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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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