By a Flight Safety Australia reader
I had quite a few missed approaches in my career but only one that came as a total surprise, without warning
It was way back in the late ’70s. I was doing a Boeing 707 passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur to the old Jakarta Halim International Airport.
The flight went routinely until the approach to Jakarta. All systems were ‘go’ on the approach. The tower had already cleared us for the ILS approach and landing. Gear and flaps were configured and the landing checklist was completed. Earlier, the automatic terminal information service had advised of thunderstorm activity around the airport and showers in the vicinity of the airport.
It was a pitch-dark night, close to local midnight. I was the pilot monitoring, with the captain as the pilot flying. One of the most important duties of the pilot monitoring is crosschecking the actions or inactions of the pilot flying.
The captain commanded the wipers on and I could see the runway edge and approach lights reasonably well through the windshield, in between the swipe of wiper blades. We were flying through light continuous drizzle. At 200 feet above the threshold, the captain announced his intention to land as he had visual contact with the runway. He had already disengaged the autopilot. I had flown with him before and had great admiration for him as a pilot. He was doing well on this approach, on the glide path and lined up with the runway.
At flare height – around 50 feet – there was a sudden heavy downpour of rain. It felt like people were throwing bucketfuls of water at our windscreen. The rain was so heavy the wipers seemed useless and we both lost all visual reference. The captain reacted, advancing the four thrust levers immediately. I was totally taken by surprise. Nevertheless, the way the go-around had been initiated, so decisively and instinctively, I quickly settled down, confident it was the right thing to do.
I heard the call for flaps retraction, responded to his command and selected the flap lever to the next gate setting. Then, as we waited for the all-important positive rate of climb to raise the gear, there sounded a firm thud. We had landed, no doubt about it. We all felt the contact.
A few moments later, the altimeter showed a positive climb and I, a little shaken, managed to clear my throat to call out ‘positive climb’ and selected the gear lever up in response to the captain’s command. Was I glad I had not hastily raised the gear!
After my call to notify ATC of the go-around, we were radar vectored to a suitable heading for another approach. Once the aircraft had settled nicely on that heading, my thoughts went back to the inadvertent touchdown. Although I felt some consolation of relief, I asked myself, ‘Did we touch down on the runway?’ I remembered there was some wind reported by tower. Could we have unknowingly veered off and touched the edge of the runway?
While I was contemplating this grim possibility, the tower called for a heading change. I nearly missed that call. There was an uncomfortable silence in the cockpit. No one uttered a word.
The captain was probably doubting whether he had done the manoeuvre properly and whether the aircraft had incurred any damage. It’s easy performing a go-around in visual conditions, but another thing when you are constrained to instruments.
One vital question was still lingering. Did the tail hit the runway on the go-around?
The crucial concern is to avoid a tailstrike close to the ground.
Today’s method of aborting landings if a missed approach is required is to push the take-off/go-around switch, call for flaps 20, set go-around thrust and rotate smoothly toward 15 degrees pitch attitude. Then follow flight director commands and retract the landing gear after a positive rate of climb is indicated on the altimeter.
On take-off, normal rotation to 15 degrees nose-up is mainly by the pilot’s effort on the yoke through the elevators. However, during a go-around, when the thrust suddenly rises from approach setting to go-around thrust, the aircraft tends to pitch up in response. Hence, the fear of the captain was justified. Had the rate of rotation been too fast? Had he mindfully monitored the nose-up tendency amid the clamour of things happening over that short time, without any visual reference?
Go-around procedure on finals, at say 500 feet above threshold height, can be said to be quite routine and does not require much thought for its execution. However, when ground contact becomes a factor, the procedure requires a higher level of accuracy in its execution.
In a typical automatic go-around initiated above 100 feet, approximately 40 feet of altitude is lost in a typical large air transport aircraft. At threshold height, the timing of flap retraction becomes important so as not to aggravate altitude loss. Delaying flap retraction can be beneficial. Had we delayed enough – or retracted too soon?
The crucial concern is to avoid a tailstrike close to the ground. Too fast a rotation to 15 degrees nose up could end up with a tailstrike. On later aircraft like the Boeing 777, there is a tailskid sensor that alerts the pilot on the engine-indicating and crew-alerting system of a tailstrike. We had to wait to find out.
On the ground later, the captain, flight engineer and I paid no mind to the slight drizzle that continued – for better or worse, we had to know. Much to our relief, we found the tail section of our Boeing 707 unscratched and the tyres wet but undamaged.
During a go-around, flying has to be accurate because the aircraft is close to the ground and flaps must not be retracted too early.