Eye of Experience #12:
Understanding the Stall

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Stall entry and recovery is one of the most discussed ó and cussed ó portions of a flight training syllabus. Yet, AVweb's Howard Fried believes that stalls remain one of the most misunderstood aspects of safe and knowledgeable flying. His dissection of stalls, spin entry and maneuvering speed in this Eye of Experience is a must-read for students, instructors and grizzled veterans alike.

Eye Of ExperienceRecognition

F light schools and flight instructors are doing it all wrong. We are teaching our students how to make a stall and recover from it when what we should be teaching is stall recognition. Ask 100 pilots what makes an airplane stall and at least 70 of them will tell you it got too slow. The majority of the remainder will tell you that the nose was pitched up too high. And a very few will say the airflow over the wing separated, so the wing quit flying and an aerodynamic stall resulted. Possibly one, or even two, will give you the correct answer. An airplane stalls for one reason and one reason only. It has exceeded its critical angle of attack (AOA), period. Thatís all she wrote. Exceed that angle and the airplane will stall. Donít exceed it and it canít stall. Very few pilots, and this includes air carrier airplane drivers as well as general aviation people, really understand AOA, what it really is, and how it is affected by airplane configuration.

An AOA diagram

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Reduced to its simplest terms, the AOA is the angular difference between where the airplane is pointing and where it is going. An angle, any angle, is formed by the intersection of two lines and the two lines that form the AOA are the mean aerodynamic chord (MAC)* of the wing and the relative wind. Normally, wind is thought of as air in motion, but in this case, it is the motion of the airplane through the air that creates what we call "relative wind." The AOA at which any given airplane will stall is a built-in, fixed number (usually around 16 to 18 degrees) and when that number is exceeded, the airflow over the wing separates and the stall occurs. This concept of gearing our thinking to AOA seems to be particularly difficult to get across to students, perhaps because we canít see the two lines that form the angle of attack.


Where pilots, particularly student pilots, are being misled is in the fact that airplane manuals publish "stall speeds." Somehow the pilot gets it in his or her head that as long as the airplane is above that speed, then it wonít stall. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The airplane can and will stall when going faster than the published stalling speed, a great deal faster. This is why "accelerated maneuver" stalls are demonstrated and practiced during training. Even so, what many pilots fail to realize, occasionally with rather severe consequences, is that the published stalling speed is valid only under a very narrowly-prescribed set of circumstances, including configuration, weight, airplane attitude and others. The only effect that speed has on the stall is in the fact that at a reduced speed a high angle of attack results. I do wish, therefore, that those involved in aviation education would quit teaching stalls as being related to speed. This approach seems to firmly plant in the studentís head the idea that if he/she just keeps the airplane going above the published stalling speed, it simply will not stall, when, of course, it can and will. I believe that more emphasis should be placed on the so-called "accelerated maneuver" stall, although this has more to do with weight than speed.

Corporate jets and air carrier airplanes have angle of attack indicators, but we in general aviation have to struggle along without them. Although the trigger for the stall warning device is really a sort of angle of attack indicator, we still relate the stall to the factor of speed. I do wish the general aviation fleet was equipped with AOA indicators. Theyíre cheap, simple, and they give us really useful information. If our airplanes were so equipped, it would be a lot easier to teach our students to think of AOA rather than speed as being related to stalls.


Even less understood by many pilots is the effect of power on AOA. If an airplaneís pitch attitude does not change, an increase in power will always result in a reduction in the angle of attack. Think about this for a moment. The best way to visualize AOA is to think in terms of the relative wind striking the bottom of the wing rather than crawling over the top of the wing. Visualize yourself on final approach maintaining a level attitude with reduced power and the airplane is descending. The relative wind is striking the bottom of the wing at a fairly high angle. Now, without changing the pitch attitude of the airplane, add power. What happens? You are now driving the airplane straight ahead, no longer descending, the relative wind has aligned itself with the direction of flight and you have zeroed out the angle of attack.

Another AOA diagram

"It is a lot easier and more practical to think of the relative wind striking the bottom of the wing rather than crawling over the top of the wing."

Now try this: In level flight, at a nice, safe altitude, reduce the power. The airplane will tend to pitch down, but donít let it do this. With the application of up elevator, maintain level flight. The airplane will slow down and will ultimately stall (the angle of attack has gone beyond the critical point). When the stall occurs, the airplane will want to pitch down. Do not permit it to do this. Hold the same attitude with elevator pressure. Add power. The airplane will want to pitch up. Again do not permit it to do this. Hold the same attitude with elevator pressure. What do you think will happen? The airplane will recover from the stall without ever lowering the nose! Donít get me wrong. Iím not advocating this as the way to recover from an inadvertent stall, but merely using it as a means of demonstrating the effect of power on angle of attack. To recover from a stall you still want to lower the nose, keep the wings level, and add all available power.


To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a stall is a stall, is a stall. Anytime the critical AOA is exceeded the airplane will stall; donít exceed that critical AOA and it canít stall. However, over the years, we have put a bunch of fancy names on the stall series for training purposes, all of which are really meaningless if we can get our students to think in terms of angle of attack. It is a lot easier and more practical to think of the relative wind striking the bottom of the wing rather than crawling over the top of the wing. When I was trained, we had what we called the approach to a stall, now known as the imminent stall. We had the stall out of a climbing turn, which we call today the takeoff-and-departure stall, and the stall out of a gliding turn which today is called the approach-to-landing stall. Back then, the accelerated maneuver stall was called a loaded-up stall or a high-speed stall. The bottom line is still, anytime the critical angle of attack is exceeded, the airplane will stall.

Rarely taught anymore, but extremely useful, is the "delayed recovery" stall. It is accomplished like this: At a good, safe altitude and after carefully clearing the area to determine that there is no traffic around, the power is reduced and the pitch increased until the airplane stalls. The stick (or yoke) is held fully back against the stop. When the stall break occurs, the wings must be kept level, and the nose pointed straight with the rudder. The airplane will pitch down, recover itself, pitch down and recover itself all the way to the ground (if permitted). This exercise is a great confidence builder.

Maneuvering Speed

It is not marked on the airspeed indicator (although it may be placarded on the panel) but one of the most important speeds for the pilot to know and be aware of at all times is maneuvering speed (Va). The definition of maneuvering speed is the fastest speed at which an abrupt full control deflection will not engender structural damage. By "abrupt control deflection" is meant all the controls, but it is the elevator on which the emphasis is placed. Visualize this situation: You are charging through the air above Va and you suddenly reach out and give the stick (or yoke) a hard yank, right to the stop. What happens? The airplane will attempt to stand on its tail and go straight up. But the forward momentum, opposing the attempt to go vertical, will exert so much force that the wings will bend or break. And we all know that airplanes donít fly very well when the wings fall off!

Now let's cruise along at or below maneuvering speed. Again, brutally haul back on the yoke (or stick) right to the stop. What happens this time? The airplane will zoom up until it runs out of poop and then stall. In other words, maneuvering speed (or below) is the speed at which an airplane will stall before it bends or breaks. What would you rather do, recover from a stall, or try to fly an airplane from which the wings have just departed? Simple question, simple answer.

I knew an old instructor who taught maneuvering speed by comparing it to an automobile driving down a road and encountering a rough railroad track crossing the road. If the driver fails to slow down, he/she might very well damage the car as it bounces over the tracks. But if the car is slowed to a moderate speed before crossing the rough tracks, it will ride right over them taking the bumps in stride. This is why we instantly go to maneuvering speed when we encounter rough air. In heavy chop with vertical gusts, the air can be striking the underside of the wing with considerable force. If this happens while the airplane is progressing at a very high speed (above maneuvering speed), this force could bend or break the wings. However, if such an updraft is encountered at or below Va, the airplane will have exceeded its critical AOA and stall instead of bending or breaking. In this case, the stall is so brief, so transitory, that recovery technique is not required. If you have ever been flying along in light to moderate turbulence in an airplane with an aural stall warning device, you have heard it occasionally going beep, beep, beep What it is telling you is that the relative wind has momentarily struck the bottom of the wing at an angle above the critical AOA. Did you apply recovery technique? No. It wasnít necessary because the airplane flew right out before a stall could fully develop.


For an airplane to spin, two elements must be present: a) it must be stalled and, b) a yaw moment must be introduced. It follows, therefore, that if an airplane is not permitted to stall, it canít spin. And if we recognize an incipient stall before it happens, we can prevent it from happening, and we have a whole bunch of cues to make us aware of this situation. This brings us back to the angle of attack. If we are constantly aware of the difference between where weíre going and where weíre pointing, we have a pretty fair grasp of the angle at which the wing is meeting the relative wind.

As far as the second element in the formation of the spin is concerned, the yaw is almost invariably the result of misusing the rudder. On a tight turn from base to final, we have increased the load factor on the wing drastically, thus increasing the speed at which the critical angle of attack will be reached. (There we go again, thinking about speed.) Simultaneously, we are holding a lot of back pressure on the elevator control, and if we have not properly coordinated rudder with the bank, we are inviting a disastrous spin, because we are low and close to the ground, with little or no space for recovery. And this is a situation we must seek to avoid at all costs.

*On a commercial flight test I once had an applicant tell me when asked about the MAC, "That's a great big hamburger!"

Usual Boilerplate

Although I do enjoy getting personal email in response to my columns, I do wish that those readers who have comments to make regarding this column would post them in the comments section following the column so that others might share in their input.