The story of a go-around at one of the nation’s most carefully controlled airspaces: DCA
Litany: noun, plural litanies. A prolonged account; a list, catalog, enumeration.
On five-mile final, the approach is not working. You’re too fast. The spacing on the plane in front of you is insufficient, you’re not fully configured, you dropped your pen and a shoe came untied. You’re dreading the go-around because the missed follows a critical ground path. You feel the hairs standing up. If you are a musician, this is an unrehearsed time signature and key change at Carnegie Hall. If a CFO, Mr. Potter just stole the Building & Loan’s bank deposit. What now? You go around.
Announce the go-around to your partner, press the TOGA (takeoff/go around) button. Verify the motors spool up to the correct power setting. Follow the flight director. Flaps to approach. Positive rate, gear up. Set missed approach altitude. Verify roll mode, LNAV or HDG. Set speed, VNAV or LVL CHG in the FMS. Call tower. Tell them you’re goin’ around. Answer their question about why.
Switch to departure control. Answer their question about what you want to do next. For now, you tell them vectors for another approach. The flight attendant chime is going off or your pax are calling you, they need to talk. Could be something bad and not simply them wanting to know what happened.
As PIC, you must prioritize the multiple sources of changing, and possibly critical, incoming information. Retract the flaps. Get stabilized on the obstacle avoidance procedure, missed approach, special use airspace avoidance track, or the heading and altitude assigned by departure control. Make sure their instructions don’t send you into the rocks. Level off at the missed approach altitude. Run the after-takeoff checklist. If not already done, engage the autopilot or give the airplane to the FO. Check your fuel and decide: try again or divert. Tell the FO your thoughts, get his/her input and then tell ATC your decision. Call the FA’s. Tell them what happened and your decision. Make a PA to the folks and explain why we didn’t land. Reassure them that all is well as you tell them your decision. Execute your decision, and if it’s to divert to an alternate, send a message to the company; tell them your decision. Be grateful this was not a single-engine missed approach. Take another breath. Bow to the applauding Carnegie Hall audience, snatch your deposit back from Potter.
Good work, you just did a missed approach/go around. Maybe it was the first one this year, maybe the first one in this airplane, maybe the first real one, ever. You’re on your way around the radar pattern or to the alternate. Look around. You will have missed something not directly addressed by a checklist: landing lights, deice equipment, spilled your coffee, something. Fix it. Look at your fuel again. Re-calculate for the radar pattern or the trip to the alternate. It’s been busy so far, but if your fuel-math is wrong and one or two motors cough because of it, that will be what busy really feels like.
But your math was good. Take breath No. 2, ask your partner how your hair looks. The go-around procedure for your jet most likely has similarities to the one above. In the Guppy, you’d better add a step to trim nose-down somewhere very early in the procedure after you TOGA. Unlike the Duke, F-16 or the MD-80, the 737’s wing mounted engines will pitch the nose to the moon as they spool up. As that happens, the airspeed will drop like a Cessna 150 in a 30-degree climb. One night last month, at Washington Reagan, that was an issue I encountered and it almost precipitated another. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Like a Nightmare
The go-around litany sounds straightforward. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery, but holy cow. Can you say “busy?” And how often do we get that busy, that quickly, at the end of a flight, probably in the weather, perhaps at the end of a long day, and perhaps late at night.
And how often do we perform the maneuver? After 23,000 hours, other than in the sim and for practice, I’ve flown a go-around in the military, GA and Part 121 combined, maybe a dozen times. And I’ve learned that it’s this infrequency that generates the stories we read about when a go-around doesn’t “go around” very well. A windshield full of bad can be in your face if you allow yourself to be caught by surprise.
Memorizing a missed approach/go-around litany, and thinking about it along with the published missed approach procedure once configured and stable on final, will make the ordeal dreamy instead of nightmarish. And it will help to limit the number of things you must “fix” after you are finished with it. An excellent technique is to tell yourself on every approach (IMC and VMC) at about 5 miles: we are going around, get ready. Whisper the litany to yourself, and then be ready. I also like to add: we have enough gas to do this twice more before we divert. If you get to land instead, well, you’ve done that a million times. Piece of cake. But remember, you can still go around even after initial touchdown. Maybe because of a runway incursion, for example. The final red line for a go-around decision in most jets is once you deploy the reversers. After you pull that trigger, you are normally committed to the surface.
SAMs and The Big Kahuna
Washington is a city of Southern efficiency, and Northern charm.
– John F. Kennedy
In past articles, we’ve discussed routing options for takeoff including those for an engine failure on takeoff (SIDs, ODP’s and EOSIDs). Some airports also have a special use airspace avoidance procedure for departures and go-arounds. Ronald Reagan (DCA) has a particularly significant routing. There is a ground track for north takeoffs and go-arounds to avoid national landmarks and our leaders working in and around prohibited area P-56. And they’re serious about it, including rumors of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), small-arms fire and all flavors of pilot certificate nastiness. Maybe an engine coughing during the missed isn’t the most intense of possible outcomes after all.
And therein lies the difficulty with my go-around at DCA. Our story’s opening scenario is what I had, except for the dropped pen and untied shoes. And there was indeed a 40-knot tailwind from about 15-mile final to the marker. I didn’t get the jet slowed down in time to be configured by our stable approach decision point and spacing with the aircraft in front of us was also getting tight. When I initiated the go-around, the nose pitched up. While trimming nose-down, distance was passing by on the avoidance procedure. Fortunately, the go-around was initiated four or 5 miles out on final, so all was good by the time we reached the first turn of the avoidance ground track. No SAMS fired or noise complaint from The Big Kahuna. It was embarrassing though. Especially since we heard about the tailwind from other airplanes. I guess I hadn’t pre-whispered the litany thoroughly enough.
Familiarity Breeds, Well, Familiarity
In most jets, in addition to the operating manual, there are operator or training department-developed litanies for both common and uncommon events. In order of likelihood, typical litanies are for normal takeoff, two engine go-around, engine failure on takeoff and single-engine go-around. They’re not created as a replacement for operating manual procedures, system malfunctions or abnormal procedures. Although due to infrequency, a missed approach or go-around could easily be classified as such. Similar to a memory mnemonic like GUMP, these litanies serve as a supplemental memory jogger and are by design, succinct yet complete. Consisting of just enough of the essentials to avoid a Carnegie Hall, lost bank deposit brain freeze. For example, the litany in the Guppy for the two-engine go-around above is boiled down to seven steps: TOGA, Flaps 15, positive rate, gear up. Set missed approach altitude, select/verify roll mode, set speed, VNAV or LVL CHG. Clean up on schedule. Distractions from radio calls and cabin crew or passenger issues should not be ignored but prioritized and feathered into your litany, as well as your fuel calculations and what to do next.
Flight planning and reviewing upcoming events during the flight are ways to minimize errors, increase safety and to save brain cells for more, possibly critical, decisions later. We’ve always called it staying ahead of the airplane. In flight, a big surprise can turn out poorly and there’s no need to make it difficult on ourselves by trying a seat-of-the-pants maneuver or trying to come up with a litany at the last second. Ask around, find some of the litanies for your jet and if you like them, give them a try. They should help you avoid Mr. Potter, SAMs and tweets from The Big Kahuna.