I Stalled The Damn Thing


I stalled the Cub on a base-to-final turn the other day and it wasn’t intentional. This may be hard to fathom, but I got punked by a bird and it happens all the time. I won’t be surprised if other pilots who fly slow taildraggers have had these bird encounters, which are quite obviously intentional on the bird’s part.

I think the birds are Red-tailed hawks. These are indigenous to Florida and evidently the most common species of hawks everywhere. Whatever they are, they are fairly fast flyers because when I’ve been out messing around in the Cub, they have frequently buzzed me, got a good look, and veered off. They seem to do this out of a dive that allows them to match the Cub’s speed, if not exceed it. Red-tailed hawks can supposedly reach 120 MPH in a dive.

In the most spectacular of these encounters, the hawk pulled up on the left side of the airplane, rolled on his back and stood on his tail before rolling off in the opposite direction. If there’s such a thing as birds trash talking, this is it. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the same bird.

I had been out in the Cub shooting a video about forward slips and I was turning final into a nice little grass strip we have south of Venice called Buchan. The hawk joined up on the inside of the turn and his sudden appearance distracted me enough to lose track of the pitch angle. It was already relatively high because I was slowing for a short-field landing. While I was eyeballing the bird eyeballing me and holding perfect station about 50 feet away, I felt the burble and sensed the Cub’s lower door floating up, a sure sign of an impending stall. I was probably at 300 feet.

The Cub’s stall—even a turning stall—is so benign that it recovers with just a little wing unloading and so it did. I happened to glance at the airspeed indicator as I recovered and it was just climbing through 40 MPH indicated. I didn’t bother with power and landed normally, although long of the spot I was aiming for. Loss of control was never at issue, which is probably whistling past the cemetery, but at least I didn’t wind up in it.

In this podcast on stalls with Air Safety Institute’s Richard McSpadden, I asked if he thought he was stall proof. He thought no and I think the same thing and even before this incident with Cub, I thought the same. I consider myself fairly cognizant of the risk elements and envelopes, but like it or not, vigilance is never 100 percent and neither is performance always perfect. I hadn’t set out to prove myself right, but it worked out that way.

In this case, I hadn’t intended to get that slow. I don’t obsess on the Cub’s airspeed indicator because it’s neither accurate nor consistent, but a little over 50 indicated is a good approach speed for a short-field three-pointer. I obviously got slower than that and my fascination with the bird was enough to distract me from noticing.

I had four cameras attached to the airplane and I’d love to entertain you with video of this. Unfortunately, the new GoPros deplete their batteries in about 50 minutes and all of them had stopped recording. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

And the story has a moral not related to changing batteries, but admitting that if you get snoozy on the stick, you can bore a crater no matter how good or experienced you think you are. When I was shooting the video, I’d just completed a flight review and IPC and had been out flying a series of cross-controlled and aggravated stalls, so I was—theoretically—on the bubble.

But maybe not entirely.  

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Those damned distractions. Thanks for the disclosure Paul. It probably shouldn’t be put this way but your tale sounds like you at least had some fun out of the ordeal. “A short field three pointer”? Now you’re gettin’ into arguing territory with “short field wheelies”.

  2. Good commentary, Paul. Thanks for sharing it. We’d all like to think we are immune to such distractions, but incidents like this prove otherwise. It would be interesting to know how many fatal stall/spin crashes on final came about from just such a momentary distraction too close to the ground. It lends another aspect to the sterile cockpit mantra while landing. After all, we are supposed to keep our eyes outside the plane on a VFR approach. My local airport sits next to a park/bird sanctuary, so we often dodge flocks of birds and the raptors that prey on them. This will be a reminder to pay attention to the things that matter. Oh, and glad you are sill with us!

  3. I’ve heard of moose stalls, but I’ve never heard of a hawk stall! I was just out with a friend the other evening to work on landings. We headed for a nearby local airport with more favorable winds. As we were descending I saw a large flock of snow geese. I turned away from them only to realize I had turned toward another large flock. As I looked around I realized that we were surrounded. There was some kind of snow geese aerial get together occurring right over and around the airport we were trying to get into. I decided to power up and climb out–hitting a flock of large birds has already been proven a bad idea. We headed back to the homedrome and called it a day.

    Seriously, thanks for sharing, Paul. It’s good to be reminded that to be a human is to err.

  4. Well written, Paul — perhaps an argument for AOA indicators, no? Thanks for your honesty in confessing to what ended up a minor indiscretion and, as always, your informative and entertaining articles for us pilot types! Hope to see you at SNF.

    • I doubt if an AoA would have helped. It’s just an airspeed indicator with pretty colors that you still need to look at. An aural annunicator, maybe, with airspeed or stall anunnciation. Then again, you fly a Cub by feel, not numbers.

      • An audible alert from and AOA indicator is what I was thinking, although even a visual warning light up on the glareshield or where ever might have more quickly brought your attention back to where it belonged. But, as you say, an experienced pilot should be able to feel it.

        I have to disagree with your comment that an AOA is just an airspeed indicator. If that were true, then the axiom that we all learned in our primary
        training — that an airplane can stall at any airspeed (not to mention attitude, configuration, power setting, or weight) — would be a fallacy, yes?

        • Having written about them for the past 20 years, I know how AoAs work. But I’ve always thought they’re a solution for understanding stalls, not avoiding them. In that sense, they are no different than ASIs because you still have to actively monitor both.

          Other than shakers and pushers, I don’t see technological solutions to light aircraft inadvertent stalls, other than what’s between the pilot’s ears. In my case, it was momentarily mush.

          • Cessna has been installing AOA indicators in their airplanes for years in the form of their stall warning horns. The closer to a stall you get the more shrill the horn gets until it is positively shrieking at the break.

          • As far as understanding stalls:

            At no time in my pilot training was I allowed to perform a stall, without first calling for a stall.

            A. We are going to perform a stall
            B. We are going to perform slow flight..and not stall

            Never an instance of allowing to be surprised by the stall or, to hunt and peck for the stall envelope while performing maneuvers.

            My instructor(s) never understood why I wanted to be surprised by the stall. The curriculum is/was to keep pulling until you stall or, you had better not stall because we’re performing slow flight.

            There needs to be an area of stall discovery.

          • I never said or implied that you didn’t know how AOA’s work — I was only pointing out that an AOA indicator and an airspeed indicator aren’t the same thing, which is what you had stated.

            And to say that an AOA is only a solution for understanding stalls is rather silly — it is every bit as useful for actually avoiding stalls as an ASI and then some, as an ASI is only a proxy for determining angle of attack. A properly configured AOA indicator leaves no doubt as to the state of lift acting on the wing.

            But your point that one or the other (or both) need to be actively monitored for safe flight is fair enough. And I’ll refrain from beating this drum any further.

        • We had an AoA in our Mooney for about five years. One of the early ones, the Huntington Lift Reserve Indicator. At the time, the late Scott Crossfield was a subscriber and once excoriated me for calling it an AoA. He was right. It wasn’t.

          It merely implied AoA through pressure differential on the wing, which is how some of the modern AoAs work, too, with some digital aiding. Some do it entirely digitally.

          Ours was supremely good at one thing: Max performance landings. It had a notch just below L/D max. If you flew the airplane at that angle and had the guts not to look at the ASI, the landings were incredibly short. Much shorter than the POH claim, especially into a stiff breeze. The reason you didn’t want to look at the ASI was because it was really low and close to stall airspeed.

          • Great followup comment, Paul — I think there are quite few pilots out there (myself included) that feel more comfortable keeping a tad bit of an airspeed cushion on the landing. If not for more easily handling an encounter with wind shear, but just to avoid the anxiety of looking down at the ASI and seeing a pucker-inducing airspeed. But you described it best.

            Hoping to see you and others at SNF – if the coronavirus doesn’t get us all first.

      • Great article and I think it demonstrates that training pilots to feel what low power slow flight feels like in their aircraft is important in reducing stall/spin type accidents. Trying to get the most out of a turbulent thermal in a glider definitely teaches you to listen to the aircraft and respond appropriately. When it happens there simply isn’t time to look at much of anything and our reaction, like Paul’s, needs to be instinctive – Unload the wing.

  5. Hawks seem to have an affinity for slow-flying airplanes. In a glider, I’ve often followed them into thermals–and they have joined me while thermaling as well.

    The first happened during my Commercial Glider check ride. We were thermalling in a 2-33 and were joined by a hawk. The examiner said “Wonder what HE’S doing up here?”

    I’d been doing well on my check ride, so in a bout of confidence, came right back with the answer–“Taking Notes!” The examiner sighed–I passed the check ride–and the examiner told the story often at our glider meets.

    • I was thinking why this one caught my eye. I was looking outside to judge the turn–just where I should have been looking–when he came into view at the speed of heat and just dropped anchor off the wingtip. He matched speed, turn rate and bank angle, never taking his eye off me. Just stunning flying.

      • “Came into view at the speed of heat and just dropped anchor off the wingtip. H matched speed, turn rate and bank angle, never taking his eye off me. Just stunning flying.”

        Reminds me of my first 4 way, skydiving in the early 70s. Two of us “newbies” managed to get linked up, then were joined by two experience (for the time) skydivers. They each tracked, approached, and dropped into position and got a grip –no overshoots or corrections–just a fast approach–slow down and sink to join–no bobble–JUST THERE!

        Nothing I’ve ever done in the air in 58 years of flying (including formation flying) has left such an impression on me–THAT’S precision flying!

  6. It is not the stall that kills you it’s the yaw. This event was a non event because you instinctively stopped the yaw as you unloaded the wing. You were almost certainly unaware of the actions you took as you were operating at the level of unconscious competence.

    Unfortunately too many pilots are in the unconscious incompetence level of skill and by the time they figure out what has just happen it is far too late….

    • Also, as Rich Stowell reminded me to mention in the video, roll-yaw coupling. Airplanes like the Cub and Cessnas need a fairly high rate of yaw to get the spin going and if there’s opposite roll moment going on, no coupling and may be hard to excite the spin. In the Cub, it takes an abrupt application of pitch right as the yaw comes in. And sometimes, that’s not enough.

      Another thing I will mention in the video is that I had the airplane in transition–AoA increasing, airspeed decreasing, bank angle and load factor increasing. Everything came together at once. I normally fly a low, tight pattern with descending, unloaded turns to final. The day this happened, there was a strong right crosswind at altitude, about 10 knots on the surface, but much higher at 300 to 500 feet. So my base-to-final turn was shallower than normal. Still, bank is bank and it increases the load factor, however slightly.

      • Sounds like a headwind component on base requiring more pitch to avoid undershooting which you probably did subconsciously. Good lesson for pitch/power coordination too. The really good thing is that you unloaded the wing. Often, I assume, pilots naturally do the opposite when they get that sudden feeling of falling, pretty much guaranteeing no recovery. It boils down to maintaining the discipline necessary to do the right thing (lower the pitch) even in a split second of panic.

      • It’s a very common misconception that airplanes are “unloaded” in descending turns. If the rate of descent is constant, the aircraft’s wings are still opposing gravity thus there is no “unloading” that many think exist. That is, unless the plane is uncoordinated in a slipping turn, then the load factor might be a bit less than the bank angle would suggest. Or, if the glide angle is sufficiently steep then the lift vector is angled significantly forward…but this case doesn’t even appreciably exist for the Space Shuttle’s absurd 22 degree glide angle…

        The wings could be slightly “unloaded” at the top of the “perch” when transitioning from level flight to descending flight, but this is usually only momentary and then offset by a momentary increase in lift required to stabilize the descent rate…

        • The key is “if the rate of descent is constant”. I think when pilots use the term “unloading” when initiating a tight descending pattern turn they are referring to the trade-off of transferring more of the available lift into turning the aircraft vice holding a constant rate of descent. Gasps from the stabilized approach folk, of course 🙂

        • Fair enough. It’s only unloaded in that transitional moment when you float up in the seat. Otherwise, in a descending turn, it’s a little over a G necessary for the lift vector to keep the turn going. About 1.1 according to the G-meter I had in the airplane.

          • I wanted to point out the “unloaded” myth because many pilots believe that they can get away with steeper turns in a power-off descent than they otherwise could in level flight…i.e. during the “impossible turn”. If you go out and establish a steady-state, power-off coordinated 60 degree bank descending turn, your “G” meter will still read 2 g’s, just like in a level 60 degree bank turn. If it reads significantly less, either your G meter is broken or you aren’t meeting the above stated conditions.

            In the case of “increasing descent rate”, if the increase rate is significant enough to measurably unload the wings, you won’t stay in that condition very long before you have a ridiculous pitch angle and descent rate…neither of which is conducive to achieving best glide…

      • Incidentally, at 50 mph a 25 degree bank turn is 1.1 g’s and about 4 times standard rate!

  7. Paul’s next-to-last comment said it all – maybe you wouldn’t understand if you haven’t flown a Cub-category airplane; “you fly a Cub by feel, not numbers.” And the feel is very good.

  8. Brings to mind a classic Gordon Baxter about his encounter with a hawk .. he could’ve sworn the hawk wanted to smile at him but couldn’t because “…hawks have real stiff lips.”

  9. I’ve always said that hawks are among the most dangerous birds around an airport. Seagulls are dangerous because there are a lot of them and they’re too stupid to get out of the way. Hawks are more dangerous, because they think they can outfly tou and that they own the sky.

  10. Perhaps if you added an AOA and a HUD and a stick shaker and a stick pusher you wouldn’t have to worry about again being distracted (well other than by all the flashing warning lights, buzzers, tones, airspeed airspeed calls) Of course you wouldn’t have to worry about getting the cub into the air anymore either:)

    As usual, well written article. Always learn more from “real life” situations.

  11. IMHO: Paul’s got enough time in the cob, and maybe enough time flying, that to a significant extent the problem-recognition/corrective-action process was automatic/sub-conscious. Similar to how a driver who has practiced correcting from a skid (think rwd, packed snow, lets go mess around in a parking lot) will automatically take the proper steps when the back wheels step out. Watch race drivers in slo-mo if you can.

    bigger batteries for the GoPro’s?

  12. Paul, thank you so much for describing this. In a European forum we are having a heated discussion how a super pro (chief test pilot of Pilatus) could kill himself and his entire family by CFIT on a perfect CAVOK summer day… Some colleagues can simply not fathom that such an absolute pro can make such a horrible mistake. I did cite your article there.
    It is difficult for us wannabe hero pilots to simply admit, that the reason for the crash, more often then not, is located smack between our both ears.
    I certainly will remember your story for a while, flying my big old taildragger, waiting for the next hawk 🙂