Up, up and away (Perhaps)

Going around is taught as a normal flight manoeuvre during early training. The psychological subtleties become apparent only later.

Darragh Owens explains the importance of the go around

The go-around is one of the earliest safety-related procedures to which a learner pilot is exposed during initial training. The student is taught that a decision to discontinue the approach to landing, to climb back up into the sky, can be prompted by any one of a variety of reasons. A vehicle or other aircraft suddenly appears on the runway; an abrupt ATC instruction is given, for reasons momentarily unknown; gusting winds or strong crosswinds cause the pilot to become uncertain of placing the aircraft safely on the ground; recovery from bouncing or ‘ballooning’ on landing is required, and the only way is up. Or maybe the pilot has landed long, is still moving at speed on the ground, and is going to run out of runway. Wind-shear or poor piloting technique may lead to an airspeed outside the acceptable limits; visual contact with the runway may be lost…..the reasons for conducting a go-around are multiple, and these examples are by no means exhaustive. It follows that numerous go-arounds are practised during circuit training, and well-instructed students are (or should be) taught never to be afraid of going around if they are in the slightest doubt about the safety of the imminent landing.

The astute reader will have noted that some of these causes relate to events occurring on the ground, while others are events which take place while still airborne on the final approach. These latter causes we describe as affecting the stability of the approach, and the concept of the ‘stabilised approach’ has become an accepted principle in safe flying practice. So much so, that it is enshrined in recommended practices and regulations: under ICAO rules, such as ‘PANS OPS’ (ICAO Document 8168) and interpreted by regulating agencies, commercial operators must conduct all approaches with reference to this concept. Although there are some variations between operators and agencies, generally an approach is typically considered to be ‘stable’ if various requirements such as speed, configuration, vertical profile etc. have been met during the approach before reaching 1000 feet above the runway. The aircraft must be on the correct gradient as published or required by the operator; it must be at or close to the correct speed and power settings for this phase of flight as per manufacturer specifications; it must be in the landing configuration (landing gear down and landing flap set). The idea is that by setting up the aircraft and its dynamics in good time, as close as possible to the desired profile for landing, the pilot has fewer distracting things to do in this critical phase. He or she can thus focus on maintaining the flightpath and speeds required to get the aircraft safely on the ground.

The principle of a ‘stabilised approach’ is regarded as essential because approach and landing accidents (ALAs) account annually for approximately 65 percent of all aviation accidents. In other words, that phase of flight is the most likely occasion for an accident. A Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) study of 16 years of runway excursions determined that 83 percent could have been avoided with a decision to go around. In other words, 54 percent of all accidents could potentially be avoided by going around.

So far so good: the business of abandoning an unstable approach and initiating a go-around would seem to be a very open-and-shut question. If you’re not on a stabilised approach by the target height, then you have to go around. This is clearly stated in most operators’ Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). And we all know that SOPs must be obeyed in all but the most extreme and unusual circumstances, don’t we?

Well, it turns out that the requirement to go-around in these circumstances is an SOP honoured far more in the breach than in the observance. By the criteria outlined above, a considerable proportion of approaches to landing are unstable. But in fact, according to FSF studies, in only 3% of those unstable cases does the crew actually execute a missed approach / go around. In other words, 97% of unstable approaches are flown to a landing, notwithstanding all the dire warnings (no tot mention the SOPs) urging crews to go-around in such circumstances.

This finding adds a further layer of complexity to the unstable approach/go-around scenario: Why is the rate of non-compliance so high? To study this intriguing question, Flight Safety Foundation recently initiated the ‘Go-Around Decision-Making and Execution Project’. As part of that project FSF engaged The Presage Group of Ontario, Canada, to study which psycho-social aspects of pilots’ behaviour and attitudes might affect their compliance (or non-compliance) with the stabilised approach criteria (Presage Group is a consultancy set-up to improve the safety cultures of corporate clients in a wide variety of industries). Flight Training News caught up with Dr Martin Smith and Captain William Curtis of Presage at the recent Flight Safety Foundation International Air Safety Summit in Dublin, and they outlined some of the results of their study. Some of the key findings they described were:

· The industry as a whole (both management and pilots) accept the widespread non-compliance with go-around polices, despite empirical evidence indicating this is the most common contributor to approach and landing accidents.
· Reducing unstable approaches is seen as the sole means to reduce ALAs, even though empirical data show that unstable approaches affect less than half of runway excursions.
· Pilots’ overall awareness of ALA risks — and of the impact those risks have on approach and landing safety — is low.
· Management is generally disengaged from go-around non-compliance and has low awareness of the impact it has on ALAs. Management’s perception of risk is low.
· Pilots do not see current go-around policy criteria as realistic for the operational environment.
· Effective go-around decision making in flight deck communication is low.
· Procedures and training do not adequately address many of these challenges.

Further emerging from the Presage study are some fascinating insights into the readiness of different pilots to comply with go-around policies, depending on their overall level of Situational Awareness (SA). Presage’s Dr Smith characterises SA as a complex interaction of nine basic psychological constructs, or “aspects of awareness”, such as ‘Affective awareness’ (A “gut feeling” for threats), ‘Functional Awareness’ (knowing the instruments and equipment), ‘Hierarchical awareness’ (expert knowledge of operational procedures, their order and correct sequencing) and other interconnected measures of overall awareness. Their research shows that the higher the pilots’ SA by these measures, the more likely they are to comply with go-around procedures, and to have a deeper understanding of the risks attached to unstabilised approaches.

In this short article it is not possible to cover the full extent of the report, which examines not only pilots’ attitudes and practices regarding unstabilised approaches, but also those of airline management. However another interesting finding relevant to the daily practice of pilots is that when the study’s pilots were segmented into groups depending on their recent experience of executing go-arounds, versus making unstabilised approaches which were continued to a landing, those with greater experience of having gone around were more likely to assess the risk attached to unstabilised approaches as higher. Their practical experience would seem to prime them to more readily abandon such landings, as a safer option to continuing to the ground. The report also examines the validity of existing unstable-approach criteria, and presents a renewed set of more flexible definitions, which more realistically reflect the day-to-day experience of pilots and their perceptions of associated risk levels.

Where do these findings leave the beginner pilot, and her instructors, back at the commencement of flight training? Are they just ‘high level’ analyses, fit only for consideration by airline professionals? The answer to that must surely be in the negative. Serious consideration of such studies as these, by student pilots and by ab-initio instructors, can offer stimulating insights into the subtleties behind the seemingly straightforward manoeuvres, such as the go-around, that we learn, teach and practice in early lessons. And on this particular topic Captain Curtis, himself a former director of flight safety in a major airline, has a very simple message to tell those at the beginning of their flying journey: “Never be afraid to go around. Regard it as a badge of honour!”

The final report of Flight Safety Foundation’s Go-Around Decision-Making and Execution Project can be found on their website at flightsafety.org.

Learn more about The Presage Group at presagegroup.com.

Author: Adrian Mahovics

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