I recently flew one of the rarest maneuvers in aviation: a real missed approach in instrument conditions. While we all practice them during initial instrument training and (hopefully) as a part of regular proficiency flights, actual missed approaches are pretty rare. The combination of widely available WAAS approaches and in-flight weather tools means that we usually have a pretty good idea we will get in before starting an approach.
Not so on this day. The weather wasn’t terrible, but a low cloud layer sparked by isolated rain showers made it tricky. The METAR was fluctuating from just above minimums to just below minimums, so we decided to take a shot. Unfortunately, at the missed approach point there were no lights so the power came up and we diverted to our alternate.
Simple, right? Not so much.
While I was intellectually prepared for a missed approach, I really wasn’t emotionally prepared (spring-loaded, as my instrument instructor might have said). I hadn’t done this for real in years. So when it came time to execute this seemingly simple maneuver, I ended up getting behind the airplane just a bit. I was coping, not flying. You might call it the three stages of the missed approach mindset: shock at having to go around, a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the tasks that needed to be completed, and finally a temptation to try it again. None of these are good.
To combat that mindset, here are a few rules I made for myself:
Use the autopilot. While you should be able to hand fly an approach down to minimums, that doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. When it’s really low, I think it’s much safer to let the autopilot fly. That makes you management, not labor, so you can keep the big picture in mind and be ready to react. It’s hard to be spring-loaded to go around if you’re task-saturated and busy keeping the wings level.
Plan ahead – and don’t change your mind. Cruise flight is a good time to make a plan for your approach and potential missed approach procedure. Think through exactly what the approach sequence will look like: what power settings will you use, what descent rate will you use, what are you looking for at DA/MDA and what is the first thing you’ll do if you go missed? Talk it through before you get busy and commit to this plan.
Don’t cheat – don’t even hesitate. Easier said than done, but it’s critical to stay disciplined here. On my missed approach, we saw glimpses of the ground right as we started the missed approach. But this was a sucker hole – we could see down, but not ahead to the runway. Don’t dive for a hole, don’t “go down another 50 feet,” and don’t drive on passed the MAP in the hopes that something miraculous will happen. Stick to the plan. There is no gray area here and no negotiation: land the airplane because you see the runway environment at minimums or go around.
Approach lights matter. I once knew the difference between REIL, MALSR and all the rest of the approach lighting systems, but I long ago forgot the particulars. These may seem like academic nuances, but on a low approach, briefing the approach lighting system and knowing what to expect can make a big difference. In my case, the runway only had the two REILs, which are not nearly as visible as a full “rabbit.”
Climb and maintain control; the rest can wait. When you decide to execute the missed approach, it’s time to climb – now. Don’t mess with the GPS and don’t look at the approach chart. The essential first step is to add power and climb out quickly, while keeping the airplane under control. If you’ve briefed your approach (and your missed approach), you already know what to do. ATC can wait, your passengers can wait and even your avionics can wait until you’ve started climbing and are stabilized.
No second approaches. It’s so tempting to come back around for another try, especially if you saw one of those sucker holes at minimums. Don’t do it. The accident record shows that second approaches often end badly, because the temptation to cheat is very strong. Unless you did something badly wrong on the first approach, don’t even give yourself the opportunity to mess up on round two.
Although we don’t usually think of it that way, the missed approach is really a maximum performance maneuver. In the span of about 60 seconds – and at very low altitude – you are forced to climb at Vy, change the aircraft configuration, reprogram the GPS and talk on the radio. All this while maintaining control in the clouds. The key is to make your decisions long before you ever start the approach, so a missed approach is an automatic reaction. MDA is no time to be making decisions; it’s a time for executing what you’ve already planned.