Although we often hear about the stall as a major cause of accidents, it is often the fear of stalling that causes pilots to make too-fast approaches that result in overshoots, overruns, and loss of control landing accidents. AVweb's Safety Editor offers words of wisdom about overcoming your fears and gaining confidence in that all-important low-speed corner of the performance envelope.
June 30, 1997
|About the Author ...
Brian Jacobson has over 12,000 hours
in all types of general aviation aircraft from trainers to jets. He has been
flying since 1970, and earned most of his certificates and ratings on the East
Coast in the early 1970s.
His first aviation employment was as sales manager at Air Worcester, Inc.,
an FBO in Massachusetts. Through the years, he worked for several FBOs selling
airplanes and flying charters. For nine years, he was chief pilot for a division
of ITT based in Providence, Rhode Island, and later was a bizjet captain for
Textron, Inc., out of Providence, Augusta, Georgia., and Pontiac, Michigan.
During those years, he flew real-world IFR in all sorts of weather and some of
the most congested airspace in the world.
Since 1988, Jacobson has been a member of
the National Aircraft Appraisers Association, and owns and operates a firm
called Great Lakes Aircraft Appraisal, appraising airplanes for buyers, sellers
and financial institutions. He also helps individuals and businesses buy
aircraft by evaluating their needs, recommending the type of aircraft they
should purchase, and helping them locate and procure those aircraft.
Jacobson is also a professional aviation writer. He is a contributing
editor for AVweb, Aviation Safety, and IFR
Refresher; a contributor to Plane &
Pilot; and can be heard on Belvoir Publications' Pilot Audio
In October 1996, he published his first book,
Flying on the
Gages, in which he discusses his experiences flying IFR. In May, 1997, his
second book was published:
Purchasing & Evaluating Airplanes.
Every year there are accidents that occur when
pilots attempt to land on runways shorter than those they are used to. There
are several reasons why those accidents happen, but at the top of the list
has to be the pilot's fear of stalling the airplane before it is in position
for a safe landing.
That fear often prompts pilots to maintain too high an airspeed during final
approach, and they wait too long to slow the airplane down, so long, in fact,
that sometimes the airplanes float to near the end of the runway. Before
the pilot recognizes that it is impossible to land on the remaining tarmac
it is too late to initiate a safe go- around and the accident is inevitable.
Fear of inadvertently stalling an airplane is not that uncommon amongst pilots
who don't fly regularly, or those who don't maintain some semblance of currency.
Once a student has the private ticket safely tucked away the only time stalls
may be practiced is during the biennial flight review. And even then the
instructor is likely to cover so many items in a short period of time that
only cursory attention is given to any one item.
Why do we fear stalls?
What is it about stalls that create problems for pilots? When an airplane
is stalled it begins to fall because it is no longer flying. The sensations
that accompany the stall and the fall toward the earth are unnatural for
humans. And flight instructors usually so emphasize the perils of stalling
to new students that sometimes the seed of fear is planted before the first
Practicing stalls in turns may have added to the pilot's discomfort especially
if the airplane got away and rolled off on one wing. Some airplanes can snap
quickly while others are lazy and don't do much, but some pilots dislike
the feelings associated with stalls so much that they do whatever they think
is necessary to avoid them. As time goes on their fear of stalls can escalate
to the point where those pilots may be dangerous especially during landing
The more knowledge and understanding a pilot has about stalls the less they
will be feared. But it is imperative that pilots practice them on a regular
basis to maintain the currency and familiarity that keeps fear at bay.
Probably the biggest fear that pilots have is getting into a spin as a result
of stalling the airplane. Instructors talk about spin hazards but never
demonstrate them, so students have no idea what they are and usually don't
know what to do about them. Fear of the unknown is always the enemy, and
when pilots have no idea what a spin is or what to do about it should they
get into one they have another reason to fear the stall.
A pilot who refuses to practice stalls, especially in an airplane type that
is new, will never have a good feel for that machine, and landings will suffer
as a result. That's because to make a good landing in most light airplanes
pilots have to be familiar with the slow flight and stall characteristics.
In some circumstances it might not be advantageous to land the airplane in
a full stall, but to avoid the stall the pilot must know what to expect from
the airplane as its speed is reduced above the runway. Those who turn themselves
off to stalls usually have no idea what to expect and may stall the airplane
too high off the ground. The resultant touchdown could result in damage to
But most pilots who are afraid of stalls simply maintain a high airspeed
all the way to the runway and land the airplane at speeds well above the
stall. That's fine as long as there is enough runway in front of them, but
when they attempt to land on a runway that is shorter than what they are
used to they run into serious trouble. That's because they don't have enough
runway to allow the airplane to land at a high rate of speed and stop. Often
under these circumstances the airplane is intentionally ground looped to
keep it from running into an obstacle as it leaves the runway.
Some pilots attempt to go around after touchdown when they realize they can't
stop without damaging the airplane. They apply full power and because of
the nose high trim that is applied the airplane pitches up to the normal
climb attitude, or higher. But they completely forget that full flaps are
deployed, and the combination of the high nose attitude the airplane is trimmed
for and full flaps cause the airplane to stall and fall to the ground. This
type of accident often results in fatalities.
The spin-training controversy
When I was a student pilot my instructor taught me about stalls and gave
me the standard spiel about spins. He cautioned me to be very careful about
using the rudder during stall practice. I asked him to show me a spin, and
he told me that the curriculum didn't call for that.
One day we were going out to the practice area to do some brush up for my
private check ride when he asked me if I still wanted to see what a spin
was like. I said yes. We climbed to a safe altitude, he stalled the Cessna
150, then forced it into a spin to the left with full rudder. I couldn't
believe how fast that airplane rotated, and he recovered after a little more
than one turn.
I wanted to try one, but he said no. "We don't usually do spins in these
airplanes because of the gyro instruments," was his reply, but I didn't think
that he was being totally honest.
In fact, we have pretty much erased the spin from all training programs except
that for the instructor's rating. And even then the applicant only has to
show the FAA inspector a sign-off demonstrating a knowledge of spins.
So, in a way, we have caused a problem with some pilots because of our constant
drilling on the dangers of stalls and spins, and there are some if the airplane
is allowed to stall inadvertently or too close to the ground. Instructors
must instill a certain amount of confidence in their students when they teach
them about stalls. All pilots must be confident in their abilities to recognize
and deal with stalls and make practicing them in a safe environment part
of their flying routine.
Many of the pilots who are afraid of the dreaded stall know the early recognition
signs but are so fearful that they don't want to get even that close. You
can't land a light airplane safely if you don't slow it down. It would be
much easier if every landing were exactly the same, but they are not. Wind
and other conditions can vary in the few minutes it takes to fly the traffic
pattern. What worked for one landing might not work for another.
Usually when we think of stalls we think of them in terms of the landing
configuration, when the airplane is slowed down to the point it simply won't
fly any more. But an airplane can stall at any airspeed and from any attitude.
Remember, the stall is a function of the wing's angle of attack, and if that
angle becomes high enough, no matter what the speed of the airplane, the
wing will stop flying. Think of it in terms of the stall/spin accidents that
happen in the traffic pattern every year. Some are caused by the pilot's
allowing the airspeed to deteriorate in straight and level flight to the
point where flight can no longer be supported, but many are the result of
a stall/spin during turns toward the runway at higher airspeeds. This type
of accident can get even those who dread the stall so much that they tend
to fly the entire approach at too high an airspeed.
Crosswind conditions often contribute to these accidents if the wind is blowing
the airplane toward the runway on the downwind leg. That's because as the
pilot turns base leg the airplane is being pushed toward the runway, and
when he or she recognizes that they simply increase the bank angle in an
attempt to steepen the turn to final. As the bank angle increases so does
the stall speed.
The load factor of an airplane in a 60 degree angle of bank doubles, so the
weight of the airplane doubles, as far as the wings are concerned. That equates
to a stall speed that is 41 percent higher than that found in straight and
level flight. So, if your airplane stalls at 50 miles per hour normally,
in a 60 degree angle of bank turn the stall speed will be 70.5 miles per
hour. Since 70 miles per hour is a good approach speed in many light aircraft,
if the pilot were to bank the airplane excessively in an attempt to turn
toward the runway without overshooting it, as might be done when a crosswind
is pushing the airplane toward the runway, the airplane could stall when
the pilot least expects it.
Stalls close to the ground, especially when they are unexpected, usually
result in fatal accidents. I remember an instructor who was flying with a
student in a Cessna 150, several years ago, who apparently called for a simulated
engine failure while the airplane was on downwind. The student tightened
the turn so much in an effort to make the runway that the airplane stalled
at low altitude and spun into the ground killing both occupants.
It's possible that both the student and instructor were so intent on where
the runway was in relation to the aircraft's position that neither was paying
much attention to the airspeed. Even if the airspeed were close to normal
for the approach as the bank angle increased so did the stall speed. When
the airplane stalled it was only 200 to 300 feet above the ground, and there
was no time for a recovery to be made. Another potential stall hazard is
when the pilot increases the angle of bank but does not keep the turn
coordinated. When that occurs the wing that stalls first will dictate which
way the airplane will roll. Again, these types of stalls usually occur during
turns to final approach close to the ground when there is little time to
effect a recovery. There are usually two common conditions in evidence when
a pilot is afraid of stalls. A lack of confidence in one's abilities contributes
to the fear of stalls, and a deficiency in basic knowledge is another reason
for the affliction.
Achieving and retaining confidence
Many people who start flight training have a perceived lack of confidence
in their ability to fly, and it's the instructor's job to overcome it. There's
a difference between someone who doubts his or her ability to fly an airplane
and someone who's self esteem is so low that professional help is their only
avenue for building confidence. However, any reason for a lack of confidence
is enough to cause a fear of stalls. To some degree the flight instructor
is responsible for the student pilot's lack of basic knowledge. It's his
or her job to provide the necessary information to the student, but it's
the student's job to learn it. If the student doesn't take the time to study
the material, whether it is in book form or some other media, he or she will
not have the knowledge that is fundamental to flying an airplane.
Once the private checkride is completed, it is the pilot's responsibility
to maintain his or her currency at a reasonable level. That's what fortifies
the basics and keeps the pilot sharp on the fundamentals that lead to good
flying. Without that currency a fear of stalls and other maneuvers can occur,
and when that happens there will be a deterioration in the quality of the
So, if you have a fear of stalls don't wait too long to do something about
it. Get with a flight instructor and practice them until you are proficient
and regain the confidence level you need to go out and do them on your own.
There is no reason to stall an airplane so close to the ground that there
is not sufficient time to recover. If you are thoroughly familiar with your
airplane and the way it handles in slow flight you should never have that