It’s always a bad thing when we lose it—whatever “it” may be. In flying, loss of control (LOC) might lead to the ultimate calamity—the loss of life. The NTSB put LOC on its top-10 list for 2015. On average, there are two fatal LOC accidents per week. That covers everything from stalling to VFR into IMC. Let’s leave weather out of this and just quit stalling around. “Boring,” you say—it’s so basic. Any fool knows what a stall is and how to avoid it, right? Not so fast.
Only about two percent of stall-related accidents occurred on training flights. The accepted procedure is to climb to a safe altitude, clear the area, and gently ease up to the edge of the flight envelope. Everybody is waiting, watching, and ready to recover either at the first indication or right after the break. What’s missing is the surprise and distraction that makes real-world stalls so pervasive and potentially deadly.
The granddaddy of all stall accidents was Air France 447, an Airbus A330 that plunged more than 30,000 feet into the South Atlantic Ocean after the pitot tubes froze up. The flight data computer went haywire and the automatic envelope protection ceased to function. The bewildered crew was unable to sort things out.
Colgan 3407, a Bombardier Q400 on autopilot, leveled at the final approach fix altitude near Buffalo, New York. At reduced power the autopilot, in altitude hold mode, performed as programmed and gradually commanded the aircraft into an approach to a stall. The surprised crew finished the job.
Finally, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 flying into San Francisco on autopilot fell short of the runway. The crew may have misprogrammed the autothrottles and apparently failed to recognize the stall as the aircraft slowed.
The stall epidemic in the airlines is a relatively new phenomenon, but it’s old news in GA. Over the past decade more than 70 percent of stall-related accidents occurred in the traffic pattern. The aircraft is closer to the edge of the flight envelope and very close to the ground. It’s a high-workload environment coupled with multiple distractions. Here are two popular scenarios:
Base-to-final turn—Two situations should have you on the edge of the seat and spring-loaded to roll wings level, add massive amounts of power smoothly, and go around: 1) A tailwind on base leg—or just a sloppy turn—may lead to an overshoot and a strong desire to wrack it around to get back to the extended runway centerline. We know the drill but rather than thinking about stalling, we’re more focused on alignment and bank angle. Bank angle is important but it’s angle of attack that bites. 2) A slower aircraft is ahead and he’s really pokey. He missed the first turnoff and now he’s blocking your runway! Maybe if you slow down and increase the S-turn this will work. Really? The other pilot’s speed or position is irrelevant when it impacts your minimum control speed. Ultimately, the physics won’t work regardless of the miscreant’s airmanship and ancestry. Fly the pattern and final approach on your terms, not the other guy’s.
On takeoff, the aircraft is close to a stall. During the initial climb, nail the appropriate airspeed for weight and wind conditions to get as high as possible as quickly as possible. Anticipate a massive power failure at the worst possible time and you’ll be at least somewhat prepared. Engines almost always do what we ask, but don’t take that for granted. It’s the next takeoff that’s important; not the past several 100 when everything worked. Use all the runway—the pavement behind the aircraft is worthless in the event of a takeoff emergency.
The improbable turn—a turn back toward the departure runway is unlikely to be successful in a single- engine aircraft. It’s a reaction that needs to be carefully planned and practiced. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that practicing the improbable turn during takeoff may be more deadly than actual engine failure events, so choose your training environment and instructor very carefully. In all cases, on takeoff, if an engine quits—whether continuing mostly straight or returning—the first action is to lower the nose about 10 to 15 degrees, quickly.
The angle is the thing, not speed or attitude. When in doubt unload the wing. Wings choke from lack of air and they need to breathe, just like us. The aircraft has to be to pointed close to where it is actually going, not where you may think it’s going. Stalls will largely disappear if pilots can get this visualization straight. AOA indicators will help—try one!
I’ve only addressed a few LOC items here but the topic will be discussed at EAA AirVenture, at several of the AOPA Fly-In events, and during the Air Safety Institute fall seminar series. There also are several online programs offered by ASI. It’s so basic, not really intuitive, and very important.
Bruce Landsberg is the former president of the AOPA Foundation and now serves as an advisor to the Air Safety Institute.