Every pilot knows that a good landing always begins with a good approach. But how does a pilot know when an approach is unstable? And what happens when the approach is unstable, but the pilot thinks he can salvage it? We all preach that a go-around is the simplest way to prevent a landing accident, but when was the last time you performed a go-around? Are you confident that you’ll respond the right way after a long flight, when you just want to go home, when you’re low on fuel, or when you just botch the landing?
A stable approach is one in which the aircraft is on glide path, on the desired approach airspeed, and configured appropriately for landing at a descent rate that will allow for a normal transition to land. Sounds easy enough, right? So why do so many pilots continue an approach to a landing, even after all of the warning signs of an unstable approach? And why are there still so many loss-of-control accidents during the approach and go-around procedures?
The stable approach is so important that most commercial operators require a go-around in the event of an unstable approach. For most airlines and commercial operations, if the approach is not stabilized by a certain height above the ground (sometimes 1,000 feet and sometimes 500 feet, and sometimes there are requirements for each), the pilot must execute a go-around. Stable approaches are a big deal, and one that the professional aviation world does not want to tangle with. In general aviation, however, we often don’t have these standard operating procedures written out for us by a company. Most of the time, we’re on our own. If we’re IFR, we can and should use the FAA’s guidelines, which state we should “…depart the FAF configured for landing and on the proper approach speed, power setting, and flightpath before descending below the minimum, stabilized approach height; e.g., 1,000 feet above the airport elevation and at a rate of descent no greater than 1,000 feet per minute (fpm), unless specifically briefed.” For light aircraft pilots, the FAA basically tells us to maintain a proper glidepath visually. But we should still note that an unstable approach means one that is too high, too fast, or not in a normal position to land (i.e., excessive maneuvering is needed to land) and if any of those conditions exist, we should execute an immediate go-around.
We all want to make the first landing work. We don’t want to go around, maybe because it wastes time, wasted fuel, or just because we have too much pride and want to be able to land in any condition. But perhaps part of the problem is that we just don’t practice go-arounds very often, and not often enough. We don’t get familiar with them. We’d rather sacrifice the aircraft, sometimes even our own life, to get the airplane on the ground rather than waste a few more minutes to try again, or risk a go-around, which seems like a hazardous maneuver to those who have not mastered it.