A few weeks back in this blog, I commented about “Going with the Flow” and that unless there was a compelling reason to do things differently, a head-on confrontation with established traffic in a non-towered pattern perhaps wasn’t the best idea. The accident occurred in Erie, Colorado, when a Piper Malibu crashed going opposite to other traffic and attempted to land downwind. Those thoughts still apply—mostly.
A friend called to provide some more information since he actually witnessed the set-up and the crash. First, a mea-culpa because in the previous blog I made a statement that the pilot lost control while maneuvering to avoid a departing aircraft. That is NOT what happened and, while my standard disclaimer always applies in preliminary discussions, it is always appreciated when anyone has additional information.
The facts will continue to evolve but from an eye witness account:
–The Piper did go opposite the flow despite a six-knot tailwind. The pilot slowed and started making S-turns to allow a departure to clear his inbound final approach. This may have left the aircraft a bit high and possibly a bit fast (speculative). What is not speculation: A six-knot tailwind was pushing the Malibu down the runway, and the pilot elected to go around.
–There was a rapid application of power, and the aircraft pitched up noticeably and then made a nearly 90-degree left turn before stalling.
The aerodynamics of go-arounds are well known, and GA pilots—as a group—do not always perform them well:
1. Start early—it’s much easier when there’s some altitude left to work with. The middle of the flare when not much energy is left is not optimal.
2. Power must be applied smoothly lest all the left turning tendencies become overwhelming. As a rule of thumb, three to four seconds work well to go from idle to full power. It’s easier on the engine and allows the pilot time to adjust to changing forces, both in pitch and yaw. This is especially important on big engines where the forces can get strong in a hurry.
3. We don’t practice go-arounds nearly enough and as a result are often rusty. They should be standard on every flight review, and nothing precludes your solo practice of go-arounds occasionally. If you’re uneasy the first time or two, set it up at altitude.
4. My mantra, in order, is:
- Power—first and smoothly applied (don’t forget the right rudder).
- Pitch—significant forward pressure is needed because we were trimmed for landing. Initially, level may be the best you can safely do. I am not a big fan of running pitch trim all the way back to allow just a little pull for the flare. Depending on the aircraft, it may take a really strong push to get the nose down to prevent a stall in the event of a go-around. Re-trim as needed—use manual trim if the electric isn’t quick enough, but get the aircraft doing the work as soon as possible.
- Flaps—retract to approach configuration. If landing flaps are down, the aircraft just isn’t going to climb well. In ground effect though, we can start putting energy back in to the equation and getting stable. Retracting all the flaps increases stall speed so that isn’t a great idea either.
- Gear—after everything is pointed comfortably up and the obstacles are well cleared, then and only then, raise the gear. Gear retraction will often reduce climb somewhat while in transit. If you’re coming back for another landing, make damn sure to put the gear down again. Re-accomplish the entire before-landing checklist lest a belly slide be in your future.
There is a lot happening in a short time frame, in sequence and close to the ground. It has to be done right and timely—this can be a problem if not practiced.
Notice we haven’t spoken to anyone. The tower or other pilots are not going to help whatsoever. This maneuver demands undivided attention. After everything is under control, then some communication is appropriate.
A final thought, which my friend and I agree on. There are times when going with the flow is a bad idea. If the herd insists on landing downwind, that is a great time to exercise your PIC authority and declare your intentions. I’ve done this a number of times—especially with students, when a slight tailwind made landings difficult, I’ve announced on the CTAF that we were going to change directions. Let the hardheads play through, if they insist, and let’s hope they don’t foul the runway in the process. Going against the flow should always be for operational reasons—not convenience!