Air Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”


737 landing crop

Air a Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing”

In social settings, I never bring up the fact that I’ve been an airline pilot at a major carrier since 1985. Because when I do, the mythology springs forth: tales of “harrowing” flights, near disasters, plus lost luggage (not my department anyway).

The flight myth most typical is, in passenger-speak, something like this: “We were about two feet off the ground when the pilot ‘gunned it’ and we shot straight up.” Gunned it?

Ah yes: the go-around, as we call it. We don’t call it “aborted landing” and in fact, until we get on the runway it’s not a landing anyway. Even after touchdown, the only option other than stopping is a “rejected landing,” which is a methodical procedure to get back into the air safely.

The main point is this: all of these options are planned for, procedurally set out and practiced, and in a nutshell–not a big deal.

fd1

Here are the facts, step by step, of a missed approach.

First, the urban legend needs revision. From an airline pilot standpoint–and this is the airline philosophy, in writing–a missed approach is considered a successful approach. In other words, landing is not mandatory for a successful approach. In fact, unless all of the many restrictions upon which a landing is predicated are met, a missed approach is the desired outcome.

There are a number of reasons why a missed approach may be required and the most common reason is not the one most people think of: weather. Rather, is the more mundane issue of spacing.

More specifically, that “spacing” refers to the distance between aircraft landing and ironically, this is typically a good weather problem. In bad weather, aircraft are well-spaced by radar and further, speed is typically assigned by the air traffic controllers. On a clear day, aircraft are allowed to “see and avoid” and thus are not spaced as far apart, nor is the speed as rigidly assigned.

So, now and then one aircraft on final approach may not have enough space behind another aircraft just touching down, which could mean the first aircraft might not be off the runway before the following aircraft would touch down. That’s a no-fault situation: maybe the first aircraft needed to slow down earlier than normal, or, as at DFW today, due to construction some runway exits may be closed, requiring a longer landing rollout.

BA 747

Or, often enough, an aircraft is cleared for takeoff as you approach and they might take longer than expected to roll. That’s routine and actually, it’s their runway once they’re cleared for takeoff. So, we may need to go-around.

The pilots in the second aircraft can see the spacing problem develop and there may be a few things that can help: you could slow to your final approach speed–but I also consider the plane behind ours and how that affects his spacing on our aircraft.

My rule of thumb is usually this: if the aircraft ahead touches down or starts takeoff roll and we’re still at 500 feet or higher, it’ll probably work out. Less? We’ll likely go-around. When we do, the process will be routine and simply, methodically by the book: smoothly add power, arrest the descent, bring up the landing flaps and their drag, retract the gear and smoothly climb to the assigned missed approach altitude and following the prescribed course.

No big deal from the cockpit, but it takes you by surprise in the cabin where you can’t see the situation developing. When power is added and the nose pitches up, the sensation in back is much more dramatic, particularly behind the wings and especially near the tail (ask any flight attendant) where the swing is more pronounced.

Sometimes the power can be overly dramatic: we have a power setting designed for a go-around, but it’s predicated on a last second escape from the lowest descent altitude on the approach–50 feet above the runway, in the Boeing 737-800 I fly. But seldom is the missed approach executed at that rock-bottom minimum, so that much power isn’t really necessary.

image

 

Trouble is, some of the older jets like the MD-80 have autothrottles that know only to set the maximum setting if the go-around power toggle is activated. That causes a dramatic pitch up that may feel, in the words of the immortal Dr. Dole at USC Flight Safety and Accident Investigation Center, that you’re “climbing like a stripedy-ass ape.” Startling to say the least and why many pilots of those older aircraft disengage the autothrottles and manually set power on a go-around from a higher altitude.

Newer jets like the Boeing I fly today have two go-around power settings available with the autothrottles engaged, one with the maximum power response, one with a reduced, more comfortable setting.

A go-around from an approach minimum altitude is the exact same procedure, only with the full power setting, which will make the maneuver more pronounced but nonetheless, routine. That’s necessary for safety: we want maximum terrain clearance with no delay, so the exact same procedure is followed, just more aggressively due to the full computed thrust used.

image

When I see the need for a go-around developing, the first thing I do is talk to the other pilot, getting us both ready to execute the litany of steps if need be. If we’re down to the approach minimums, there’s really nothing to discuss: we execute the standard go-around maneuver.

Traffic problems and spacing are the usual reasons for a go-around, but there may be the occasional go-around due to weather minimums. There’s no “gunning it” or fire-walling the throttles like in the Hollywood depictions, just a methodical and prompt setting of the required engine thrust and an arrested descent, then climb.

In either case, don’t expect to hear much from me on the PA, because in a go-around both pilots need to focus on flying: the altitude, the procedural track, the aircraft configuration and speed. If we’re going around due to weather minimums, we’ll also likely be setting up the navigation and securing the clearances to divert; if not, we need to get re-sequenced back into the landing pattern. None of that on a two man crew works well solo, which is what a PA would require.

So I’ll get to it when and if I can. If not, explain all this to the guy next to you, and relax. Because now you know a go-around is just routine.

More questions about air travel and your flight? Here are the answers:

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11 Responses to “Air Travel Mythology: The “Aborted Landing””

  1. Randy Sohn Says:

    Aw man, I get so much in a head-shakin’ mode when someone in back tells me what you’d said about their flight. Either the pilot on that flight he’d described 1 – did it totally wrong or else 2 – the passenger’s just full of BS! Concur with you, it isn’t a big deal and could well be for any one of a variety of reasons. Problem is that a lot of pilots/people treat it as a bona-fide emergency and it isn’t! IIRC, I’d covered it a l-o-n-g time ago in my Warbird Notes #46 for things I’d seen while doing FAA aircraft type rating checkrides. What I wrote about in it was for piston engines, yours is for turbines – but just do it as you’d said!

    • I agree, Randy. A go-around should be as practiced and routine as a landing. A lot of folks give it short schrift: how many times in an approach brief have you heard, “Missed approach will be with tower?” Uh, no it won’t, on an instrument approach.

      My years as Check Airman got the go-around thing down as a routine. If done smoothly, there’s really no story to tell. But passengers like to have a good horror story to dazzle their friends, unfortunately.

  2. Something i recently saw. FedEx 727, clear weather, no traffic ahead or behind, did a touch and go. It appeared he may have come down long. interesting to watch from the ground.

  3. I fly a fair amount, and I never second-guess the crew – they know what’s going on, I don’t, end of story. I stay in my seat and thank them on my way off the aircraft, and that’s it.
    I do have one entertaining go-around story: I was on a BA flight, coming in to LHR, and seemingly just before the tyres hit the tarmac, we were climbing again. So far so normal, but we rejoined the pattern and went for quite some time with no cabin announcement – much longer than in other go-arounds I have experienced. Finally the captain came on the intercom, and in the most wonderfully matter-of-fact manner, announced that he had opted not to land when he saw another aircraft about to cross our assigned runway, that he had spent the last few minutes having a “full and frank exchange of views” with the tower, and that we were on our way back to LHR and he did not anticipate any further problems!
    My other BA story was on the ground at LIN: everyone boarded promptly (for once), but there was a problem with a piece of baggage that did not match any boarded pax. The captain made progress announcements every five minutes, gradually going from cheerful and upbeat to terse and with jaws audibly clenched. Finally about 45′ into the baggage recount he snapped, and told us he was personally going down to the tarmac to “sort this out”. I didn’t have a seat on that side of the plane, so I don’t know exactly what happened, but for the next update we had our happy cheerful captain back, explaining with great disdain that local baggage handlers had misread a luggage tag, he had personally insured that the luggage would be re-loaded with all possible speed, and we would shortly be on our way.
    Keep up the stories, those of us sitting in back love the insight into what it’s like up front!

  4. What would you say is the tipical cost in U$ of a go-around, considering just the extra fuel burned?

  5. It’s traffic. Not much you can do about it. You drive – I’m just enjoying a few more minutes of peace without anyone demanding anything (and one reason why I would prefer no cell phone service on planes.)

  6. The only aborted landing I’ve had (and I call it aborted landing as that is what the pilot called it) was in a little BAe146 going into NZAA. Had a window seat, maybe 3 metres off the blacktop, anticipating the touchdown and braking when suddenly (not sudden to the pilot obviously but sudden to me) the engines rev to life and we’re pitched back up taking off again. Once we were at altitude and in the orbit the pilot came on and said “as you’ll have noticed we aborted that landing…”. Reports of debris on the runway from the flight before us.

    You guys know you’re going round but the pax don’t so to them it is a sudden and unexpected event that’s a complete bipolar opposite to what they’re expecting. I guess company-wise you’re not allowed to tell your flight you may have to go around ? I can imagine the collective groan you would hear from the cabin if you did that.

  7. scotsemail1@yahoo.com Says:

    Hi. I enjoyed reading your comments about the go-around. I found your site when searching for information after having a go-around on Delta 1061 into MCO on 10-20-2015. This was my second time experiencing a missed approach / go-around. However, this time it was weird because we were seconds away from landing when the starboard wing dipped quite low (my perception), and out the window all we saw was the green grass. It looked as though the tip of the wing might actually touch the grass (likely not that close but for that second it looked mighty close), and there was no additional power during the ‘dipping wing’, and then we powered up and gained altitude. Is there a place to find out if there was an incident report filed? Would a report be filed? Thanks!

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