 170 airframes and get a new one every month. That makes for too good a quality of life to forego–it’ll be years before the Airbus fleet reaches that point.

  12. The very first time my father met my pilot husband, there was lots of flight talk…including the time when my father was a passenger on a plane that was about to land. Apparently, they were “so low that (he) could see blades of grass, and then the engines powered up and up they went. Now, tell me pilot, who wasn’t on said flight, tell me why we went around?” ** tell me, tell me, tell me…you must know everything aviation related **

    I guess that is the other side of these go-arounds…a friend or acquaintance coming to you to get some professional advice on a “near death experiences” from one of their recent flights.

  13. Cedarglen Says:

    May I comment twice? I wonder which major US airport has the highest number of GA events – as the percent of total traffic. Is it the smaller, more dense airports with difficult approaches – LaGuardia, Washington, John Wayne, or the big ones with very dense traffic? Please don’t waste any time trying to find official stats on a subject that they don’t want to talk about. I’ll be quite happy with your experienced WAG. Again, an interesting provocative post. Thanks!

    • I wonder too. A lot would have to do with pilots in training, and weather, too.

      But if you look at one of the busiest airports, O’Hare, I’ll they have less go-arounds per total flight numbers regardless.

      Not really sure . . .

  14. […] especially at an airport like BUR where there's a ton of traffic and some mountains to avoid. Here's a good look at what goes on during a go […]

  15. I’d imagine SNA is pretty high up on the list of go-arounds. Short 5700′ runway, Socal slam dunking airplanes, Santa Ana winds (lots of go-arounds when 1L is in use!), and a 2800′ parallel with an eclectic mix of students, helicopters, warbirds, aerobatics planes, etc.


    • I’m not a big fan of that converging base to final on the parallel, which relies on GA planes–some with inexperienced solos going on–staying on their side of the centerline.

      Landing on 1 isn’t really a problem because it’s usually just a visual from way out over the water. Plenty of time to set up, although it’s just a LOC approach. But there’s an RNAV approach that gives you a precision glidepath all the way down to the threshhold.

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