Spend time at a busy airport and you’ll likely see an aircraft go-around. Find out why airplanes go around and how the maneuver enhances safety.
Go-Around terminology can be confusing. There are a few terms different terms used (and misused), so let’s clear things up!
Go-around is the general term used when the decision is made to discontinue a landing. A go-around can be accomplished anywhere along the final approach course and even after the aircraft touches down on the runway.
After initiating a go-around, the crew will begin to climb the aircraft, following instructions of air traffic control. They may fly a published missed approach procedure (a charted route) that will guide them safely away from terrain and other air traffic.
“Go-around” is also the standard international terminology used for communication between pilots and controllers. Example: “Aerosavvy 101, zombies roaming the runway. Go-around.”
Why are they called Go-Arounds?
Aircraft at smaller airfields typically fly a rectangular traffic pattern (or circuit) around the runway in preparation for landing. If the pilot decides not to land, the aircraft climbs and rejoins the pattern to go around the circuit and make another approach. Although airliners rarely fly a traditional traffic pattern, the maneuver is still called a go-around.
Rejected or Balked (Baulked) Landing
A rejected landing is a go-around that begins at very low altitude after the pilot has made the decision to land.
In some cases, an aircraft will actually touch down on the runway during a rejected landing. There are situations where getting the aircraft back into the air is safer than completing the landing.
The terms rejected landing and balked (baulked in the UK) landing are essentially interchangeable. Usage and precise definitions vary by region. Aviation regulators (FAA, EASA, etc) and aircraft manufacturers use the term “balked landing” when discussing aircraft performance requirements during low altitude (or after touch down) go-arounds.
Other Go-Around Terminology
Navy aircraft use different terms for go-arounds and balked landings.
- Wave Off – When the Landing Signal Officer orders a pilot not to land on the aircraft carrier, it’s called a wave off. Similar to when an air traffic controller orders an aircraft to go-around.
- Bolter – A carrier landing attempt in which the tailhook fails to engage an arresting wire, requiring a go-around. This is similar to a balked landing.
Until a few years ago, U.K. Royal Air Force controllers would order a pilot to “Overshoot” when a go-around was necessary. A few pilots tell me that “overshoot” is occasionally heard in Canada. “Go-Around” is now the standard international phraseology.
Canadian air traffic controllers will sometimes say: “Pull up and go-around” when ordering an aircraft to go-around. I suspect the “pull up” part is an attempt to get the pilots moving in the right direction while they think about the go-around. 🙂
Here’s an interesting phraseology variant from the UK. When ordering a flight to go-around, controllers state:
“AeroSavvy 101, go-around, I say again, go-around. Acknowledge.” The controllers want to make certain the pilots confirm and execute the maneuver.
The term missed approach is often incorrectly used to describe a go-around. The terms are not interchangeable. A missed approach is a published instrument procedure that begins after the go-around is initiated.
When pilots fly an instrument approach to a runway, they follow a detailed route displayed on an approach chart. If the pilots are unable to land when reaching the runway, they perform a go-around. After initiating the go-around, the approach chart has a Missed Approach Procedure that guides the pilots safely away from the runway, terrain, and other air traffic.
If a crew needs to abandon an instrument approach, they will alert the controller: “Metropolis Tower, Aerosavvy 101 is going-around.” Tower will then provide guidance. They might give the crew a specific heading and altitude, or say “AeroSavvy 101, fly the published missed approach.” The latter instructs the crew to follow the published missed approach procedure on the chart.
The image below shows an approach chart for Singapore’s runway 20C. The image on the right is the same procedure displayed on a 767 navigation screen. The Missed Approach Procedure (MAP) is highlighted in yellow.
- Singapore runway 20C approach chart and the same approach on the aircraft navigation screen. The missed approach procedure is highlighted in yellow. Click for larger image.
To summarize: When pilots on an instrument approach are unable to land, they will first initiate a go-around, then fly a published missed approach procedure or follow the controller’s instructions.
A Go-Around Is Not an Emergency
When pilots go-around, they are avoiding a potentially hazardous situation. Flight crews are encouraged to go-around any time they are uncomfortable with an approach or landing. There are no penalties or paperwork involved when a pilot chooses to discontinue an approach.
When in doubt, Go-Around!
Excellent guidance for every pilot, regardless of experience level and equipment.
Why Do Pilots Go-Around?
There are several reasons why a pilot or air traffic controller may want an aircraft to go-around.
- Unstable approach – Most airlines require aircraft to be stabilized by 1000 feet (about 3 miles from the runway). A stabilized approach means the aircraft is at final approach speed and fully configured with landing gear and flaps extended. Studies have shown that unstable approaches are a causal factor in many landing accidents. If the aircraft isn’t stable by 1000 feet, a go-around is usually required.
- Spacing/Separation – Air traffic controllers try to keep landing aircraft separated by 3-5 miles. This gives an aircraft enough time to land and exit the runway before the next aircraft lands. If spacing becomes too close, the tower controller can order a flight crew to go-around.
- Stuff on the Runway – Ground vehicles, aircraft, trash, and even animals on a runway will cause pilots to go-around.
- Aircraft Mechanical Problem – Although rare, a flight crew might discover a mechanical problem on final approach (perhaps a flap or landing gear issue). Going around will give the pilots time to troubleshoot the problem so they can return for a safe landing.
- Weather Below Minimums – Instrument approaches often specify a decision altitude where the flight crew must be able to see the runway to land. If the pilots are unable to see the runway when the aircraft reaches decision altitude, a go-around is required.
- Ugly, Nasty Weather – Gusty winds or turbulence can make landing a real challenge. Wind shear (sudden change in wind speed or direction) or other severe weather can cause a flight crew to initiate a go-around. Pilots use on-board weather radar and wind shear detection equipment to aid in making the land or go-around decision. Here is a video demonstrating predictive wind shear warning technology on a Boeing 767. Pilots test this equipment daily.
How Do Pilots Go-Around?
The go-around is a safe and smooth maneuver that airline pilots practice in the simulator. A go-around early in the approach phase will often go unnoticed by passengers.
Specific go-around procedures vary by airline and aircraft type. Different planes have different buttons, procedures, and terminology. The following is a generic go-around procedure for an AeroSavvy Airlines Boeing 767 (flown by our best crew).
The go-around begins 100 miles from the airport.
About 100 miles from the destination, a flight crew will do an approach briefing. They spend a few minutes reviewing airport-specific charts and procedures necessary for landing. Arrival routing, updated weather, runway conditions, and taxi routes are discussed.
The crew also reviews the go-around and missed approach procedure for the expected runway. We always plan for a go-around.
Let’s get out of here!
We’re on final approach and Metropolis Tower has cleared us to land. The runway lights are in sight!
As we descend below 200 feet, we hear our call sign on the radio:
“AeroSavvy 101, Metropolis Tower. Aircraft on the runway. Go-around. Fly the published missed approach.”
The crew responds: “Metropolis Tower, AeroSavvy 101 going around. Flying the published missed.”
A well-rehearsed, scripted procedure now takes place on the flight deck. The script is spoken out loud as the crew performs the actions.
🛫 PF: “Go-Around Thrust”
The pilot-flying presses one of the go-around switches on the thrust levers. This signals the autothrottles to advance to go-around thrust and places the flight director in go-around mode to provide pitch guidance for the climb. The pilot-monitoring confirms the thrust levers advance to go-around power.
The pilot-flying (or autopilot) begins to pitch the aircraft up to begin the climb.
🛫 PF: “Flaps 20”
Pilot-monitoring selects flaps 20. This retracts the flaps from the landing position to the go-around position.
🛫 PM: “Positive Rate”
Pilot-monitoring confirms the aircraft is climbing and says “Positive Rate.”
🛫 PF: “Gear Up”
Pilot-monitoring positions the gear handle up to raise the landing gear.
At 400 feet above ground, the pilot-flying calls: “LNAV” (pronounced el-nav).
Pilot-monitoring activates the flight director system’s Lateral Navigation (LNAV) mode. This provides the pilot-flying (or autopilot) guidance to fly the programmed missed approach procedure.
At 1000 feet above ground, the pilot-flying accelerates the aircraft and calls for the flaps to be retracted.
That’s it! The crew will continue to fly the published missed approach procedure until the air traffic controller decides how to merge the aircraft back into arriving traffic. In most cases, controllers will immediately issue heading and altitude instructions.
This fun dance happens a few times every day at busy airports all over the world.
Here’s a 2-minute video demonstrating what a go-around looks like on a Boeing 757 & 767 Electronic Attitude Direction Indicator (EADI):
What does “TO/GA” mean?
Many high performance aircraft have a switch and/or thrust lever position labeled “TO/GA.” This odd assortment of letters is an acronym for TakeOff/Go-Around (pronounced “toga,” like the ancient Roman garment).
The exact function of the TO/GA switch varies on different aircraft models. In general, the dual-function TO/GA switch signals the autothrottles and flight director to provide takeoff thrust and guidance when on the runway, or go-around thrust and guidance when on an approach.
Go-Around Switches and Thrust Lever Detents
Here’s an assortment of Go-Around and TO/GA buttons. Different aircraft manufacturers have different philosophies about the best way to trigger a go-around. Boeing, Embraer, Gulfstream, and a few others prefer a button or switch. Newer Airbus aircraft have a thrust lever detent (position) that triggers the go-around mode. Pilots are usually trained and assigned to one aircraft, so they don’t have to worry about getting confused. Although I fly both the Boeing 757 and 767, they have identical cockpits so the procedure and button positions are the same.
Boeing 737 MAX TO/GA Button
Go-Around From the Passenger Seat
The go-around is easy for the people in back. Many passengers don’t even realize they’ve done one! Here’s what to expect if your flight crew needs to perform a go-around:
Approaching the airport for landing, passengers usually hear a flight attendant chime (ding-ding) followed by an announcement to fasten seat belts and assure tray tables are in the upright position. If all goes well, the aircraft will land in the next 5-10 minutes.
If the flight crew needs to go-around, they won’t have time to tell the passengers (they’ll be quite busy). The first indication the aircraft is going-around is the sound of the engines increasing thrust. The aircraft will pitch up slightly and begin a shallow climb, followed by the sound of the gear being retracted. The crew will then retract some or all of the flaps.
The plane will make a few turns then fly 5-10 miles downwind before lining up with the runway for another approach. The flaps and landing gear will be extended back to landing configuration.
A go-around will add 15-30 minutes to the flight, depending on airport traffic. Think of it as a free sight-seeing excursion, courtesy of your airline!
Ken Hoke has been flying for over 30 years. He’s currently a Boeing 757 & 767 captain flying international routes for a package express airline. In his spare time, he writes AeroSavvy.com. Follow Ken on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.