Whether during initial training, flight reviews, or pursuing commercial or airline transport pilot certificates, fixed-wing flight instruction devotes considerable time to teaching stall prevention, recognition, and recovery. This makes it a bit disheartening that inadvertent stalls continue to cause substantial numbers of accidents every year, and still more so that they tend to be severe, among those most likely to cause death or serious injury. More discouraging still is that flight training itself is by no means free of stall accidents, although they almost never happen while deliberately practicing stalls.
Between 2002 and 2011, unexpected stalls caused at least 307 accidents on instructional flights (not counting any during solo maneuver practice by certificated pilots, which are difficult to identify in the NTSB’s records). Fifty-five of them (18 percent) were fatal—more than twice the share of training accidents not involving stalls. Inadvertent stalls led to one-sixth of all accidents reported during fixed-wing training and nearly 30 percent of fatal accidents.
Of course, there are stalls and then there are stalls. More than two-thirds (207) happened during student solos, and nearly 90 percent of those (181) were the result of flaring too high while trying to land. None of them killed anyone. During dual instruction, on the other hand, the largest share occurred while performing maneuvers not involving intentional stalls. More than half were fatal, as were five of the seven maneuvering stalls on student solos. More than two-thirds of all fatal stall accidents took place during low-altitude maneuvering.
What kind of maneuvering? In the case of students operating free of adult supervision, the principal answer seems to be “unauthorized.” Four of seven were the consequence of low-altitude buzz jobs; another was the result of excessively steep turns at low altitude, while two remain unexplained. One occurred while practicing for the checkride and the other while en route to it on a short flight to meet the designated pilot examiner.
In dual instruction, on the other hand, the maneuvers that most often led to trouble were emergency drills, primarily simulated engine failures. These led to more than half of all maneuvering stalls—14 of 25 during primary training, 17 of 33 in advanced—and together accounted for 14 of the 32 that were fatal. The other fatal stalls during primary training all happened during takeoff attempts, two on student solos and six in dual lessons, while seven of the remaining 10 during advanced instruction occurred during pattern entries or descents to pattern altitude. (Only one of those was during an instrument approach; the rest were VFR.) And while they weren’t as prevalent as on student solos, dual lessons were hardly immune to landing stalls, either; almost half the nonfatal accidents (49 of 107) resulted from dropping airplanes onto runways.
So what can be done? Well, a good first step is to follow the advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic!” During the same decade in which there were 207 stall accidents on student solos, the FAA estimates that slightly more than 207,000 people earned private pilot certificates in the airplane category. So 99.9 percent of those students got through all their solo flights without a stall from which they couldn’t recover. That may be as well as we can reasonably expect to do, although you might still want to encourage your instructors to make extra sure their students have really learned to time the flare and not just enjoyed a lucky streak.
The number and severity of these accidents during dual instruction are more disturbing, since we expect CFIs to keep themselves, the aircraft they fly, and the pilots they’re teaching all out of trouble. The fact that stalls can still surprise two certificated pilots suggests that the contrived set-up in which they’re practiced isn’t the best model of the situations where stalls are truly a threat, while the frequency of fatal crashes during simulated emergency practice reinforces two points that are made over and over without quite penetrating as far as they should. Simulated emergencies shouldn’t be undertaken casually. They need to be carefully planned and even more carefully monitored to make absolutely sure things don’t get out of hand. By the time a pretend emergency becomes real, there’s usually little time to react, and in simulated engine failures, airspeed and altitude are quickly exhausted as well. And the FAA’s long-standing focus on the dangers posed by distraction isn’t just something to remember for the checkride. When an airplane gets away from two pilots at once, there’s a good chance at least one wasn’t paying attention. However simple or demanding the technique being practiced, success depends on attending to the airplane first, and that means airspeed, attitude, and coordination.