June 27, 2013

Go Around!

The weather was an added stress to an already a long, challenging day.  The remnants of tropical storm Andrea was in the process of dumping close to 6 inches of rain in parts of New York City and several areas of town were already under water as we joined the localizer to runway 4 at LaGuardia.  The captain was flying the airplane and appeared to be concentrating hard as he focused his attention at and through the HUD.

Since I went through 737 training with another first officer, I occupied the captain's seat when it was my partner's turn to fly and had the opportunity to utilize the HUD on a number of occasions.  I found it to be especially useful, but also slightly distracting during the approach and landing phase of the flight.  At my airline, when the HUD is operable, it is required to be used for all takeoffs and landings and I’m told many captains become what are affectionately referred to as “HUD babies” as they become increasingly dependent on the technology.  I mention this only because I noticed, even in the simulator when there was very little in the way of visual distraction, that focusing on the information displayed on the HUD was often difficult with rain and clouds whipping through the landing lights.

Looking through the HUD in favorable weather conditions.
As the glide slope came alive, I tweaked the radar beam slightly and commented on a band of heavy rain just south of the approach end of runway 4.  We were already flying through what I would call moderate rain and I expected the intensity to increase significantly about the time we reached minimums.  It’s at that point...on an approach...in the weather...cloud bases and visibility near the legal minimums and approaching the decision point...that I've found to be one of the most challenging parts of my job.  In a two man cockpit, one pilot is intently focused on the instruments as the aircraft descends to about 200 feet above the ground while the other pilot splits his attention between his responsibilities to both monitor the progress of the approach and identify visual cues like the approach lighting system or the runway as it emerges through the clouds.  If the approach lights come into view by 200 feet, the monitoring pilot will announce "continue" and the flying pilot will stay on instruments and descend to 100 feet above the runway.  If they’re lucky, they'll descend through the bases of the clouds or out of the rain before reaching minimums and the pilot flying the airplane will have a mere 100 feet to transition from inside the cockpit to the runway environment, flare, compensate for the crosswind and land.

For most pilots, it's a rare flight that terminates like that, with everything coming together at once, but when it does it’s one of the most challenging things we do.

Auto Brake set to MAX in anticipation of standing water on a short runway.
 As we passed through 1,000 feet, the rain seemed to let up slightly and I was able make visual contact with the ground as Queens, New York passed beneath our wings.  We descended another five hundred feet before the rain began to intensify once again and visual contact was lost.  At that point I was spending at least as much time looking out the forward window as I was crosschecking the instruments, but the captain remained fixated on the HUD.  I remembered my experience with the HUD and wondered if the captain was having trouble focusing.  I almost thought out loud, “this one is going to be close.”

We descended another 100 feet and the noise level in the cockpit increased significantly as the rain continued to intensify. I had the wipers set to high but they were proving to be useless...effective noise makers, but little else.  Another 100 feet slipped by and an automated voiced announced "minimums." I could see the faint blur of the ground through what seemed like a river of water on the windshield, but I saw no evidence of the approach lighting system much less the runway.  "Go around!"

I mentioned before how difficult it can be to make the transition from instruments to a visual landing when the weather is near minimums, but the stress felt by the pilot in that situation is almost always replaced with the reward and satisfaction of a successful landing. Every now and then, as with this approach, the successful termination of the approach is a go around.

It might seem strange to hear me use the word "successful" when describing a go around. After all, the whole point an approach is to land, but my airline touts a no fault go around policy designed to remove any pressure to land in unsafe conditions. Regardless of the reason...visibility, runway condition, crosswind limits, etc., if one of our pilots elects to go around, that decision will never be questioned. So while it isn't the desired outcome, a go around is considered a successful termination of the approach.

The go around is another thing I have learned to love about the 737. As an MD80 pilot, a go around was an exceptionally busy procedure. The standard litany went something like this: "Go around, flaps 15, positive rate, gear up, set missed approach altitude, heading hold, NAV."  The flight director would command the pitch attitude, the auto throttles would automatically advance the engines to full go around thrust and the airplane would point to the moon with an initial climb rate often enough to max out the vertical speed indicator.  The pilot still had to reduce the rate of climb passing 1,000 feet, retract flaps and level off at the missed approach altitude…all while navigating the required ground track. 

Since we rarely perform the procedure and they often occur without warning, a go around almost always makes for a busy cockpit.

The procedure is slightly more simple on the 737.  A single push of the TOGA button (Take Off/ Go Around) results in the flight director commanding the necessary pitch attitude to climb and an increase in thrust on the engines just enough to attain an easy to manage 1,000 foot per minute climb.  If desired, a second push of the TOGA button results in a full power go around.  The airplane also has an “auto bug up” feature that automatically displays the speed at which flaps should be retracted and automatically engages GPS navigation.  The pilot is still responsible for raising the gear and flaps on schedule, but just about everything else happens on its own.

Usually pressed with the pilot's index finger, the black button below the throttle handle engages TOGA.
With nothing to see out the windows but water, the captain responded to the go around call and even with all the traffic in the area, we were tracking the localizer for another attempt within ten minutes.   Pilots don’t like to go around.  Regardless of policy removing any blame from the cockpit, a go around usually feels like a failure.  The airplane in front of us managed to land and the one behind us got in as well.  It all came down to timing with respect to a thin line of heavy rain.  Our timing was bad, but the end result was the safe operation of our flight...and no one questioned the decision to go around. 

Thanks to the tailwind we enjoyed on our west to east flight, we were at the gate running the Parking Checklist fifteen minutes before scheduled arrival.


  1. I was a passenger on a go-around in 2008, landing at SFO from SYD. It was a bit nerve wracking as a passenger, but with this explanation, I'm grateful (at least one of) my pilots decided to make that call and land safely. Thanks for the post!

  2. You really do have a nice style of writing and yet again I enjoyed this post. I guess that's another procedure ticked off the list for real. How are you feeling now on the 737? Do you keep a note book with hints and tips as you go?

    All the best

    Dave from the UK

    1. Hello Dave, I've gotten pretty comfortable on the 737. I've always heard that MD80 FO was the busiest seat at the company and now I understand why. The 737 is easier and more pleasant to fly and much more user friendly. The automation greatly simplifies my life.

  3. I've been in the 37 community for a while now but for all it's faults I often miss flying the MD-80. Great story!!

    1. I too will always enjoy my memories of the MD80. It is a great airplane that served me well for many years.

  4. I was on a Go Around on a Super 80 about 4 years ago,I thought it was kinda fun as it was my first one. It was a little nerve racking why it happened (the captain informed us another airplane decided to cross the threshold onto our runway when we were on short final.) It was a perfect day for flying not a cloud in the sky. You are right though when the pilot hit TO/GA we gained altitude like a rocket and those JT8D's were full bore! Fun ride 2nd approach was nice and smooth.

  5. Great read Brad! Really a tricky situation in the rain and clouds no doubt! Glad the company has that policy!!

    My one go-around that I have experienced was many years ago - a fun and totally different experience to yours. I was flying from Johannesburg to Harare (Zimbabwe) on a perfect Sunday afternoon in an A300B2 of SAA. Approach seemed to go well - but - I never heard the gear going down. Sitting over the wings, I could see the flaps out - but on the A300 - the gear is a very distinct sound. About 500ft AGL, power was spooled up and the flaps retracted. The captain came over the announce the go-around and the reason - the tower controlled at Harare had taken advantage of a lull in traffic and had gone for lunch - only in Africa - we were 15 mins early. Another 20 mins circling and we landed. As a great deal of passengers mentioned getting off the plane - welcome to bush time!! :)

    1. What a great story Mark. Makes me smile to imagine the "back in 15 minutes" sign on the door to the control tower!

  6. Very interesting to read about how much timing really affected that go around. Also, I had never thought about how challenging it might be to use the HUD in adverse conditions, when reflections might interfere.

    Why does the FO not have a HUD as well as the captain? If you rotate the landing/takeoff duties, I wonder why they wouldn't have one for each.

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Swayne, as with so many things in life...especially business...it all comes down to money. I'm told our 787s will come equipped with two.

  7. Nice as always.
    Mark Lawrence's post is hilarious.

  8. Awesome blog and I am glad I found it! I am sure your adrenaline was pumping during that landing attempt and go around at LGA. I have been in a couple go arounds during my travels. One go around experience that I had was flying from Thailand to Okinawa on a Navy C-40A ( a 737, "Spirit of New York" plane). The leading edge of a some what weak/medium strength typhoon was just hitting the island and we were told it was probably going to be a bumpy landing. I was sitting near a couple AF F-15 pilots and during the approach they started saying things like "this is going to be a tough one" and "might be too low." At first I thought they were messing with everyone but I quickly realized they were serious. These were guys who were very familiar with this approach and were pointing out things on the coastline of Okinawa through the low clouds and heavy rain. To me, It felt like at any moment the plane was going to stall and just plunge into the choppy waters below us. Then we heard the engines go full power for a quick 5-10 seconds but we were still attempting to land (hopefully that makes sense). Long story short, I think the pilots were attempting a crosswind landing and they kept running into heavy rain during the final 1000 feet or so (I sound like a newscaster). They eventually went around and gave it another shot. I think we circled for about 15-20 min so the heavy stuff could pass...the second time around was a little dryer successful crosswind landing.