Southwest Airlines flight 4037 cruised low over the fields in North Natomas last Sunday night. Passenger Gavin Canaan was tired from an Orange County business trip and looking forward to getting on the ground.
Suddenly, somewhere just short of the runway, the engines screamed into higher gear, the plane gained speed, its nose headed back skyward.
“It just accelerated, up and out,” Canaan said. “I felt almost this vertigo feeling. My head swam a bit.”
There was a slight murmur in the passenger cabin, Canaan said, but no panic. After a minute, the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. There had been another plane on the runway, forcing the aircraft to abort its landing. The Southwest jet would circle and land a few minutes later without incident.
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But it left Canaan slightly shaken and wondering: What exactly had happened? How much danger were we in?
The answer may be surprising. Aviation officials interviewed by The Bee, including federal officials, pilots and air traffic controllers, said aborted landings, called “go-arounds” are not uncommon, and are considered routine and safe.
In this case, the plane landing ahead of the Southwest flight was still on the runway.
“Southwest flight 4037 was following an Airbus A320 on final approach into SMF,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor wrote to The Bee. “The A320 had a longer-than-expected landing roll so the controller sent Southwest around. You can’t have two planes on the same runway at the same time.”
The FAA does not keep statistics on go-arounds, he said, but Gregor estimated the maneuver may occur once a day at larger and more congested airports. Dennis Kern, a retired Sacramento air traffic controller, says it happened four or so times a month at Sacramento when he worked the tower there.
“These things happen,” Kern said. “It is not uncommon. If you allow the plane to land, then you would have a story.”
Not all go-arounds are routine. An extraordinary situation unfolded last July at San Francisco International Airport when an Air Canada pilot got confused and attempted to land on a taxiway where four jets were awaiting clearance to take off.
Air traffic control screens lost sight of the plane for 12 seconds, according to a preliminary federal investigation. A pilot in one of the planes on the taxiway saw the airliner aimed at him and radioed the tower: “Where’s this guy going?”
The Air Canada pilot managed to pull up just 59 feet above the ground, and directly over the parked planes. There was one traffic controller in the tower –rather than the usual two – and he did not order the plane to pull up until after the pilot had realized his mistake and hit the thrusters.
Notably, another Air Canada pilot at San Francisco a few months later failed to pull up and perform a go-around when instructed to by the tower. The plane landed safely, but that incident also is under investigation.
Pilots and controllers said go-arounds almost never involve that level of drama. But they acknowledge decisions to abort a landing are made literally on the fly, sometimes seconds before landing. While some larger airports have radar systems that monitor runway activity, the decision to do a go-around is based on human eyes – pilots and controllers looking at the runway out their windows and making mental calculations of risk.
The pilot may not be satisfied with his aircraft’s speed or height, or may be concerned about crosswinds. The plane ahead may have blown a tire. In more alarming cases, an airport truck may have driven onto the runway, or another jet awaiting take off may have nudged onto the runway.
Former air traffic controller Brent Spencer, now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, once told a pilot at the Wichita airport to pull up because a coyote was on the runway. It was a judgment call, he said. Although unlikely, the plane could have hit the coyote and blown a tire, he said.
At busy airports, aircraft line up for landings a minimum of 3 miles apart. At plane speeds that means pilots and air traffic controllers may have a minute or less to decide whether there is some reason to pull up. At a conference last year, James Fee, manager of the FAA’s Runway Safety Group, included a presentation slide that warned: “You have less than a minute to do the right thing.”
Ron Carr, a former American Airlines pilot, now a professor at Embry-Riddle, has called off landings, once when the plane landing ahead blew a tire, another time when a plane on the runway aborted its takeoff. He calls it a “time critical” event that calls for a quick decision.
“We are switching from a landing mode situation to a takeoff mode,” he said. “You are bringing the power up and the nose up to pitch it up to climb. You have headings you have to meet, and altitudes. You have to clean up the airplane – get the gear up, reset the flaps – run all those checklists all over again.”
That means it may take a minute before the pilot has time to tell passengers what is happening. Passenger Canaan said that was the case on the Southwest flight Sunday night.
National Association of Airline Passengers director Douglas Kidd said he has no problem with a pilot or controller breaking off a landing, but respect for passengers means telling passengers as soon as possible what the deal is.
“If I’m a few minutes late, by all means. Better safe than sorry,” he said. “Just, once you’ve got it handled, tell the passengers.”