Our undercover pilot offers insight into a routine procedure that can cause anxiety for travellers.
You are seconds from landing, thinking about where your passport or car keys are, when suddenly the aircraft engines go to full power and a steep climb is initiated. From a passenger perspective this can be quite alarming, particularly if you are a nervous flyer. You might be thinking: what happens next and why has the pilot said nothing?
What you’re experiencing is known as a go-around. For pilots, it’s something that we practice in the simulator every six months and occasionally on the aircraft for real, so it’s quite a routine manoeuvre.
There are numerous reasons why a go-around occurs, which generally fall into four categories. These are weather-related, air traffic control (ATC), technical issues or an unstable approach. We never just land and hope for the best – calculations are made before we start every descent to ensure that the aircraft can land and stop safely. If that is ever in doubt, a go-around will be actioned and the situation re-evaluated. Typically this will happen between 1,000 feet until landing, which for a commercial jet is about 1.5 minutes to landing.
Weather-related incidents are one of the most common reasons. Examples include if the crosswind is too high for the certification of the aircraft, gusty winds destabilising the aircraft flight path, visibility not being good enough to see the runway (such as with fog), a thunderstorm causing unpredictable and dangerous winds, or snow that has made it difficult to see the runway edges or too slippery to stop.
ATC can also instruct pilots to perform a go-around. The most common reason here is the aircraft that landed ahead of you has been too slow to clear the runway. Other factors could include debris or even an animal roaming around on the runway. Flocks of birds in the vicinity of the airport could also present a hazard.
Technical issues can occur anytime during a flight and will be dealt with accordingly. But should this happen in the late stage of the approach to land, the pilots may need to perform a go-around to deal with the situation and assess what impact it may have on the landing. Examples could be an engine failure or a defect affecting the braking system.
Fasten your seatbelt
The final category is an unstable approach. Each airline has a set of requirements when the aircraft reaches 1,000 feet. This includes setting the correct speed, ensuring flaps are on the landing setting, the wheels are down, the aircraft is not too high or low on the glide path, and that the passengers are all secure. If a passenger was in the loo or out of their seat at 1,000 feet, a go-around would need to be flown – and you will not be popular if you are that passenger!
If a go-around were not actioned there is a possibility the aircraft wouldn’t be able to stop on the runway, it might hit another aeroplane, or a passenger could be injured. Landing on the runway is always preferable to ending up in the grass, which makes disembarkation quite difficult!
No news is good news
So why does the pilot take forever to say something and reassure passengers that all is under control? The simple answer is that they are initially very busy. They have to change their mindset from landing to go-around mode. Actions will involve applying power to the engines while pitching the aircraft into a climb. The flaps will need adjusting for a climb and the wheels need to be raised. Additionally, they are communicating with ATC, dealing with the reason for the go-around and deciding on the best plan of action, which is usually to have another attempt.
However, if it’s weather-related it may be necessary to enter a holding pattern and await improvement. If a second go-around occurs due to weather, then a diversion would be considered as it is too stressful for passengers to endure yet another failed landing attempt. Once this has all been figured out, the pilot will usually then speak to the passengers to explain the situation.
In my 27 years as a pilot, I’ve flown no more than 20 go-arounds, so it doesn’t happen that often. But hopefully now, if it does happen, you will have a better understanding as to what is occurring, know that things are under control, and be reassured that as with all things in aviation, it is to keep you safe and secure.