In light of the amount of the pre-solo curriculum devoted to teaching students to get around the traffic pattern safely—not to mention all the attention paid throughout initial training to takeoff and landing techniques as well as stall recognition, avoidance, and recovery—it’s a little disheartening to realize that inadvertent stalls in the pattern still cause more than 100 accidents every year. Actually, it’s very disheartening: About a quarter of those accidents are fatal. Over the past 20 years, stalls in the traffic pattern have killed more than 1,400 people and caused serious injuries to at least 800 more. Almost all of these were pilots or passengers, though once in a great while the casualties include an airport worker or someone who just had the bad luck to be somewhere near an airport at the wrong moment.
Superficially, at least, there’s been some improvement. The number of pattern stalls has dropped about 40 percent since the early 1990s, when there were typically around 200 per year. However, almost all of this is due to the general decrease in the number of accidents that’s accompanied the sustained decline in flight activity. In 2010 there were 35 percent fewer fixed-wing accidents of all kinds than there were in 1991, so our collective ability to navigate around the patch hasn’t improved all that dramatically. In fact, by some measures it’s gotten worse: The FAA estimates the number of hours flown by all piston-engine airplanes has fallen more than 45 percent during that same period. So hour for hour, there are more stalls in the traffic pattern than there were 20 years ago.
Since learning to negotiate the pattern is one of the most fundamental steps in a pilot’s education, this has to be seen as a serious failing in the way they’ve been trained, although more in the long term than the short. Only about 20 percent occurred on instructional flights, and three-quarters of those were student solos, where you’d expect a higher risk. Students at least tend to stall it onto the runway from very low altitudes, with the result that their accidents are generally survivable; on average, pattern stalls on student solos cause only a single death per year. Ninety-seven percent of all fatalities were on airplanes flown by someone who had once demonstrated the skill and presence of mind to pass at least a private pilot checkride.
So what happened in the meantime? It’s true that some of the accident pilots were flying machines whose stall behavior was less benign than that of the aircraft in which they’d originally trained, but this doesn’t appear to be a major part of the problem. The top five models involved in pattern stalls were Cessna 172s, 152s, and 150s, fixed-gear Piper Cherokees, and Cessna 182s. (All but the 152 also made the top five in number of fatalities). These airplanes—and many less common models like the Beech Sundowner, Piper Arrow, and Cessna 172RG—are designed to give plenty of warning before the break and recover easily afterward. Putting them into a full stall usually requires conscious effort, and departure stalls especially involve pitch attitudes so exaggerated that it’s hard to imagine not noticing that something doesn’t seem quite right.
In a recent hangar session at AOPA headquarter, one resident expert made a strong case that distraction is almost always involved. There’s support for this in the record: Arrival stalls often involve attempts to slow down for traffic ahead. S-turns and 360s are safe enough at low altitude unless the airplane’s already slow … and the pilot’s paying more attention to maintaining separation from the preceding aircraft than to making sure his own keeps flying. This is a matter of discipline and priorities. The operative question isn’t how slow you can go, but how slow you will. Students—and pilots taking flight reviews—should be taught to set a hard lower limit on airspeed between 1,000 feet agl and the runway threshold. If that won’t work where you are, it’s time to go someplace else. Avoiding collisions requires maintaining control of your own aircraft. Departure stalls, on the other hand, often involve a panic reaction. The airplane isn’t climbing fast enough, so grab the yoke with both hands and haul it up!
In the end, though, the chief culprit may be the way too many instructors teach stalls in the first place. Treating them in isolation, as one more maneuver to be flown to PTS in order to pass the checkride, strips them of their relevance and educational value. What might save an airplane and a few lives months or years from now is recognition of the view out the windshield and the way the aircraft feels when it starts to become unhappy, the slop in the flight controls as they lose their effectiveness while airspeed decays and the angle of attack increases. To recognize it in context, especially while watching traffic or struggling to get back to the runway after overshooting final, it’s best to have seen it in context. Having your instructors do all their stall training in a “traffic pattern” three or four thousand feet above the ground—power-on after take-off, cross-controlled from base to final, and power-off a couple of hundred feet above that hard deck—is not unreasonable. The runway leg of this simulated touch-and-go can provide some extra practice in slow flight.