A recent quick review found that nearly 800 fixed-wing accidents in the past 10 years arose from unintended stalls. Almost 350 (44 percent) were fatal, more than double the overall rate for light airplane accidents. This lethality isn’t surprising given that most of those stalls were entered at low altitudes by pilots who weren’t expecting them, and neither the circumstances nor the behavior of the aircraft bore much resemblance to the maneuvers traditionally used to teach stall recognition and recovery. Take, for example, the excessively hard pull-up from high-speed level flight: if a stall results, the break is liable to be much sharper and come with far less warning than in the typical checkride-standard demonstration of a departure stall. If the pull-up comes at the end of a low-altitude pass, the ground is apt to intervene before the pilot has any chance to recover.
Likewise, the Private Pilot Practical Test Standards permit but do not require examiners to test applicants on turning stalls. We don’t know how widely they actually do so, but it’s entirely possible to exercise private pilot privileges for years without ever having seen a turning stall, much less performed one. Encountering it for the first time at low altitude—say, in the traffic pattern—can trigger panic that makes the impulse to pull the nose up almost uncontrollable, and of course that aggravates the stall. If the pilot recovers at all, the resulting loss of altitude may be several times greater than in deliberate practice at altitude even if the airplane remains coordinated. And in turning stalls in the pattern coordination is far more the exception than the rule. More typical (and more disastrous) are attempts to correct overshoots with skidding turns, kicking the nose around with the rudder to avoid what seems like an excessively steep bank close to the ground. The yaw induces a roll to the inside, the pilot tries to counter it with opposite aileron, and now the inside wing is at a higher angle of attack. A little increase in back pressure (perhaps in response to a lower-than-intended approach path) is all that's needed to stall that inside wing, and then it's game over. Even with perfect technique, most light airplanes need about 1,000 feet to recover after entering a spin.
All of those situations have a couple of factors in common. The stalls occur at airspeeds higher than the published “stall speeds” that apply to wings-level, coordinated flight, and they&rsquuo;re typically initiated by needlessly abrupt control inputs. While that’s clearest in the case of the high-speed pull-up, it’s also true that turning stalls—coordinated or not—are more likely to be precipitated suddenly than by a smooth change in control pressures. Whatever indications of an impending stall a particular airframe might give, its pilot has a better chance of noticing and reacting to them if the critical angle of attack is approached gradually.
In the pattern on a gusty day (or worse, a gusty night), gentle control pressures might seem like a dispensable luxury. Experienced pilots may take justifiable pride in their ability to muscle the airplane onto the runway against a crosswind, but most of them got there incrementally. Newer pilots, not to mention their passengers, will be happier and enjoy flying longer if they learn to recognize conditions in which sharp inputs are necessary to control the aircraft, train for those systematically, and avoid abrupt maneuvers except when required.
Nonpilot passengers often grade the flight based on the softness or firmness of touchdown. Other aviators may be more impressed by the pilot’s smoothness on the controls, especially if it also pays off in precision—tracking intended heading and altitude exactly. Being right on airspeed and altitude greatly improves the chance of that pillow-soft landing, not to mention of nailing the touchdown spot, and timely anticipation of wind drift helps avoid any temptation to skid by preventing the overshoot in the first place. Unless the weather’s howling, all that can be accomplished with less muscle than brain—the combination of sharp awareness and a soft touch.