Stalls Aren’t a Maneuver, They’re an Emergency

Here’s why pilot training needs to change.

pilot stalls
Many takeoff stalls have more to do with performance planning or weight-and-balance mistakes than poor stick-and-rudder skills.Derek Eckenroth

Year after year, the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA nag pilots about accidents caused by “loss of control – in flight,” which usually means a stall. The topic is well covered in training too. Dozens of questions on the subject appear on the knowledge test, and stalls are performed on the practical test and are part of any decent flight review. And yet while accidents caused by weather and controlled flight into terrain are declining, stalls remain one of the leading causes of fatal accidents in general aviation. Clearly, something is not working.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute tried to remove the emotion from this subject last year by diving more deeply into the data about stall accidents. The result is a well-researched study that reaches some sensible conclusions. Most important, it is a reminder that there are no miracle cures for aviation safety.

The study should serve as a polite but firm rebuttal to two common arguments in aviation: that safety problems can be solved by adding new avionics or by going back to “the way it used to be.” Technology optimists, including the FAA, have suggested that angle-of-attack indicators are the solution, and some regulations have been adjusted to make them easier to install. On the other hand, the stick-and-rudder crowd loudly proclaims that a return to spin training (which hasn’t been required for private pilots in more than 60 years) would help.

While neither idea is necessarily bad, AOPA’s report doesn’t turn up much evidence that technology or spin training will reduce stall accidents. A pilot has to be looking at an AOA gauge for it to help, and in any case, few airplane owners are shelling out the money to install them. As far as spin or upset training, most fatal stall accidents happen below 500 feet, where no amount of training will lead to a successful outcome.

Part of the problem is that “stall” doesn’t describe the problem very well. Many takeoff stalls have more to do with performance planning or weight-and-balance mistakes than poor stick-and-rudder skills. If you’re taking off over gross on a 95-degree day from a 2,000-foot strip, the ensuing stall is really just the final blow, not some random failure of airmanship. Likewise, a significant proportion of stalls in homebuilt airplanes are caused either by design issues (such as poor lateral stability) or basic proficiency issues (the pilot hasn’t flown in months or years as the airplane was being built). A spin training session 10 years ago won’t help in either case.

Clearly, our current one-size-fits-all approach to stall training, one that is focused on rigid procedures and specific performance standards, is not doing a good job of preparing pilots for life outside the practice area. Far better to teach stalls the way many CFIs are now teaching weather flying — by building it into realistic scenarios. If a successful cross-country flight begins with a proper weather briefing, then a safe (and stall-free) takeoff begins with a good preflight plan. But how often do flight instructors talk about stalls in the context of runway performance?

Typically during training, stalls are a box to check since they are maneuvers required for check rides. At 3,500 feet, with the wings level and the airspeed decreasing by 1 knot per second, a stall can seem like a normal, predictable event. The accident reports suggest this is terribly misleading. A surprising number of fatal stall accidents happen on takeoff or go-around — not the dreaded base-to-final turn — and are often accompanied by a sharp pull-up or a steep turn.

Realistic stall training should include these same elements, including increasing angle of bank and perhaps even introducing some distraction. For departure stalls, the airplane should be slowed as much as practical to simulate a real takeoff and then perhaps be pulled back swiftly as if to make it over a looming obstacle. Autopilot usage is another key area to train on: Stalls can easily happen during climb with the auto­pilot engaged, or after leveling off from a descent without adding power. The surprise of hearing the auto­pilot kick off at a high angle of attack is usually the start of a bad scenario.

Another bad training habit that needs to die is the “pull it on back and get it good and stalled” maneuver. Instructors who teach this might be doing more harm than good because the key lesson for pilots to learn is not what a deep stall feels like — it’s how to immediately react to signs of stall by unloading the wing. A somewhat analogous procedure in helicopters involves low rotor rotations per minute, which can lead to rotor-blade stall. Instead of investigating the edges of the low rotor rpm envelope, helicopter pilots are taught to immediately lower the collective and increase engine power when they hear the warning horn. It has to become an instinct.

The same idea works for fixed-wing pilots. If you hear the stall horn, you need to push as an automatic reaction. Only then can you take time to consider what the underlying issue is. Right now, some pilots might hear the horn and think they need to “pull it on back” because that’s what they do on a flight lesson.

More than anything, stall training can’t be done in isolation. Preventing loss of control is so fundamental that it involves all parts of safe flying, requiring both the maintenance of good habits and the application of thoughtful safety margins. Repetitive maneuvers are only a small part of the solution. Aircraft mastery is the ultimate goal — being able to fly a precise airspeed at all times, using the automation if needed, and keeping the airplane going exactly where you want it.

Both the FARs and personal minimums dictate hard limits to prevent fuel issues (my own is to always land with one hour of fuel in the tanks). The same can be done for stalls: Avoid low passes, avoid banks over 30 degrees in the pattern, do an honest weight-and-balance calculation, build in margins for takeoff performance, and fly Vref +10 and -0 on final. If you follow those reasonable rules, an inadvertent stall is exceedingly unlikely in most airplanes.

Stalls aren’t a maneuver at which to become proficient; they are a mistake to avoid, like flying VFR into IMC or running out of fuel (you’ll notice we don’t practice that during primary training). Better to learn how to recognize impending doom and avoid it than to be able to minimize altitude loss or maintain heading within 5 degrees after it happens.