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Stalling around

Don’t put off mastery of this essential skill

I suspect I’ve had a few students who’ve never performed a full, breaking stall by themselves.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

During our debrief—after they returned from a solo flight in the practice area, they would evade answering “How’d the stalls come out?” Observation confirmed my suspicion: I could tell they had avoided solo stalls when we reviewed the stall series during dual checks; they hadn’t improved from the last time we did them.

These students (typically male, because male students often refuse to talk about their hangups) would clutch the yoke in an iron grip, bend the nose skyward, and wait for the stall warning horn to bleat, at which point they would release the wheel to let the airplane fall over the top into an airspeed-recovering dive. “Nice entry,” I would say, “but you didn’t stall the airplane.” “Well, I thought I did,” the student would reply, quite sincerely.

And that is the crux of the problem: Reluctant students never learn what a true stall feels like, because they avoid doing anything that might challenge their control of the aircraft. To regain control over an airplane that’s ceased flying requires employing positive, forceful stick and rudder skills, of a type not seen in routine flying. The outcome can be scary, even when done right, because we’re deliberately going past the edge of controlled flight into a brief look at an airplane that has, even if momentarily, “departed.”

Solo stall practice is not meant to be a form of punishment, inflicted upon shy and retiring individuals to “shape them up.” Stalls are in the curriculum to make sure the airplane won't spring any surprises on student pilots when they are out there on their own. Confidence in one’s ability must be built upon a solid foundation of understanding. Because practically all airplanes can be stalled, intentionally or accidentally, we need to know how they will react, what actions are needed to recover, and how to prevent a stall from occurring. Even though we expect to avoid them in routine flying, stalls are a necessary part of training—solo as well as dual.

They’re basically simple

Every stall occurs for the same reason: The wing’s angle of attack is allowed to become too high, which disrupts airflow across the wing, thereby reducing lift. Executing an intentional stall merely induces a purposeful “loss of control,” from which an immediate return to normal flight must be performed. The airplane’s behavior during stalled flight, however, is not always predictable, largely depending on how skillfully the pilot handles the controls leading up to the stall. Students don’t like surprises—and they can get surprised a lot when practicing stalls, which is the reason we do them up high, where there’s plenty of room to sort things out. Well designed, properly loaded airplanes will recover from a stall practically on their own, so the risk is minimal, but we still adhere to the “hard deck” minimum of 1,500 feet above the ground stipulated in the airman certification standards.

Often, students being introduced to carefully choreographed practice stalls ask, “Why would anyone stall an airplane when making it happen is so obvious and intentional?” I reply that accidental stalls happen because of distraction and inattention, perhaps if unexpected traffic pops into the traffic pattern, or a passenger is experiencing distress, or an otherwise minor issue with the aircraft needs to be dealt with. The yearly toll of loss-of-control accidents is reason enough to prepare for stall recovery in all flight conditions. “We’re doing stall practice so you’ll never be surprised and unprepared for anything the airplane can do,” I add, stressing that the ability to promptly recover from an imminent or inadvertent full stall if it is encountered at low altitude is critical.

Practicing stalls

For the reluctant stallee, we’ll review with the simplest power-off stall, which removes the yawing moment of P-factor yet illustrates the results of excessive angle of attack. I demonstrate the stall by reducing power to idle, raising the nose to a climb attitude, and holding it there while waiting for the angle of attack to become critical, usually shown by a steadily deteriorating airspeed indication. This requires incremental increases in back-pressure on the stick, keeping the nose attitude and rate of deceleration constant. At some point, a rumble goes through the airframe and the nose pitches downward—the “break” we’ve been looking for that denotes the stall. Normal procedure, of course, is to apply throttle while the stick is moved forward, returning instantly to straight and level flight with only minor loss of altitude. Advancing the throttle is done not to “power out” of the stall, but to minimize altitude lost during the recovery.

To clarify the point, I will first recover from the demonstration without adding power, settling into a glide with the stall horn silent. We are flying again, I point out, under full control, albeit without power. Clearly, it’s not the throttle that causes the recovery, but moving the stick forward. Following up with another stall entry, the nose is steadily raised to prevent the descent, which means that the angle of attack, only roughly visualized by the wingtip’s relationship to the horizon, is about to become critical. Sure enough, the horn honks a warning, the airframe buffets, and the nose breaks downward. I stress the importance of a forceful recovery: a sharp shove on the stick that silences the stall horn immediately, simultaneously adding full throttle to minimize altitude loss.

What are the common mistakes observed during stall practice? Over-reliance on instrument indications, instead of looking outside, often leads to extreme nose-high attitudes during the entry, especially if the student is trying to get the stall over with as quickly as possible. Also, the nose may be allowed to wander off heading while the focus is on the declining airspeed numbers or, in the case of turning stalls, bank angle is allowed to steepen or shallow as the stick is pulled back. Failure to clear the airspace before beginning the stall maneuver is all too common; when the student’s head remains stationary, I will block the stick with my hand until they have checked for traffic.

During recovery, students frequently mistake a lowered nose attitude for having escaped from the stall, even though the stall warning is still sounding and airspeed remains on the low end of the scale. They are trying to minimize altitude loss at the expense of failing to promptly recover. This error may crop up after having over-reacted in a previous stall recovery with a panicky negative-G dive. Neither extreme is acceptable; a timely lowering of angle of attack, sufficient to escape from the stall and return to normal straight-and-level flight, will achieve the goal of minimizing altitude loss in recovery. The other common mistake is yanking the stick back to arrest the sensation of falling right after the stall’s break; visceral cues notwithstanding, the airplane must be given time to accelerate out of the stall regime, lest it inadvertently be returned to a stalled condition.

All these common stall-practice faults result from trying to perform the maneuver in a mechanical manner, rather than by flying the airplane into and out of the stall. The goal is to remain the master of the aircraft throughout the approach and during an intentional loss of control, ensuring a well-flown recovery to controlled flight.

Once the student understands the ease of basic stall recovery, fear goes away. Then we can add the complexity of a power-on stall’s yawing motion, the confusion of a turning stall, and the wrestling match of recovery from a stall encountered with landing trim and flaps down. All are choreographed differently, but they’re all the same underneath. So, there’s no need to stall your stall practice.

Topics: Technique, Training and Safety

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