Fear of Falling

I’d like you to think back a minute. The last time you practiced stalls, either with a flight instructor or on your own perhaps, how did you go about it? Did you do a clearing turn, first to the left, then to the right, enriching the mixture, and then if you were planning to do power-off (or “approach to landing”) stalls, perhaps you reduced power along the way and added carburetor heat (if you had a fuel injected engine), slowed to VFE and extended flaps (assuming you had them), and then increased pitch attitude and simultaneously decreased power while maintaining a constant altitude, until things got mushy. . . and then. . . you felt that sinking feeling?

By the way I mentioned a clearing turn to the left, first; I had a reason. If someone was about to pass you from behind (where many mid-air collisions occur incidentally), on which side do you suppose they would most likely do so? They would pass to your right, of course. But if you made a clearing turn towards the right first, especially in a high-winged airplane, you just conceivably might not see them. (Oh…)

But let’s get back to those stalls. If you had been practicing power-on stalls, also known as takeoff and departure stalls, did you do the clearing turns, enriching the mixture, perhaps adding carburetor heat, reducing power to somewhat below what you would use in the traffic pattern and slowing the aircraft to somewhere inside the white arc on the airspeed indicator, and then pull back until you were in a steep climb attitude, keeping the wings level, until…until…

Now you may have learned somewhat of a different sequence than that; it doesn’t matter right now. That isn’t what I’m getting at, here. In my opinion, some of these performance maneuver related “hoops” (though which trained pilots must jump) don’t provide the best path towards becoming a better pilot, but that is the subject of another article, and that isn’t where I’m going with this. My issue is that, in a way, this particular type of stall maneuver approach might actually increase your chances of having an accident.

Actually, as a student pilot, flying solo and practicing power on stalls in a Cessna 150 at about five or six thousand feet in the practice area to the north of my home airport in suburban Maryland, I had my very first (and very inadvertent) introduction to: the spin. (Was I scared? Well, I think it was more like hair-standing-on-end, blood simple, dumbstruck terror, but time does have a way of inflating the intensity of things.) By the way, in case you might think that stalls happen to novice pilots flying alone and getting in over their head, think again. Over half (by some estimates as many as 90%) of stall-spin accidents happen during dual instruction. (Read that again.) In a way, I was actually the potential exception to the statistic that says that as a student pilot, you’re actually among the least likely (only about 4%) to succumb to a stall/spin accident. The next least likely (perhaps 10%) are ATP-rated pilots. Most victims are what most pilots are: private (46%) and commercial (40%).

Why do I say that stall practice might make an accident more likely? The one thing that most methods of teaching stalls have in common is the apparent requirement to put the airplane into a nose-high attitude. What this does, subconsciously as well as (of course) overtly, is that it gives fledgling pilots the impression that an airplane will stall only if you try to stand it on its tail. That is wrong! In addition, most of the time, stalls are practiced at fairly low airspeeds. Yes, we learn that stall speed increases in a turn, during pull-ups, or in turbulent conditions. Yes, we are taught that the stall speeds at the bottom of the green and white arcs are only at one g. And we are told that stalls occur when you exceed the critical angle of attack. But stall speed increases in proportion to the square root of the reciprocal of the cosine of the angle of bank (or in shorthand, the square root of the load factor).

Of course, later on in training, all of us are told that stalls can occur in any attitude, at any airspeed, and at any power setting (and among the finer points, any of these will all be at some angle of attack, and that angle of attack won’t vary much at all). However, and this is crucial, it is introduced as only a theoretical concept. There’s no visceral gut feeling, no muscle memory, and no “I was there” experience to back it up. Big mistake!

Perhaps you took an aerobatic lesson or two (or maybe more). Whether you have, or not, you might have heard what happens when you put the airplane in a dive (from a safe altitude; 5000 feet would be nice) and then suddenly pulled up. This is a textbook accelerated stall: high airspeed, nose low attitude, and then, wham-o. (I hasten to add the requisite disclaimer that you should not try this at home. If I were you, I wouldn’t feel comfortable diving even an aerobatic airplane, then yanking mightily back at 160 knots to see if suddenly adding an extra 20 degrees worth of angle of attack really does stall the wings—not unless a Rich Stowell or a Bill Kershner was sitting with me, we were up a few thousand feet, and it was his airplane.)

Part of the problem is that most of the time—actually for most of us, it’s all the time—we have no idea what our angle of attack happens to be at any given time. Many an aviation author has made the case (far better than I could) that a mandated angle of attack indicator would be a heck of a lot more useful than a stall horn. About 20 years ago, an FAA inspector named Jerry Brown (not the mayoral Jerry Brown) suggested an ingenious presentation for this information: an airspeed indicator with two needles: one showing a plain vanilla airspeed, and the other one indicating stall speed at every instant in time, courtesy of a microprocessor which would do the work of integrating inputs from various sensors for all related parameters including the configuration of the airplane itself. (This would include flaps, gear, elevator position, even gross weight and CG, etc.)

The scary part about stall practice is of course that stalls lead to spins. You don’t need any dramatic reminders of how dramatic things can get during a spin; suffice it to say that you could be corkscrewing down at a descent rate of up to 8,000 feet per minute. Most of the time when a pilot “does the deed”, as Richard Collins would say (it’s somewhere around 80% of the time), things go bad when the airplane is at or below traffic pattern altitude. Most of the time, the aircraft is single-engine, fixed gear. Most of the time, it happens either during takeoff (although the fateful base-to-final turn earns dire warnings as well) or during maneuvering flight. Most of the time, the outcome is not good.

Okay, now to fend off the tomatoes and rotten eggs. No, I’m not saying that we should do away with stall practice. We still need to understand the region of reversed command, slow flight characteristics, etc., and you certainly can’t land an airplane well and within a reasonably short length of runway without knowing what a stall is, and how to do one. And without going into the ring known as the “to do spin training, or not to do spin training” arena, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t explore and exploit the potential value of the rudder for maintaining control under a variety of circumstances. All I’m saying here, folks, is that we must be mindful of the fact that just as sure as God makes house calls, stalls can occur in real life under a much wider variety of circumstances than what we might encounter in practice.