Thursday, March 31, 2011
Yesterday the Washington Post printed a mildly scary story about an Alaska Airlines jet landing at National Airport (I know it's Reagan National, but all pilots call it "National") and suddenly zooming sharply away in what pilots call a "go-around," startling passengers and spectators on the ground.
Another airplane, the Post said, was on the runway. It had just landed but hadn't yet turned off onto a taxiway, so the tower ordered the incoming jet to abort its landing and go around the circuit for another try. Safety first, you know.
If it hadn't been for an air traffic controller falling asleep in the wee hours at National last week, the event wouldn't have been a story. But travelers are nervous, and newspapers have to make money, and an enterprising reporter capitalized on an opportunity.
The reporter admitted that at National Airport go-arounds happen a lot -- ten to 20 times a month -- because traffic there is so congested that the tower has to space incoming planes tightly. Sometimes the controllers' timing is slightly off and an incoming plane follows the preceding one a little too closely. Solution: If there's any doubt, any doubt at all, the tower (or the captain of the plane about to land) calls a go-around and things are rejuggled. Nobody is endangered -- not in the slightest.
Those incidents never make the news.
Some years ago I was aboard a United 737 on short final at National. Less than a quarter of a mile from touchdown, the pilot suddenly poured on the coal, cleaned up the landing gear and roared away. The woman next to me grabbed the seat rest and gasped, no doubt thinking we had escaped death by the skin of our chins. The guy across the aisle chuckled and shook his head. He'd been there before.
Nor was I perturbed, because as a small plane pilot I had repeatedly been trained to perform that maneuver almost from the first day of flight instruction.
"Always keep your eyes on that runway," said Tom, my instructor, "and expect somebody to surprise you. The second you think something's not right, shove in that throttle and get the hell outta there."
Again and again, even when the airport was deserted except for us, Tom would clap my leg just as I lifted the plane's nose to touch down on the mains and shout "Go around!"
Pilots are trained never to relax in the landing pattern but to stay alert, keeping a hand lightly on the throttle, ready to ram the ball to the wall at the slightest sign of potential danger.
During 15 years and more than 1,300 hours in the cockpit, I was forced to perform more than a dozen actual go-arounds. Once an airplane landed well ahead of me but turned around and back-taxied down the runway, its pilot oblivious to incoming traffic. More than once a student pilot holding in the pocket failed to look up to check incoming airplanes before taxiing onto the numbers for takeoff.
Several times animals -- deer, coyotes and once a magnificent elk -- sauntered onto the runway when I was on short final.
None of these go-arounds were close calls, although a passenger or two might have been a little perturbed. (I don't think I ever said "Oh shit!" with someone in the right seat. Pilots should never do that, even in mild irritation.)
And I was an amateur, a private pilot, a weekend puddle-jumper driver. Air transport pilots are even more on edge during landings, because they're responsible for scores of passengers. As I did, they train and train and train until go-arounds become second nature. (They don't have to wait for a controller's order, either.)
Go-arounds are safe. They're designed to keep you safe. Don't fret.