Budd Davisson, Flight Training, January, 2000

Aborts, Go-Arounds And Other Common Sense

For a long time I was based on a runway that was 2,000 feet long but with flawless, clear approaches over lakes at each end. One of our favorite entertainments was to sit in the lobby and watch transient pilots land. Or try to land. Where most runways have rubber on the approach end from touchdowns, this one had a layer of rubber left at the other end when pilots, seeing the lake rushing at them, would lean on the brakes and smoke their tires. Not all made it and more than a few went swimming.

One of the never ending sources of amazement was to watch something like a 172 come sailing past the mid-point, 20 feet in the air, nose down, determined to land. They saw the lake coming. They knew they had less than 1,000 feet left. They knew it was going to be close. But they tried it anyway. It was the rare, and prudent, pilot, who, in that situation,dropped the hammer and went around. The concept of going around seemed to be abhorrent to their thought processes, even though in this particular situation, it was blatantly obvious they were skating on the ragged edge of disaster.

Going around appears to be against many pilot's principles. The same thing holds true for aborting takeoffs. Once the throttle is in, very few pilots seem willing to bring it back out. Likewise, once it's out, they don't want to push it back in.

What is it about pilots that sometimes makes them unwilling to admit that the situation isn't right and it's time to go back and try again? This is an unanswerable question. However, there are a lot of situations, both on landing and take off, where the smart move is to either stay in the air or stay on the ground and, in either case, avoid a potentially messy transition.

Going around on a landing is fairly common, but aborting a takeoff is a relatively rare occurence and it's something that has to be approached with caution and with instant understanding of the consequences attached to either aborting or taking off. The decision to abort a takeoff is almost never as clear cut as aborting a landing is. Nor is it as easy.

Why would you abort a takeoff? The most obvious would be engine problems. The throttle starts in, the engine coughs and shakes and it's obvious there are problems. Decision made: throttle back, coast to a halt. A no brainer.

But, what if you're just in the process of rotating and you sense a power change? Not a major power loss, but a subtle change in rythmn. Or maybe the power sags just a little. In the airline industry there's the old axiom, "Got four engines, start thinking about three." Where there's only one engine, the axiom should be, "Got a small problem? Start thinking about big ones."

The last place you want to be with an ailing engine is in the air. But, what is the definition of "ailing" and when do you make the decision to abort the takeoff?

The proper decision-point is the instant you sense something wrong. However, the go, no-go decision is fraught with all sorts of questions, most of which have to do with the length of the runway, where you are in the takeoff process and how serious the problem seems to be.

Taking the seriousness of the engine problem first, it should be understood that airplane engines seldom catastrophically fail. They can be coughing and barking and they'll still run because basically, they are really crude machines. They'll usually be delivering "some" power. A major question at that point, however is how much power will it deliver and for how long? The safe assumption should be it won't deliver enough power and, in a second or two, it'll be delivering no power.

So, if we're going to look at the dark side of the situation, what do we do about it? Do we go or abort?

First let us toss a caveat in right here. There are so many different curves crossing at the moment of a power loss or reduction on takeoff that there are no hard and fast rules and anything we say here is open for arguement. All we can do is offer some generalities, however, the factors that enter into the decision to abort a takeoff include (but are not limited to):

1. Runway length

2. Have you lifted off already?

3. Type of aircraft vs runway length

4. Perceived severity of problem.

Let's take runway length and aircraft type first. If you're flying a 172 off a 3,000 foot runway and you're just short of lift-off when the problem develops, it's an easy decision. Power off and you'll coast to a halt with half the runway to spare. Have the same situation occur in a Cessna 210 or Bonanza, however, and it'll be close.

Now, same situation, but you're 20 feet off the ground. Now it gets tough to decide and the deciding factor is going to be how severe the problem seems to be. In the 172, getting it back down is the obvious thing to do, regardless of severity, because you probably have at least 2000 feet left (unless you're up around Flagstaff, AZ, then you have nothing left). In the bigger birds the gear may already be on the way up and the decision becomes much more difficult. Putting it down on what's left of the runway is going to be very expensive because it's unlikely the gear's going to make it all the way back down.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules here because every situation is going to be different. However, a couple of concepts do apply. For instance, it's better to run off the end of the runway with brakes locked and the tires smoking at 20 mph or slide off the end with a curled prop and the gear up than it is to stagger off the end at 100 feet and have the engine quite completely. Yeah, it's expensive to land and run off the end of the runway but it is almost never fatal. Come down from even100 feet and chances are, at the very least, you'll be injured. If you abort and run off the end there will always be the nagging question, "would it have kept running?" If it quits at 100 feet, the question may be "will I ever walk again and did my passengers survive?"

The decision should never be hardware oriented. Forget about saving the airplane. Save yourself and your passengers.

Right now, someone out there is saying, "Yeah, but if it's just a minor engine problem, why not keep going?" And that's a fair question. And that's where the ability to judge the severity of an engine problem becomes a deciding factor. Here too, however, there are no hard and fast rules. We wish we could say, "if it's doing this, it's minor. But, if it's doing that, it's major" but we can't. In general, the louder the noises, the more severe the problem, but even that's not true. If it's making noises, it's still making power which is better than sudden quiet.

Another factor in the decision is geographic location. A faltering engine in northern New Jersey isn't the same as a faltering engine in northern New Mexico. When the density altitude is up, even the healthiest engine delivers sick performance and a problem that would be considered nothing more than the mechanical equivalent of a slight rash in the flat lands becomes as serious as a heart attack at the higher altitudes.

And it doesn't take an engine problem to create an aborting situation at high altitudes. If more pilots were willing to pull the plug on takeoff at high density altitudes, there would be a lot fewer summer time takeoff fatalities in the western states. Most of the locals know better, but flat landers transiting the areas, often push a takeoff by forcing it into the air, then don't realize it's not going to gain any altitude until too late. Most of the time they could have saved themselves by simply chopping the throttle and putting it back down. 1000 feet is plenty of runway to stop a 172/182 type aircraft in almost any situation.

There are lots of other reasons to abort a takeoff. This writer recalls two memorable aborts. One was hitting six Canadian geese right at rotation and the other was a lightning strike off the end of the runway from a storm which had looked to be much further away. I couldn't count the number of times I've aborted a landing. It must be in the thousands.

There are also reasons not to abort a takeoff. When a door pops open it scares the devil out of you and sounds terrible, but aborting after rotation would be more dangerous than taking it around the pattern and landing to lock the door. Same thing is true of the horrible sound of a loose seat belt flailing the side of the fuselage. It's not life threatening unless you make it so.

Again, the deciding factors come from evaluating the amount of runway left for the size of airplane and it's height above the ground coupled with an evaluation of the severity of the situation.

Deciding to abort a landing is much easier than deciding to abort a takeoff. If you want to make the decision to go-around really simple, just say to yourself, "If it doesn't look or feel right, it isn't right so take it around."

Certainly the most common situations requiring a go around include getting the airplane totally screwed up and off profile on short final or in flair. Let's say it's a 172 and you flair and get a pretty healthy balloon and look down to find you have 90 mph indicated and only 2,500 feet in front of you. Take it around. You could probably get it down with no problem, but why? Why land on the last quarter of any runway? That's just bad aviating.

Or let's say you're fighting a crosswind and get into one of those yo-yo things where you're over controlling and swinging subtly back and forth, never quite zeroing out the drift and never quite getting it under control. Take it around. The situation is unstable and you need to go back out and regroup.

Or you're flying into an airport that because of topographical features has serious turbulence or shears at the approach end and you suddenly sense the bottom is falling out. Forget about the landing and fly the airplane. Full power and, if that doesn't arrest it immediately, leave the power in and initiate a go round. Don't try to save the landing. Save your own hide instead.

In general, when an approach has gone wrong and you find yourself somewhere doing something you don't want to be doing, take it around. And don't hesitate. Always make the decision to go around before the situation goes so sour or you are so slow that power can't instantly take you out of it. If you're flying a loaded 172, or something similar, just plan ahead knowing it's not going to respond to power well at all. If it's hot or you're at a high altitude airport just remember that the airplane is doing all it can to stay aloft in the best of times, so don't wait until it is slow and out of energy to ask it to go around.

Okay, so you've decided it's time to get out of Dodge and throttle up to go around. Now what? For one thing, be aware that the airplane is going to do everything it can to pitch up, because you're carrying so much up trim for landing. Also, the trim suddenly gets very effective because of the prop blast over it. The situation gets even more interesting, if you have full flaps out.

Your first concern is to hold the nose close to level and not let it come up without your permission. That way all the engine's energy will go into speed and very little into climb. Once the speed is up, let it climb slowly and gradually milk the flaps up to get rid of all that drag. Then trim the pressures out.

While all of this is going on, remember to fly the airplane. Yes, you have to manipulate stuff in the cockpit, but the nose is giving you an instant reading of what the airspeed is doing and what it's about to be doing. So, keep your head out of the cockpit and keep the nose attitude under control. Nothing in the cockpit is as important as keeping control of the airplane.

The decisions to abort either takeoffs or landings should be based on safety, period. Ego or appearance has no place in the equation. No one is ever going to criticize a pilot for erring on the side of safety. The decision processes can actually be quite short and sweet: when in doubt, don't go. When it's not right, don't land. Simple as that.