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Training Tip: Distractions and stallsTraining Tip: Distractions and stalls

A student pilot is flying the traffic pattern at the destination airport on a solo cross-country. Putting aside his chart and flight log, he reaches back for the checklist, which he had tossed on the rear seat when the control tower at the departure airport cleared him for immediate takeoff ahead of arriving traffic.

Getting distracted in the airplane could put you in a dangerous nose-high attitude that could lead to a stall.

Turbulence and a bad habit of using the rear seat as a disposal site for any gear not immediately needed have made the checklist hard to locate—something his instructor has been carping at him about.

Now another questionable habit is about to complicate matters: As the student spots the checklist at the far end of the second row, he continues clutching the yoke while lunging for the list—putting the airplane in a banked, nose-up attitude and eliciting a yelp from the stall horn.

Not the imagined piece-of-cake arrival at the destination, perhaps, but the scenario depicted is one of many by which a pilot can fall prey to a serious distraction.

During training and while practicing for a checkride, you learn to maintain situational awareness and aircraft control—but not just to impress the designated pilot examiner who will administer your flight test (and create realistic distractions at some point).

“Stalls resulting from improper airspeed management are most likely to occur when the pilot is distracted by one or more other tasks, such as locating a checklist or attempting a restart after an engine failure; flying a traffic pattern on a windy day; reading a chart or making fuel and/or distance calculations; or attempting to retrieve items from the floor, back seat, or glove compartment,” notes an FAA advisory circular that addresses stall and spin awareness training, cautioning pilots “at all skill levels” to recognize the increased risk of an inadvertent stall while performing tasks “secondary to controlling the aircraft.”

Absent clear accident causes, distraction is often suspected of playing a role, as investigators noted when a student pilot taking off on a cross-country lost control of a single-engine Piper PA-28, which was later found to have fouled spark plugs. Whether they played a role in the mishap was not determined, but “it is possible that the engine's performance was degraded during the takeoff, which would likely have been a source of distraction for the student pilot and may have contributed to the loss of control,” the accident report said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Training, Student, Loss of Control
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