In a perfect world, every approach would be stable, all unstable approaches would end in a go-around, and pilots would comply with every written rule. In that perfect world, fewer airplanes would run off the runway, land short, or have a tailstrike. Unfortunately, our world is anything but perfect.
Stabilized approach criteria, “no-fault” go-around policies, and adherence to standard operating procedures (SOPs) are solid defenses against approach and landing accidents (ALA). Yet these accidents continue to occur at an alarming rate. In fact, the most common phase of flight for accidents is the approach and landing phase.
What’s most perplexing is that after nearly 20 years of industry focus on reducing ALA accidents, we’re still having this conversation. About half of these accidents begin with an unstable approach. So it makes perfect sense to abandon the approach when everything is not lining up as planned. Right? No harm, no foul, just go-around.
According to the Flight Safety Foundation’s (FSF) Go-Around Decision-Making and Execution Project report, “Flight discipline during the final approach is key to eliminating—or at least reducing—approach and landing accidents.” The report suggests that, across all segments, only 3 percent of all unstable approaches result in a go-around.
Improvement of this go-around rate would be significant in improving flight safety, the FSF said, adding, “The problem of go-around policy noncompliance is real and arguably the largest threat to flight safety today.”
In the past two decades, most operators have implemented the stable approach concept and favorable go-around policies to support pilot decision-making during approaches that are or become destabilized. Overall, those operators that share data have shown year-over-year positive gains in stable approach rates. Most operators now have an unstable approach rate of less than 5 percent. That is impressive; great gains have been achieved in reducing the rate of unstable approaches. The real issue now is the 97 percent of unstable flights that continue and land.
So, why don’t pilots go around? The FSF concluded that pilots often have varying perceptions about the levels of risk associated with continuing an unstable approach and executing a go-around.
According to the study, levels of risk during an approach vary depending on the pilot, approach, and environment. The perception is that these risks increase exponentially as the approach progresses below 500 feet. Survey results also suggest that the go-around maneuver is safer if executed at higher altitudes.
One common justification for continuing an unstable approach is that “it’s safer to continue,” rather than go around. Often this justification is rooted in a lack of proficiency in the go-around maneuver itself.
While troubling, this is somewhat understandable, since the go-around maneuver is rare—often performed only during recurrent training in the simulator. In this scenario, the go-around is highly anticipated, such as arriving “at minimums” during an instrument approach.
Likewise, according to the FSF, there are limited opportunities to practice the maneuver in the real world. A short-haul airline might experience just one or two go-arounds per year, while a long-haul pilot might experience one once every two to three years. Thus, much of the burden falls on the pilot to continuously review and “rehearse” go-around procedures at various altitudes.
One solution to improve the rate of go-arounds from unstable approaches is an “active callout.” Some operators have adopted this concept to include a 500-foot agl callout where the pilot monitoring (PM), along with other verbiage, includes a “stable” or “unstable” call. If the PM calls out “unstable,” then the appropriate response from the pilot flying (PF) is “go around,” while initiating the go-around maneuver.
In the FSF report, the recommendation is to make this active callout at 300 feet agl. This actually might be too low. During the normal instrument approach progression in a turbine aircraft at 300 feet, the workload of the crew increases as the aircraft approaches landing minimums.
Regardless, the “active callout” concept removes any of the subjectivity or analysis required by the PF—the decision now becomes binary. Great concept, and a great way to generate more conversation on improving safety during the approach and landing phase of flight. Remember: no harm, no foul, just go around.
Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached by email.