It's everywhere! This ubiquitous bit of advice: "If in doubt, go around!" seems to be in every relevant FAA publication and in many privately-produced materials as well. If you read my last post, you know that I had an experience last year that put that advice to the test.
I'd found myself in a situation where I was low and slow above the runway, having been picked up by an unusually strong burst of wind: low enough that the airplane could have dropped to the ground and I would have survived, but high enough that the airplane certainly would have sustained some damage. My first thought was to add a bit of power and settle back to the runway, but I was starting to drift sideways despite a healthy wind correction angle. In an instant, my brain sequenced to the next option: go-around. It seemed like a no-brainer, I'd just accelerate in ground effect, climb out, then come back around and try again! But if you read my last post, you know that the outcome was not what I'd hoped for!
I was asked after the incident what I thought I could have done differently. With the benefit of hindsight, I can identify a couple things. But as I reflected on that whole episode, some things stood out to me. First of all, the mindset that "it's never wrong to go around" is dangerous, and led me to the assumption that go-arounds are always safe and successful. Secondly, I had practiced go-arounds many times (cramming the throttle and carb heat forward) but had never really practiced aborted takeoffs (quickly pulling back the throttle and braking from a high speed). Finally, it never occurred to me that I could accept the idea of a hard landing or even a departure into the grass beside the runway. I'll briefly elaborate on each of these thoughts.
First, get the idea out of your head that there is never a bad time to go around! That's what I thought and it got me into trouble. In my case, I'd already touched down on the mains. When the wind picked me up, I was barely moving fast enough to keep flying. If the gust had been sustained a couple more seconds I probably would have been okay, but when it quickly subsided I was unable to regain enough airspeed to stay airborne even under full power. There are definite times when a go-around is the best choice, but there are times when it's not! Don't assume that a go-around will be successful. That idea will taint your ability to make a sound decision.
Next, practice aborted takeoffs! Establish the muscle memory of closing the throttle quickly and braking aggressively if needed. There have been two times in my flying career when I should have done this. One time I was a student pilot with an instructor, and my airspeed indicator did not come alive on the takeoff roll. When I noted this aloud, the instructor took over and aborted the takeoff. But I should have done it; the response should have been immediate and automatic. The second time was last February. It all happened very fast, but there is a chance I could have stopped sooner and reduced the damage to the airplane if I would have chopped power and braked aggressively after the plane returned to the ground.
Lastly, if you find yourself in the worst of situations, you may have to accept the fact that some metal is going to get bent. Instead of trying to make a drastic or heroic maneuver to save the airplane, there may be a time when it's safer to accept a small amount of damage to the airplane or property. For example, departing the runway or striking an object during a full-power go-around attempt may be worse than hitting a taxiway light at 30 knots and coming to stop in the grass. Either way, your pride and pocketbook may take a hit, but at least you'll preserve the lives of yourself and your passengers.
In conclusion, go-arounds are sometimes necessary, and are generally safe under the right conditions. Keep practicing them! But don't underestimate the risk involved in this maneuver, and don't succumb to the belief that go-arounds are a "silver bullet" for any questionable landing situation. That idea just might get you into trouble some day.
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Aaron is a private, soon-to-be instrument-rated commercial pilot, planning to serve as a missionary pilot-mechanic.