I took a flight recently where, just before landing, the pilots suddenly throttled up and we went back into the air again. It was startling as we were so low to the ground! What happened?
Hey, Jan. Thank you so much for reaching out to me regarding your experience on your flight. What you experienced is what people in the aviation community refer to as a go-around. While it may be startling to those in the cabin who expected to be touching the ground in just a few moments, the maneuver itself is perfectly safe and something pilots train for regularly. While we would also prefer to be touching down rather than going around, it’s a regular procedure that pilots are always willing to initiate at a moment’s notice.
What is a go-around?
A go-around maneuver is accomplished any time a landing must be discontinued for any reason. And there are many reasons to discontinue a landing, but I’ll discuss that later.
During a go-around, a pilot will increase the thrust from the engines, arrest their descent, and begin climbing the airplane to a safe altitude. Once the airplane is climbing, the landing gear will be retracted and the flaps raised to their go-around setting. The pilot will then navigate the airplane on a course prescribed by Air Traffic Control, or on a published route dictated by the approach procedure the plane was flying. Last but not least, the pilot will ATC and notify it of the go-around once the airplane is safely climbing away from the ground.
The procedure for going around is something that pilots train for repeatedly in the simulator. It’s a maneuver that requires both pilots to work together in a coordinated manner, with the choreography clearly defined in the company’s procedures. It’s a methodical maneuver, requiring coordination rather than snap decisions, and it’s not an emergency. While pilots are trained regularly for this contingency, most flight crews accomplish only a few go-arounds per year while flying a regular schedule.
Below is a video from YouTube user Nizz77 in the flight deck of a Finnair flight approaching JFK airport when the controller tells the pilots to go-around.
What causes a go-around?
There are many things that will cause either the pilots or ATC to decide a go-around is necessary. Among the most frequent causes are traffic conflicts. That’s not to say two jets are too close together, but rather, like in the video above, an airplane doesn’t vacate a runway quickly enough and so ATC may send the subsequent aircraft around.
Environmental reasons can cause go-arounds, as well. For instance, strong winds at an airport can cause airspeed fluctuations and create the potential for windshear. Windshear is a sudden change in wind speed or direction that can negatively affect the performance of an airplane on approach. When a pilot receives a windshear warning, he or she is required to execute a go-around. An approaching thunderstorm can also cause changes in wind speed or wind direction and a reduction in visibility that would require a pilot to discontinue an approach until conditions subside.
When making an approach to landing in poor visibility, your pilots will conduct an instrument approach. These published procedures are used to guide the airplane to the runway for landing. That being said, most often pilots are required to see the runway before they can complete the landing. If they arrive at the lowest allowed altitude on the approach without seeing the runway, a go-around must be is necessary. We call this a missed approach.
Finally, the human element plays a role in deciding when to discontinue an approach. Sometimes, a pilot will simply not like the way an approach is coming together. Whether ATC left the aircraft too high or the pilot miscalculated his or her descent, a pilot-initiated go-around is always an option. And airlines have been vocally supportive of pilots that choose to go-around rather than try to continue an approach that is unstable.
Below is a video from AvgeekYVR of a mammoth A380 executing a late go-around:
After going around
So after the go-around, what happens next? Well, most often, the flight crew will be directed back to attempt another approach.
But as is the case with deteriorating weather, this may not always be the best course of action. If the weather causes a pilot to go-around, it may be preferable to fly the aircraft somewhere to hold (where we fly a racetrack-shaped pattern over a fixed point on the ground). Or, depending on the amount of fuel onboard, we may elect to divert to a different airport to refuel. Then, we can continue on to our destination and to a safe landing.
To sum up
Thanks for the excellent question, Jan. Go-arounds may be startling sometimes, but they are safe, well-practiced maneuvers. While the reasons for a go-around vary, pilots choosing to go-around will always do so with the safety of the flight in mind.
Do you have a go-around story? If anyone has a burning aviation question or something you would like cleared up, drop us a line at [email protected] to get your question featured in an upcoming Ask a Pilot column.
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