Make Non-Routine Go-Arounds a “Bottom-Up” Procedure

In our book, Automation Airmanship, we argue that one of the most powerful influences on how we can successfully shape 21st-century airmanship is to adopt some of the findings and concepts from recent advances in the field of cognitive neuroscience (don’t quit reading just yet—stick with me). This field has made great strides in mapping in understandable and practical terms how operators in high-risk/high-reliability fields think and act during time-critical situations. If you’re reading this blog post, that group probably includes you.

Since we published our book in 2013, there have been dozens of excellent books and countless scientific papers published advancing the science even further. The list is too long for one blog post; but one of these books has brought together some of the best research in the past century and is worth reading by any professional whose job is marked by a frequent need to focus attention on key information, essential actions, and critical steps during sudden and unexpected situations (sound familiar?). Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) published Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence in 2013. In it he describes the two “minds” that we all have—the “top-down mind” and the “bottom-up mind”. The top-down mind, among other things, acts slower, is the seat of self-control, is able to overpower automatic routines, make new plans and take control (to some extent) of the bottom-up mind. The bottom-up mind is faster, automatic, intuitive, impulsive and executes habitual routines. In aviation, the top-down mind is the one that works with other crewmembers to resolve a complicated in-flight problem, for example, while the bottom-up mind handles high-speed rejected takeoffs, engine failures just prior to takeoff, and other critical memory-dependent procedures and routine things like landing. For all of us, many of our bottom-up skills were once very difficult top-down problems. No surprise, then, that when you want to get really good at something that you want to make “automatic,” you need to practice it. A lot.

At a recent symposium, I was having a discussion with several respected experts in our field on the subject of why some crews fail to execute a go-around even when they know the approach is unstable. One reason cited was that compared to “pulling out the landing” (which many of us have often done), executing a smooth go-around seems more difficult and uncertain. After all, compared to landings, how many go-arounds do most pilots do?

Our suggestion is this: if you want to make go-arounds as smooth and effortless as landings, practice them. This includes not just studying the procedures, but memorizing them. Unfortunately, go-arounds cost fuel and fuel costs money. So actually practicing them is a lot harder than saying you will. But try this: the next time you go to recurrent simulator training, ask your training provider or instructor to take a few minutes to give you some practice at different kinds of go-arounds (not just the ones from “minimums” which should already be a “bottom-up” procedure). Ask for challenges that cause the aircraft to be “unstable” at varying points along the approach, for example. Or try a few that don’t require full Go-Around flight guidance. Maybe one that involves a go-around as a result of an ILS-PRM breakout. There are many more scenarios, even some that might be unique to your particular operation.

If we take away some of the trepidation that comes with the instantaneous decision to go-around from an unstable approach, fewer will be taken to landings, and we can all contribute to reducing one of the biggest causes of accidents and incidents across aviation.

Think about it.

Until our next report, fly safe, and always, fly first.

References: Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman, 2013.

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