Aborted Landings for Dummies


July 7, 2014:

For those of you curious about that “shocking video” (CNN, et al) taken at the Barcelona airport this week, I hate to spoil the party (and I can’t believe that eight million people actually watched that YouTube video), but it wasn’t quite what it seems.

Apparently the Aerolineas Argentinas crew crossed the runway in error, which is serious. However, the camera perspective greatly exaggerates how close the two aircraft came. Reports say the planes were a full kilometer apart.

Meanwhile the go-around maneuver, performed by the 767 was, by itself, routine. I discuss go-arounds in chapter three of my book, and also in the essay below. As you’ll read, the maneuver can feel abrupt and can be frightening to nervous flyers, but it’s perfectly natural for an airplane, and not especially difficult for pilots….

 

THERE YOU ARE, belted in for landing. The approach is smooth, the weather clear. Down, down, down you come. At five hundred feet or so you can make out the writing on billboards; touchdown is only seconds away. Then, without warning, the engines roar. The aircraft pitches up sharply and begins to climb, groaning and shuddering as the landing gear retract and the flaps are reset. The ground falls away; the plane banks sharply. You grip the armrest. What the heck is happening?

A long minute later, the PA crackles and the captain speaks.  “As you’re aware,” he says, “We had to abandon our approach and make another circuit. We’re circling back around for another approach and will be on the ground in about ten minutes.”  If you fly enough, you have experienced this scenario one or more times. The maneuver is called a go-around, and it holds a special place in the fearful flyer’s pantheon of worries. I read about go-arounds all the time, luridly described in emails from terrified travelers who wonder if they’ve narrowly escaped with their lives.

The truth is pretty boring: go-arounds are fairly common and seldom the result of anything dangerous. In most cases it’s a minor spacing issue: controllers aren’t able to maintain the required separation parameters or the aircraft ahead has not yet vacated the runway. Not an ideal situation, but let’s be clear, this is not a proverbial near miss. The reason you’re going around is to prevent a near miss. Actual instances where a collision is narrowly averted do occur, but they are exceptionally rare.

Other times traffic has nothing to do with it. A variant of the go-around, spoken of somewhat interchangeably, is the “missed approach,” when a plane pulls off the same basic maneuver for weather-related reasons. If, in the course of an instrument approach, visibility drops below a prescribed value or the plane has not made visual contact with the runway upon reaching the minimum allowable altitude, the crew must climb away (often followed by a diversion to an alternate airport). A go-around will also be initiated any time an approach becomes unstable.  Glidepath deviations, a too-high rate-of-descent, severe crosswinds, a windshear alarm — any of these may trigger one.

As for the steepness or suddenness of the climb, that is the manner in which any go-around is executed.  There’s no need to dilly-dally around at low altitude. The safest direction is up — as quickly as practical. The abrupt transition from a gentle descent to a rapid climb might be noisy and jarring, but it’s perfectly natural for an airplane.

For pilots, executing a go-around is very straightforward, but also quite work-intensive. The first step is advancing the power to go-around thrust, retracting flaps and slats to an intermediate position, and rotating to a target pitch — somewhere around 15 degrees nose-up. Once a climb is established, the landing gear is raised. Flaps and slats are then retracted, followed by additional power and pitch adjustments. Once at level-off, the FMS may need to be reprogrammed, the autoflight components reset, checklists run, the weather checked, and so on. All of this while taking instructions from air traffic control. There’s lots of talking and a rapid succession of tasks.  This is one of the reasons you might not hear from the pilots for several minutes.

And when you finally do hear from the cockpit, the explanation is liable to be brief and, much as I hate to say it, maybe not as enlightening as it could be. The reality is, pilots and microphones aren’t always a good mix. In our attempts to avoid technical jargon and simplify complicated situations, we have a proclivity for scary-sounding caricature. Granted passengers do not need a dissertation on the nuances of ATC spacing restrictions or approach visibility minimums, but statements like, “We were a little too close to that plane ahead,” paint a misleading, if not terrifying picture. Later that night, passengers are emailing their loved ones (or me) with a tale of near-death, whereas the pilots have probably forgotten about it.

 

Still scared? Try the highly successful SOAR program…

 

And if you found this discussion helpful, chances are you’ll love the new book!

 

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