The Dreaded Stall

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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.

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 flight lesson.

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 and takeoff.

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 the aircraft.

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

Cessna 152 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.

Contributing factors

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 pilot's flying.

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 problem.