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From the Desk of the Safety Office


Michael May, Standards Officer WVFC

Making the Go-Around Decision

A few years ago, I was conducting a flight review for a fellow CFI in a Cirrus. As an instructor in Cirrus airplanes he was very proficient and the review was mostly uneventful, with the exception of a landing attempt that resulted in a go-around. What made this noteworthy was not that he came in slightly high and fast, but that his decision to go-around was made when we were still at about 100 feet AGL and a quarter mile short of the runway. We had drifted only about 15 feet high and 5 knots too fast, and a pilot with his experience and proficiency most likely could have salvaged it if he had wanted to. However, his decision to go-around was the correct one and at the correct time, and it was noteworthy because of how rarely most pilots make that decision in similar circumstances.

If you read anything at all about aviation, chances are good you’ve heard of the stabilized approach concept, which calls for an immediate go-around if certain parameters aren’t met during an approach to landing. The definition of those parameters varies depending on the type of airplane being flown, but any definition includes being configured for landing, at the correct speed, and on glide-path by a certain point of the approach. If any of these conditions are not met or are deviated from past this point, then the pilot should execute a go-around immediately. Continuing the approach to try and “fix” it, and going around at the last minute if unsuccessful is not consistent with the stabilized approach concept. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens more often than not when an approach becomes unstable.

Why is this so important? Because general aviation accidents continue to be far more likely to occur during landing than any other phase of flight. This correlation was identified long ago, but the aviation industry has struggled to improve this statistic. The stabilized approach concept isn’t anything new, its been standard procedure at virtually all commercial operators and has been actively encouraged in general aviation for years. Unfortunately, pilots at all levels have failed miserably at following this standard. It wasn’t until airlines began actively disciplining pilots for failing to go-around that compliance rates began to improve.

One of the main reasons why pilots struggle to follow this very simple and sensible guidance is psychological. An approach that results in a go-around is often viewed negatively by one’s self and others. It implies that the pilot misjudged something, and the go-around decision is a decision to accept that failure. It is also human nature to attempt to correct a problem before admitting defeat, the “problem” being that something has caused the approach to be unstable and the “correction” being the attempt to continue the landing. Even when it’s painfully obvious that a go-around will be required, pilots tend to delay the decision until the last possible minute, with the rationalization that there’s little risk in doing so. Occasionally the decision is delayed too long or not made at all, often with disastrous results.

Embracing the stabilized approach concept requires redefining success and failure when landing. When the approach becomes unstable beyond the predefined decision-point (the problem), an immediate go-around should be executed (the correction). Deciding to continue comes with no other benefit than a few minutes of your time and an undamaged ego. Hopefully we can all agree that this benefit pales in comparison to the risk of an accident that it comes with. Immediately executing a go-around when an approach becomes unstable should be viewed as a successful outcome and a prudent safety decision.

If this is a difficult concept to accept, consider the following: A sloppy approach and a barely acceptable landing won’t impress anyone. If anything, it will raise questions about the proficiency and judgment of the pilot. Giving yourself another opportunity to make a good approach and landing is the right decision. It can be a difficult decision to make at first, but like most things, it will get much easier once you get used to it. If you find yourself needing a little help making this choice, just remember that it comes with the added benefit of impressing whoever may be watching.