Leading Edge #10: Fly It Again?

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Fog shrouded the Northwest airport. A single-engine, retractable-gear airplane, with three aboard, was arriving from a routine, cross-country flight. The experienced pilot set up for a GPS approach. At the missed-approach point, the ground was still obscured so the pilot powered up and began a climb; but as the aircraft crossed directly over the airport, he could see runway lights.Fog creates unusual visual cues, where runway lights are obscured when looking nearly horizontally toward the runway at the missed-approach point, but visible looking downward directly through a thin layer of fog. Seeing the lights during the missed approach may embolden a pilot to try again, and make the pilot subject to landing expectation and a temptation to go “just a little lower” on the next approach.Encouraged by the runway lights, the pilot asked for and was cleared for a second attempt. Perhaps locked into that landing expectation and subject to that temptation to go a little lower, the pilot flew the airplane into trees about 1-1/4 mile short of the runway on the second approach, aligned on the inbound course. All aboard the airplane died. During the time of both approaches, the reported weather was 100 overcast, visibility 1/4-mile with a temperature/dewpoint spread of zero degrees — far below minimums for the GPS approach.In the dark of night, the piston twin departed under visual flight rules (VFR) but picked up a clearance for an instrument flight rules (IFR) approach when the weather at the destination was 800 overcast and visibility 10 miles. Around one o’clock in the morning the pilot flew the instrument approach but for some reason “missed,” despite the reasonably good weather.The pilot requested and was granted another shot at the same approach, only to miss a second time. On a third attempt, during the missed-approach procedure, the airplane departed controlled flight and crashed into a garage, bursting into flame about three miles from the airport. All aboard the airplane perished.All too often reports of accidents in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) include reference to flying the second, third, fourth or even fifth attempt (the most I’ve ever seen in a report) at flying the same approach before ending up in the mishap record.

Theory And Practice

In theory the risk of mishap remains the same with each approach no matter how many times it is flown: Fly headings and altitudes and either you see the runway and land or you don’t and you go on the missed approach. The record suggests, however, that in the “multiple-approach” scenario, risk increases with each failed attempt. Flying the same procedure over and over again may lead to complacency and sloppy flying. Under stress, the temptation is to try to go “just a little bit lower” or “a little bit longer” on each subsequent attempt. The pilot’s focus becomes less and less on instruments and the procedure, and more and more on straining to see objects outside the aircraft.The success orientation of most pilots — the strong desire to get where they want to be, with the corollary that having to miss and go somewhere they do not is somehow “failure” — works in direct opposition to safety in multiple approaches. Pressures become cumulative; pilots want to “succeed,” passengers get more vocal, fatigue builds and fuel burn is making fewer and fewer alternates to the planned destination available. History shows that multiple attempts at the same instrument approach can bring distractions and deteriorate a pilot’s judgment until they become contributors to a fatal crash.

Fly It Again … Or Not?

How can you better manage the risks and temptations of flying multiple instrument approaches? First, you must commit to flying procedures precisely as published. Human factors, not the procedure itself, makes multiple attempts progressively riskier. Second, remember that complacency, building pressure and temptation nearly always accompany multiple attempts at an approach. Everyone is subject to these human failings.Here’s my personal standard operating procedure (SOP) regarding multiple attempts at the same approach. You may adopt it yourself, or choose to modify it for your needs. The key point is to decide now, in the low-stress comfort of your chair, what your SOP will be, and show the discipline to stick with it without change if you find yourself in the clouds in low IMC with a plane-load of nervous passengers.

If I miss on an instrument approach, I do not attempt the same approach a second time unless:

  1. I have good reason to believe, based on observations or my knowledge of meteorology, that weather conditions that required me to miss were temporary and that they’ll improve in time for a second attempt; or
  2. I can identify a specific technique or part of the procedure I flew incorrectly that caused me to miss, and that I can honestly say I’ll get right the next time; or
  3. I’m facing a true emergency and because of my poor planning, systems failures or completely unforeseen weather conditions, I have no better options within the remaining range of my aircraft, and I must try again before running out of fuel.

If none of the conditions above apply and you attempt a second approach anyway, I say you’re wasting time and burning off the fuel you need to get somewhere with better conditions or lower approach minimums.

If You Miss A Second Time

If you thought the weather would improve but it didn’t, or you thought you’d fly the approach more precisely the next time but ended up flying a missed approach again anyway, go somewhere with better weather or lower approach minima. Do not fly a third approach unless you’re truly in a fuel emergency and have no other options. The mishap record shows multiple attempts at the same approach tempt pilots to violate safe altitudes and proper procedures. The results are almost always fatal.Pilots must show discipline to fly approach procedures as published every time, and to abandon attempts at getting into a particular airport long before adverse stress, fuel or fatigue become issues. Historically pilots are not good at maintaining this discipline, and for those who do not, the survival record is abysmal. Develop and stick to a personal SOP regarding multiple attempts at the same instrument approach.Fly safe, and have fun!


Thomas P. Turner’s Leading Edge columns are collected here.