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.