Pelican’s Perch #41:
Baby on the Runway!

Coming from the mouth of your CFI, those words (or a close variant) let you know that the instructor wants you to execute a go-around. According to AVweb's John Deakin, this is a maneuver that is often botched by airline captains and light plane pilots alike - not because it's difficult, but because we don't practice it enough and are sometimes not mentally ready for it. Deak offers a thoughtful approach to go-arounds and missed approaches that works in anything from a J-3 to a 747.


Pelican's PerchI guess I’m mean, but this is one of my favorite ways to trigger “go-around mode” in training and on checkrides. Not for me the old saw of “fire truck on the runway” or the like … much too mundane.

I usually wait until the power is all the way off, flare is complete, and the poor trainee is a’fishin’ for the runway with those little jerks on on the yoke (a bad, BAD habit, by the way), and I lean forward with a sharp intake of breath, Japanese style, point my finger and say, “Good grief, there’s a baby on the runway, right there!”

Upon hearing this the first time, pilots almost universally jam on the power and let the airplane have its head, which results in several bad situations all at once.

(On the other hand, I’ve had a few grizzled old airline pilots snarl right back with a rude suggestion as to just what I can do with the baby, followed by “…I’m landing.” Poor form, very poor form. Next thing y’know, there’ll be some wussy communist pinko knee-jerk organization for the prevention of landing on babies, or something.)

Anyway, the airplane usually lurches nearly straight up into the air like a cat poked with a cattle prod, and I’ve seen folks make it to well past 1,500 feet with gear and flaps still out, FAR below any sane speed, and just a’hangin’ on for dear life.

Not Just Lightplane Pilots, Either

Baty on the runway!Exaggeration? Nope, saw it just last night, in a 747 simulator, senior captain at the controls. No, not me, not this time anyway, I was just the dutiful copilot.

This one was an excellent demonstration of how things can go badly wrong in airplanes, almost instantly. We were making a full auto-coupled, auto-land ILS approach at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Dull, boring, routine maneuver, I hate ’em, on the theory that any auto-landing is a landing wasted.

Normally, the auto-land system will use the radio altimeter to determine when the airplane passes about 50 feet altitude above the ground, and will start the auto-flare sequence, gently pitching the nose up to reduce the sink rate just enough to give a firm landing. Pretty slick system, works really well, but if that auto-flare doesn’t kick in and you take no action, you’re in for a cruncher, a touchdown with the usual 700 feet per minute sink. The airplane will take it (I’ve seen far worse), but again, it’s poor form. There is an annunciator that should come on if anyone is looking, but the usual way of detecting this failure is the lack of pitch-up right after passing 50 feet. The flight engineer and I both yelled “No Flare,” and upon seeing no response, yelled it a couple more times, getting louder each time. In retrospect, I guess the poor guy flying got a bit rattled at all the noise, and took no action at all until about half a second before touchdown.

The correct response is to override the autoflight system and do the pitch change manually, and maybe give it a little shot of thrust, overriding the auto-throttles. Or simply disconnect the auto-flight system entirely, and land it manually. Our hero realized too late what was coming, and reacted instinctively, hauling back hard on the yoke, and jamming full thrust on. Oh, BAD move! Worst possible thing he could have done.

B747 go-aroundA sudden pitch input in any airplane with tail feathers always causes a “heave” effect, with the main gear going the opposite direction momentarily, before the attitude change occurs. In this case, the sudden pull on the yoke deflected the elevators up, dramatically increasing the download on the tail, and effectively adding to the gross weight of the airplane momentarily. This caused the momentary sink rate to increase while the nose began to rise, and since the main gear is aft of the center of rotation, it also lowered the gear height faster.

He would have actually done better at that very late point to PUSH on the yoke, lightening the tail download, and lifting the main gear a bit, making the landing softer. This is a common technique in the big airplanes, and works really well in the 727, which carries a very, very high tail loading on approach, with full flaps. But psychologically it’s really, really hard to “push” when you see the runway coming up at you at a frightening rate.

We hit fairly hard, further rattling the poor guy, just as the nose was starting up in response to the massive elevator input. It was hard enough that if we’d had a flight attendant of the female persuasion in back, she’d have gone from a 36C to a 42 long instantly.

(I couldn’t help but remember the hoary old airline story of the senior FA storming into the cockpit after such a landing, panty hose down around her ankles, yelling “What was THAT!” I got a sudden case of the giggles, which I tried manfully to control. Honest, I did. I was NOT laughing at the captain, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.)

The engines on the 747 are slung well below the wing, and thus well below the center of mass and rotation, so adding thrust pitches the nose up. Even small thrust changes cause a noticeable change in pitch, but it quickly becomes second nature to counter this effect with a little manual force, and a little trim. We normally change thrust settings pretty gently for passenger comfort, so this effect is rather benign. But the sudden increase in pitch from almost no thrust to full takeoff thrust is “real obvious,” and in fact is just about right to do all the pitch up required for the go-around.

(Most prop airplanes do the same thing, but for a different reason. The center of thrust is usually much more aligned with the center of mass/rotation, but the additional air blast across the wing increases lift forward, and increases “downlift” at the tail, causing the same sort of pitch up. Jets, of course, do not blow air over the wings or tail feathers.)

All these effects came together nicely, just as the main gear hit the runway with a mighty thud, and it promptly leapt back into the air like the cat that accidentally jumped onto a hot griddle. Approach speed was about 140 knots, and with full forward yoke, that’s just about what we had as we ascended back into the heavens, seemingly vertically. It would have been a BAD place to lose an engine, even with four to start with. He finally started trimming while passing through 700 feet agl, and with a little prompting, called for flaps to the takeoff position passing 1,500. We were very light, about 500,000 pounds, so all this happened pretty quickly.

This was not the best way of doing a go-around.

Going Around Gracefully

Mooney go-aroundLet’s talk about go-arounds and missed approaches a little. There’s far more to this maneuver than meets the eye, and I’m seeing an awful lot of them that are not done well. There are many more variables than most people think, and I’m sure I’m going to miss a few myself, so bear with me.

There are differences between jets and props, and between the go-around (“rejected landing”) and the missed approach, and some different considerations between single-engine aircraft and multiengine aircraft. I wish I could focus on just one area, but if writing this column has taught me anything, it is that each pilot will read it with only his own airplane, or his own operation in mind.

One of the problems I see is when airline pilots (that means jets, mostly) come back to piston power, and try to apply what they KNOW TO BE TRUE, because that’s what works for them, and it’s been drilled into them their whole working lives – in jets. It’s very hard to persuade some of these folks that SOME of the jet procedures are better for all airplanes, but others are for jets ONLY, and might even be dangerous in piston-powered aircraft. Conversely, some of the old procedures for piston-powered aircraft are better, and some desperately need to be changed. I don’t know which is harder, changing a jet pilot’s opinions, or changing an old-time prop pilot’s opinions that something new is “better.” Both are nearly impossible.

Once most pilots are beyond basic training, go-arounds become very rare. The average general aviation pilot might get one every year or two, when he takes a BFR, and since many instructors do them wrong, they may not ever learn the right way. Even the average airline pilot will only get one or two, usually in the simulator, but the criticism level will be a lot higher. Even that training can break down in the unusual case, as above.

This is an important point! The go-around is done so rarely, it is almost impossible to maintain proficiency, and the NEED for the go-around is almost always a complete surprise. In accordance with Murphy’s laws, many of them will occur under adverse conditions.

My contention in this column is that it is a very wise pilot who gives some thought to the best way of attaining the best possible performance while doing a go-around in his particular airplane, and USING that method when he does one, EVERY time. That way, some “training” will take place, and if it’s ever really needed, the performance will automatically follow.

What’s the difference between a “go-around” and a “missed approach”? It’s a little like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it’s tough to define! Even the FAA is confused, referring to “go-arounds” throughout the FARs, and “rejected landings” in the various Practical Test Standards books. “Aborted landing” even shows up, although that term, along with “aborted takeoff,” have become somewhat politically incorrect, these days. Oddly enough, I can’t seem to find any definitions for any of these terms in the FARs, the AIM, or the PTSs.

If I were going to write those missing definitions, I’d say something like:

  • Go-Around (also “balked landing,” “rejected landing”) – A visual procedure that safely, quickly, and efficiently changes the aircraft from the landing configuration to a takeoff configuration, in preparation for the missed approach procedure, if any.
  • Missed Approach – An instrument procedure started from any altitude after passing the Final Approach Fix (FAF) that is designed to provide separation from all obstacles. It normally begins with a go-around procedure.

Neither is an emergency or abnormal, unless there are complicating factors. They are both perfectly normal maneuvers, well within the capability of any aircraft at sea level, without compromising safety. They should be practiced with regularity so that they can be done without an increase in pulse rate. They should also be done in a manner that doesn’t scare non-pilot passengers, if possible.

In my opinion, far too many pilots seem to adopt the mindset that they will land, no matter what, perhaps instinctively realizing that flying is after all an unnatural act, and feeling that upon the surface of Mother Earth, there in front of them just a few feet away, all will be well. Sometimes that’s just not true (and sometimes it is). I did it myself the other day in the simulator in a wind shear problem that clearly called for a go-around. I felt I could handle it, and did without crashing, but with passengers aboard, it would have been an unnecessary and stupid risk. I got a well-deserved negative comment for it, too.

When my sons were learning to fly ultralights, their CFI (Ray Wallace) was constantly making them go around, often for no good reason. Drove me up the wall, until I realized that he was teaching them that the landing is “abnormal,” and the go-around is “normal.” Not a bad lesson, at first. I learned something from Ray that day, even without flying with him!


TWA 727All go-arounds must commence with an application of “more power.” Gobs of power. Probably all the power the law allows. What really shocks me is the number of people, some of them very sharp, who believe that “less is better.” Let’s look at this, by first going back to a simple takeoff.

There are overwhelming reasons to use full rated takeoff power on all takeoffs in all piston-powered aircraft. I cannot think of any exceptions. The aircraft manufacturers universally insist on this, the engine manufacturers universally insist on it, the performance charts demand it, safety demands it, and engine life probably does, too. Seldom are there so many factors on one side of any aviation debate. I can show you specific instructions on this dating clear back to the late 1930s, and I know of no exceptions with pistons. To use less than full available power in a piston twin is criminal negligence, in my opinion.

(Jets ARE different in this respect for a number of real reasons not germane here. Temperatures and pressures within the jet engine are directly proportional to thrust, while temperatures and pressure within the piston engine are not. Things are much more complex in the piston engine.)

In order to make such “reduced thrust” takeoffs feasible and safe in jets, the engine manufacturers, the airplane manufacturers and the FAA have gotten together and developed accurate, known data for “reduced” power settings on takeoff, for specific reasons.

The sole factor on the other side of the debate is: “Even though I have NO data to support the position, I think it will save the engine, and I like it.” As intuitive as this may seem, it’s probably never true in piston-powered aircraft, although there are certainly a lot of folks out there who have bought into this OWT (“Old Wives’ Tale”).

However, even though the modern jet operators have established lesser settings for takeoff, the universal (as far as I know) procedure on go-arounds and missed approaches is to use full available thrust (“Go-Around Thrust”).

Now, think about this! If the airlines insist on max thrust for a go-around in an airplane that will do more than 1,000 fpm even with one engine out, why would anyone in a piston aircraft, with comparitively marginal performance, monkey around with some partial power setting?

The airlines are also big on the exact technique, and the exact steps (in order) to do this task. It is much too critical to do otherwise.

Now, if we can accept that full rated takeoff power is highly desirable on a takeoff, then it makes sense to me that a go-around does the same. During this maneuver, you are somewhat in harm’s way, close to the ground when you don’t want to be, with high drag, poor performance, and some risk of hitting things you might not be able to see very well (weather, sun in your eyes, etc.) Yes, many go-arounds CAN be done with less than full power, but should they be? As we will see, the go-around is a fairly complex thing, with many considerations.

Considering that it will USUALLY come as a complete surprise, doesn’t it make sense to learn it, and practice it so that maximum available performance is attained, every time? If you form good habits during the occasional event, they will come forth automatically when needed. Maybe you’re good enough to only make partial power go-arounds at sea level on cold days, and also remember that in the rare case when you need one at Crede, Colorado (9,000+ msl) on a hot day, you need to do it “differently from normal.” I’m not that good. This kind of “negative self-training” will eventually bite you where it hurts.

But let’s be reasonable. If the go-around is close to the ground, I believe full power should be used. The higher you are when the procedure is begun, the less important this may be. For example, if you’re shooting a non-precision approach with a 1,500-foot MDA, the airport is deep in ground fog, and you’re in the clear with glorious visibility, it might be appropriate to make life easier, reduce steps, and simply add normal climb power as you clean up and head on out on the missed approach course. But remember, you won’t be in the full landing configuration here, either. Heck, maybe there’s one somewhere where the missed approach altitude is AT the MDA, and you might have to REDUCE power as you clean up.

You might even safely sink below MDA while in the clear, who cares? Ah, but don’t do that on a check ride, because going below MDA until having reasonable assurance a landing will follow is a MAJOR no-no, and will draw a pink slip from any examiner. That being true, and depending on how often you take check rides, and how important they are to you, that might make you think about just doing them all as if max performance is always needed? Maybe you can fly the airplane one way on a check ride, and another the rest of the time, I can’t.

The go-around in a jet transport is as close to an “abrupt” maneuver as there is in the airline world. The thrust levers are pushed up quickly (the fuel control units take care of the engines), and the nose is rotated sharply up at least 10 degrees or more, even without waiting for the thrust to kick in. A small sag in indicated speed is permissible, as is a small descent past the DH. In fact, on the really low instrument approaches to 100 feet DH and below, it is permissible to touch down momentarily (aka “bounce”) on the go-around! Not normally done, though.

However, we should not jam the power on this quickly in piston-powered aircraft. For one thing, there are much greater forces at work within the engine, centrifugal loads, reciprocating loads, and torsional twisting of the crankshaft, plus gear train loading. Jamming the power on often causes backfires, and the engine may falter. A nice steady push is best, taking perhaps five seconds or a bit more to get the throttle to the takeoff setting.

The piston- powered aircraft have a definite advantage here, in that adding power immediately increases lift, as the prop blows a lot of air over the main lift-producing area of the wing. On most of these aircraft, adding power instantly lowers the stalling speed by ten knots or more, while it has no effect at all in jets.

At least one very experienced pilot I know favors adding just enough power to level off, then he cleans up the flaps and gear, then he comes back and adds more power … maybe. Wrong order, I think. Remember, the idea here is to get from approach configuration to the takeoff configuration as quickly as possible. Suppose you are leveled off at DH, with partial power? What’s the single most effective thing you can do to increase performance, in most aircraft, most of the time? More power! Why not just get it all applied in the first place?


If you really watch, it is rather rare to need back yoke/stick to bring the nose up on a go-around. Most airplanes will pitch up quite a bit with the application of power or thrust, and many will pitch up rather violently. In some cases, even uncontrollably! This effect can be disastrous on an instrument approach, if you’re not prepared for it. How do you prepare? Go out and DO a few, on a nice day! Know YOUR airplane, and what to expect. MODIFY your procedures to make it work better. POHs are almost universally silent on this.

While the jets take a significant rotation for takeoff and go-around, the prop airplanes do not. In fact, virtually all the prop aircraft will require a very heavy push forward on the controls to keep the nose from pitching up too far, too fast, on go-arounds. If forward control is not applied, many prop aircraft will rear up like the Lone Ranger’s horse, head for the sky … and stall out. Or if they don’t stall, they’ll stay at a very slow speed, and climb very steeply, leaving the pilot in an ever-worsening fix. In a single-engine aircraft, he’ll have a few hundred feet of altitude, will be very slow, and will have no excess energy. An engine failure at this point will be a guaranteed crash, because there isn’t enough energy left to get the nose down, then do the sharp flare it will take to stop the descent and put the airplane back on the runway. In a twin, the airplane will be uncontrollable with an engine loss, and will roll over and die unless the good engine is quickly pulled back, and that will put the situation back into the “no energy” category, like the single.

On any go-around at very low attitude in piston aircraft, I believe it’s very important, critically important, to keep the nose down HARD, remain within a few feet of the runway, and get the airplane back into the normal takeoff profile as soon as possible. Go for SPEED first, THEN altitude.

This requires POWER, probably all you’ve got. Use less at your peril.

It requires PUSHING, to hold the nose down (in most props).

It then requires cleaning up the drag.


It’s always worth an argument as to which to retract first, gear or flaps. As a wise old airman (“Old Bob”) usually says, “it depends.” There can be good reasons for either method, but on MOST airplanes, MOST of the time, FIRST the flaps should be set to some approved TAKEOFF position. This is pretty close to a universal rule, and I can’t really think of any exceptions. We pull the gear up on the Bearcat first, but full flaps are an approved setting for takeoff, and the gear speed will be exceeded very quickly if you don’t pull it early. Also, the gear may very well be more drag than full flaps, I haven’t checked that, yet.

So, my rule on the go-around once the power is set is “Set some takeoff flap setting as soon as possible.” If flaps are not normally used for takeoff, then set the flaps fully up. The chances are that’s the minimum drag position, and that’s what you want.

If the go-around is done right, there is no need to “milk” the flaps up. Remember, by adding lots of power for the go-around (full power, remember!), you have lowered the stall speed by many knots, probably far more than pulling the flaps up will raise it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Cockpit viewTake your favorite flying flivver up to altitude, and play with this. Set up your normal approach, which should be very light on power. As you approach some particular altitude, maybe an even thousand, simulate a flare, and ease the power off. Never mind the stall warning, let it go to the first real indication of a stall, shove the power to full (WHILE MAINTAINING ATTITUDE) and retract the flaps, just as quickly as you can get your hand to the lever. Or, have a buddy go along, and one of you add throttle while the other pulls the flaps up. No cheating, right together, power up, flaps up.

You may be surprised at how well the airplane does! It won’t stall IF you maintain the ATTITUDE. It will lose a little altitude, so let’s work on that. Try the same thing a few times, while allowing the nose to come up just a bit, with the rotation rate matched to the actual flap travel speed. With a few tries, you should be able to maintain ALTITUDE by pitching up just a bit (whatever it takes), as the flaps come up.

Once you get this down pat, try it on the runway. Remember, the trick here is to keep the airplane very low to the runway as you get the power in, and as you retract flaps. LEAVE THE GEAR DOWN, so that if you do happen to miscalculate the rate of rotation vs. flap travel, you’ll get a harmless skip.

Here, by the way, is one of the two prime reasons we do the flaps first. You don’t want to pull the gear up until you’re POSITIVE no ground contact will occur. The other reason is that flaps are almost always more drag than the gear, and we’re trying to improve performance, so we want to get rid of more drag, sooner.

When you do this exercise at altitude, it’s very difficult to judge altitude loss, as the altimeters don’t react quickly, or enough. Don’t worry about that; just get a general feel for it. But if you’re close to the runway, it’s very easy to see how much you need to raise the nose to counter the flap retraction. If you bounce the wheels on the runway, it’s no big deal.

In fact, let me make this clear, right here. You are ALLOWED to bounce the wheels on the runway on a low go-around! It’s not a bust on a check ride! In fact, I will often give you the “baby on the runway” bit so late in the landing that you probably WILL touch down! It won’t even draw a comment from me, except “Well done.” There is no rule anywhere that says you can’t touch down on a go-around.

Of course if you do a go-around from a 200-foot DH on an ILS, and touch down from that, you probably will hear from me! Poor form if you touchdown from above about 20 feet, as a general rule of thumb.

Finally, once you’ve intercepted your normal takeoff profile, retract the gear at the same point you would on a normal takeoff, and fly the takeoff profile exactly as if it had been a takeoff in the first place.

Why am I suggesting all this? You must see it, to believe it. The airplane will react as if launched from a catapult. The speed will come up so fast, you’ll probably overshoot your takeoff profile, the first few times. You’ll be fully protected from an engine failure throughout the maneuver, single or twin (or more), and you’ll get FAR better performance, much sooner, no matter what the conditions. At Crede, Colo., it may be the difference between living and dying.

Contrast this with what I see commonly. The pilot adds power slowly, and perhaps only partial power. Man, is that poor airplane a’draggin’. He starts climbing, which keeps the speed well down, so he can’t comfortably retract the flaps, and he can’t accelerate, even at sea level. (Try THIS at Crede!) Finally, he starts “milking” the flaps up, and the airplane slowly comes alive. He doesn’t lift the nose because he’s afraid of stalling, and rightly so, because now he’s 100 or 200 feet in the air, and a stall would be deadly. Finally he gets the flaps up, then the gear, hits his climb speed, and flies away.

But look! He crossed the far end of the runway WAY below the altitude he would have had on a normal takeoff? And he started with flying speed over the end of the runway! This doesn’t make sense, to me.

Go-Around Checklist

When the go-around is called, wouldn’t it be better to do this:

1. POWER (all of it!)


3. FLAPS to some takeoff position (right now!)

4. TAKEOFF PROFILE (intercept and resume)

5. GEAR UP (when no ground contact will occur)

That works in everything I can think of. If you feel you have an exception, then give it some very serious thought, and develop your own technique with all these factors in mind.

Finally, do a little mental review on every approach to landing (VFR or IFR), if time permits. Something like, “Ok, gear’s down, green, landing check is complete, we’re cleared to land. If I have to do the go-around or miss, it’s “power, pitch and flaps to (___) (fill in your own setting), go for a speed of (___) (fill in your own speed), and then gear.” In the 747 cockpit, we often do this aloud, even though it’s not an established company procedure. Here’s my briefing, on a flaps 30 landing:

“If we miss, I’ll call ‘Go-Around, Max Power, Flaps 20.’ As I call that, I will start advancing the thrust levers and the Flight Engineer will take the thrust right to the go-around setting. Pilot-Not-Flying will set flaps 20, and with positive rate climb, I’ll call for the gear.”

Short form might be as little as:

“Go-around will be power, flaps 20.”

JAL Boeing 747It’s a good little review, for a seldom-used procedure, so that when you hear me scream “GOOD GRIEF, THERE’S A BABY ON THE RUNWAY!” you’ll know just what to do.

Be careful up there!