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The Defensive Go-Around to Avoid Problems Behind You

Think safety, not convenience

By Robert M. Wright

Robert Wright

Yes, Virginia, there’s such a thing as a go-around to avoid problems behind you. Let me tell you a story. It was not a dark and stormy night. It was a bright early spring day, filled with those events that illuminate our times. I wish to talk only about one of those events.

I was teaching a new primary student takeoffs, pattern work, and landings. The takeoff was uneventful, but on climb-out we heard someone call a go-around in that world-weary flippant tone we’ve all heard, intended not for clear communication but to announce to the world that the pilot was a real “pro.” Being an “old” pro, long past the time of eligibility for social security, such calls give me the creeps and put my situational awareness antennae in high gear.

After turning crosswind to downwind we cleared left and saw a red aircraft (hereafter referred to as the “Red Baron”) heading at us about a quarter of a mile away. He appeared to have turned out of his go-around over the runway instead of proceeding to the normal crosswind leg turning point (a bad habit anytime, but especially in a crowded pattern). He had lost or never had situational awareness of others in the pattern and appeared to be on a course where he would pass close behind us. In my calmest voice, in light of the fact that I had a beginner with me, I asked the Red Baron whether he had us in sight. After a few seconds of silence, he advised (in a slightly less flippant tone) that he had us in sight. I’ll bet he did, no doubt filling a significant portion of his windscreen. Since the Baron was obviously jarred by the discovery that he had turned in way too close to us, I figured he would now be alert and there should be no further problems. Wrong!

We proceeded to call and turn our base. Shortly thereafter while still on base we heard the Baron announce that he too was on base – very creepy indeed. See AOPA Safety Advisor article “Operations at Nontowered Airports,”page 8, figure 6: Turn From Downwind to Base. The article says don’t do it until the aircraft ahead is on final and has passed your wingtip! At this point, I’m wondering whether all this is worth it for flight instructor’s pay when I’m already on social security.

We turned final, after which the Red Baron piped up (the flippant world-weary voice back again) and inquired, “Are you going to do a touch and go?” My situational awareness antenna is now fully extended, and I’m really thinking about retirement. At this point two things are obvious. First, this experience is threatening my sense of well-being. Second, the Baron is hot on our tail intending to land close behind us if we’re doing a touch and go. He’s oblivious to the risk he’s creating if we have a flat tire or some other issue causing a stop, or inability to clear the runway, or if we simply decide to cancel the touch and go for any other reason.

When advised that we were doing a full stop and that the airport didn’t allow touch and goes – you guessed it – the Baron announced his second go-around in that world-weary tone intended to tell everyone that the necessity for this maneuver was clearly the fault of others.

What did the student learn from this? The student learned to think safety, not convenience, and to appreciate the risk of bad pattern practices. In particular, the necessity to maintain runway course on a go-around until reaching a safe point for the crosswind turn. He also gained an appreciation for the reason not to turn base until the aircraft ahead has at least turned final and passed his wingtip.

What did I learn from this? When it was obvious this individual was going to follow close behind us on final, we should have executed a defensive go-around. We tend to think of the go-around as a maneuver to avoid problems ahead of us, such as aircraft or objects on the runway. This experience taught that it’s also a defensive maneuver to avoid a problem behind you. Should we have executed a defensive 360 on downwind when it was apparent the Baron was on our tail? I think not.

We didn’t know exactly where he was on our tail. No rearview mirrors. If he wasn’t directly behind us, a 360 could have turned us into him. He said he had us in sight, so presumably he had enough situational awareness not to run into us on downwind! Of course, assumptions can be unjustified, as my wife is fond of reminding me. On the other hand, a defensive go-around achieves immediate separation both horizontally and vertically and gets you out of harm’s way quickly with no danger to other traffic.

What did the Red Baron learn from this? Probably nothing. Even if we had done a go-around he would probably think we blew the approach and remain unshakable in his belief that he was the best pilot in the pattern that day. He wasn’t. If God is in his heaven, I will get him on his next biennial flight review (BFR) and life will be good. You can bet this BFR will be more than the minimum time under FAR 61.56. Refreshing someone on the required maneuvers is easy; changing an entire way of thinking takes more time.

Robert M. Wright is a certificated flight instructor at Chesapeake Sport Pilot, located at Bay Bridge Airport, Stevensville, Maryland. Photo by Karen Helfert.

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