Flying Angle of Attack

Flying with the technology will improve safety.

The FAA’s recent announcement that it is going to make the installation of angle-of-attack indicators in light general aviation airplanes as easy as possible is an incredible development. Why would the FAA reduce the certification barriers of a flight-critical instrumentation system? The answer is simple: AOA indicators are long overdue in general aviation airplanes, and flying with the technology will improve safety.

There’s an old saying among pilots that “airspeed equals life.” In other words, keep your speed up, and you’ll avoid stalling the wing during critical phases of flight, such as the base-to-final turn. But that’s a misnomer since the stalling airspeed of a wing will change based on aircraft weight and load factor. Also, how do you know that your airspeed indicator is properly calibrated? When was the last time it was checked? Chances are the only check that was ever made was right after the airplane left the factory.

An angle-of-attack indication system, on the other hand, provides an instantaneous readout of stalling margin regardless of how heavily loaded you are, what spot of bank you’ve got dialed in or what the wind is doing. In this way, we should change the old maxim to “angle of attack equals life.”

For those of us who fly without an AOA indicator, at least for now, the key is to unload the wing, which is easy enough to do in the pattern. Hint: point the nose down. You lose a little altitude in the process, but greatly reduce AOA, even if there isn’t a gauge there to tell you as much. If there’s no altitude to lose and sense you’ll need to pull some Gs to make that turn, keep it wide, overfly the airport and live to get it right on the next circuit.

Thanks to the FAA’s recent move to streamline AOA installations, adding an indicator to your airplane will be an inexpensive and easy proposition. The question is, should you? If you’re unsure, have a look at this video produced by Icon Aircraft (the first light plane manufacturer to include an AOA indicator as a standard instrument) and decide for yourself.

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