F-14 catapult

Stalls are not a subject I ever expected to be writing about. They have been part of my flying repertoire since I first learned to fly in the 1970s. So why write this article?

After a 25-year hiatus from flying, I returned to making stalls and steep turns part of my regular proficiency regimen. However, the media and pilot conversations kept bringing up the concern that pilots were afraid of stalls and avoided them. Personally I believe this is the wrong approach and that stalls should be embraced in order to learn about the flight handling characteristics of their plane. A couple of experiences really brought the subject of stalls into focus.

An opportunity to fly a Cirrus Vision Jet with All In Aviation in Las Vegas brought stalls to the forefront. The FAM hop in the SF-50 left seat was a delight, with Paul Sallach in the right seat. Takeoff and a short trip out of the Class B was followed by steep turns to get a feel for the plane. To the question of what I wanted to do next there was no hesitation on my part: slow flight and stalls in order to explore the low speed flight envelope. He laughed at my request.

Wondering why he laughed, I sought a little clarification. Paul responded that of the many FAM hops he had flown with prospective customers in the jet, I might have been the only one to ask to do slow flight and stalls! Most pilots were more focused on exploring the colorful flight management system displays. This just blew me away.

In preparing for the 10-hour Airmanship and Aerobatic Course with Patty Wagstaff Aerobatic School a few years ago, I read several articles that stated that pilots rarely exceed a pretty low angle of bank and pitch up attitude after getting their license. Those statement were just too hard to believe. But follow-up conversations with Patty and other experienced professional aviators confirmed this fact.

It is not my intent to profess to be an expert in stalls; there are aviators far more qualified that I am. Many excellent books have been published that address stalls from Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder to Rich Stowell’s Stall/Spin Awareness. In fact, Stowell’s book prominently displays text on the back cover stating “Don’t fear the stall/spin, Master It!” He has recently introduced a new booklet entitled “Learn to Turn, A Stick and Rudder Approach to Reducing Loss of Control,” where he cautions that “Stalls don’t happen to the pilot. They happen because of the pilot.” Another good resource is the FAA Advisory Circular AC 61-67C,on Stall and Spin Awareness Training.

F-14 catapult

Now that’s a critical time for low speed handling.

My first job in aerospace gave me a unique familiarity with the low speed range for airplanes. As a flight test engineer with the US Navy at Patuxent River, Maryland, we conducted minimum end airspeed tests off the aircraft carrier catapults to generate the Aircraft Launching Bulletins (ACLB). Tests with instrumented aircraft were first conducted on shore to determine the minimum airspeeds for the aircraft in many different configurations.

Then we would take those aircraft to the boat (i.e. the carrier) to perform catapult launches at gradually decreasing speeds to determine the minimum end airspeed. Once the minimum controllable speeds were identified, the ACLBs were developed so that they ensured a 15-knot minimum end airspeed margin for when the fleet would launch aircraft. So the speed envelope just above stalls and the stalls are familiar.

Stalled flight occurs when the critical angle of attack is exceeded. But the plane is not going to fall out of the sky, it just isn’t able to maintain altitude. On a coefficient of lift versus angle of attack curve, stalls occur past the peak on this curve, or the point where the increase in the angle of attack results in a decrease in lift. This is the technical stuff but what about stalls in your plane?

I have to admit that during my training for my private pilot certificate many years ago, there was apprehension to demonstrate stalls. However, somewhere along my flying career I decided to learn to love stalls rather than fear them. Once I got over that obstacle, stalls became my friend, not my enemy.

If you haven’t focused much on stalls, slow flight and steep turns, grab an instructor at your next flight review, or just go fly with an instructor to renew those slow flight and stall capabilities that you learned when first getting your license. The benefit of flying with an instructor is that they will be able to identify those actions you are doing correctly and those that may need improvement. Plus it will help alleviate any fear that you may have in doing these maneuvers on your own.

Before flying with an instructor, it is important to agree what type of stalls, slow flight, and steep turns you want to demonstrate during the flight. Are power-on, power-off, and accelerated stalls enough? Or do you also want to investigate cross-controlled, elevator trim, and secondary stalls? Make the most of your flight by setting goals in order to help you become a more experienced pilot after the flight.

Once you have mastered slow flight and stalls again, make them part of your future flight regimen. Your level of proficiency will improve and you will feel even better when you next “slip the surly bonds of earth!”

Pat O'Brien
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22 replies
  1. Bob W.
    Bob W. says:

    “Roger your attitude, Pat!” As a glider-only pilot and (former) aero engineer, “messing with/near/around stalling AoA” has never bothered me, either in fact or as an idea. Thermaling gliders spend LOTS of time in the vicinity of “staliing AoA,” more often than not in atmospheric turbulence. If Joe Pilot insists on driving an airfoil beyond max lift on the lift/AoA curve, “gravity” will likely soon get the upper hand over “lift” and the plane will begin to “fall.” Not a big deal…so long as Joe Pilot doesn’t do this without sufficient ground clearance for recovery should an actual “departure from controlled fight” occur. Never had any difficulty “reading” the cues any plane I was in sent when near “the stalling regime” whether an early-ish V-tailed Bonanza or an SGS 2-32 sailplane (considered by many glider types to be an “abrupt-stalling, enthusiastic spinner”).

  2. David St. George
    David St. George says:

    I agree with the essential nature of stalls, trained to a level of comfort. But still wondering if you got to practice stalls and slow flight in the new Cirrus Jet (and if so, how did it handle?)

    • Pat O'Brien
      Pat O'Brien says:

      Hi David-Yes I did do slow flight and stalls in the SF-50 jet. Found them to both be pretty standard with no surprises. Almost like not being in a jet at all.

  3. J.
    J. says:

    I too have always practiced stalls and slow flight. Since my first lesson in 1965. I still use these lessons to keep the shiny side up when nearing the landing area. Seems that several instructors were not proficient in stalls and slow flight and reluctant to teach. When in Canada to pickup some AC for a fight school the Canada instructors were adamant that all were prioficient in stalls and spins. “Loved the training”. Still practice all the time.

  4. Tim Greene
    Tim Greene says:

    Awesome article! Everyone should regularly venture up to a safe altitude and practice various stalls and spin training with an instructor at least semi annually and on their own with a proficient safety pilot. If it becomes a frequent routine as part of your overall personal training, then the better off you are. Acrobatic training would be icing on the cake towards enhanced proficiency. Again thanks for the article,… and suggested addition book references.

  5. Randall Brooks
    Randall Brooks says:

    Thanks, Pat. It’s hard to believe that of all of the causes of Loss of Control In-flight (LOC-I) accidents, nearly half involve stalls, and LOC-I is the leading cause of fatalities in every sector of aviation, in every part of the world. Part of the problem is that the actual aerodynamic stall (which you described well) is very different from recovery prior to the stall; at the warning. While we always want to recover at the first indication, it doesn’y always work out that way (stall warning failure, innatention, distraction, turbulence). At the full stall the pilot can experience something very different than in approach to stall practice. That’s why the training you’ve described makes so much sense.

  6. John Whitson
    John Whitson says:

    Totally agree Pat. Stalls/Slow flight are at the beginning and end of every flight (crashes excepted) and thus one of the most common flight regimes. I had a routine in every new airplane I flew of going through all possible stalls (approach, departure, clean, dirty, turning and accelerated) taking about 5 to 10 minutes depending on how much altitude was lost and had to be regained. Recall once flying a super cub in slow flight at a couple of mph above stall speed with full flaps while watching the National Aerobatic competition at Ft Worth, TX back in the late 60’s. I stood off a couple of miles from the field and watched the performances for about 15 minutes until having to do a 180 to maintain my viewing position – much more fun than cruising on a cross country.

  7. M Landon
    M Landon says:

    Typical “I’m not afraid of no stalls and if you are, you’re a twink”” discussion by a bunch of manly old geezers. I got my ticket 10 years ago and have had several discussions with instructors about all the time spent on stalling the airplane with little/no discussion on avoiding the stall/spin in the first place. The only take away I’ve had from practicing stalls is how hard it is to stall an airplane on purpose, therefore it must be damn near impossible to do it accidentally. Conditioning new pilots to continue to pull back on the yoke/stick with the stall horn blaring is the ultimate negative training. Student pilots should be taught to recover at first mush or chirp from the stall horn. The vast majority of stall/spins occur in the pattern and even you golden arms aren’t recovering from those. Save all the stall practice for acro training and lets spend more time training GA pilots to avoid them in the first place.

    • R McLean
      R McLean says:

      “therefore it must be damn near impossible to do it accidentally” … hmmm … many, many dead pilots would no doubt disagree. Try a slow, flap down, power on, skidding turn entry some time .. I suggest you try this at altitude. Seriously though, if you don’t at least do some more reading on the subject then you’ll remain dangerously ignorant. I agree that the nose high demonstration in most GA singles is not a good demo – in the right circumstances they will still bite, don’t kid yourself.

  8. Olga Mitchell
    Olga Mitchell says:

    When I got my pilot certificate, the first thing I wanted to do was to do spins. After we did several spins in a Cessna 152 my instructor finally said that’s enough. I subsequently found a great exercise in stall recovery was to delay the recovery from the stall and keep the airplane in a continuous stall and control the attitude with appropriate rudder. This maneuver is called a Fallingleaf and is a great confidence builder.

  9. Ron Blum
    Ron Blum says:

    Pat – You failed to mention that the SF50 has both a stick shaker and a stick pusher that make the “stall” characteristics so nice.
    Most airplanes will stall very well when they are not actually aerodynamically stalled. These systems are also single-point failures (one AOA vane). There happens to be (or was) an AD on the system for the single vane falling off (3 different aircraft). The AD solution was to glue them on better. This does not account for bird strike or hangar rash. Hummmm. Remind you of a Boeing airplane?

    The F-14 also has massive stall protection with several probes and vanes. It’s used during combat, too.

    Although I see nothing wrong with practicing stalls, there is no evidence that this will help when people inadvertently stall in the pattern (mainly on takeoff and go-around). We’ve all practiced stalls, and we’ve all been taught to ignore the warnings. Let’s try something different.

  10. Christopher Fortin
    Christopher Fortin says:

    When I got my private ticket back in ’82 I was fortunate enough to have a WW2 pilot as my instructor. He taught me typical stall recovery techniques and what he called “whoopy” stalls. The whoopy stall was one where you did not try to recover, just control the plane in the yaw and roll axis. The plane would drop nose low, accelerate, start to fly, then stall again. Never had a fear of stalls and still like doing them.

  11. John V
    John V says:

    I swear, I have NEVER understood why some people make so much of a fuss about stalls – much less spins! Both stall and spin training were standard parts of the curriculum when I got my PPL in 1975, and over the years, I must have done a hundred or two stalls while training to keep up my flying proficiency. I don’t think I’ve actually done more than a half dozen or so spins in all that time – but then, if one is perfectly comfortable in the near- and post-stall regimes, one can be pretty sure that an actual spin will never result after letting things get too far out of control.

    BTW, to try to give all “stall-wusses” reading this a sense of perspective about the scariness of stalls, and the fact that this fear is so taken for granted that there are even articles like this one written about the subject, let me give you a short anecdote taken from one line of my pilot’s logbook in late 1975 … I took my then-wife and my then-18-months-old daughter (note that I said 18 MONTHS old!) up for a local flight one fine late-Fall day to (among other things) celebrate the lack of snow (we’re talking about Montreal, you see), and after checking with the wife for “permission”, I proceeded to do a couple of stalls. When I finished doing them and started to continue with the more straight-and-level portion of our flight, my daughter actually *then* started crying – AND CONTINUED CRYING UNTIL I FINALLY “GOT” IT … AND DID AN EXTRA STALL, ESPECIALLY FOR HER!! The waterfall and accompanying noise immediately stopped, and we then had nothing but great big beams of sunshine from the back seat of the 172 until the end of the flight.

    For some reason, that absolutely true story comes to my mind every time I read or hear about even experienced pilots talking about “fear of stalls”.

    Just my $0.02 …

  12. Bruce
    Bruce says:

    Wow. This is so counterintuitive to me that pilots don’t do this regularly. I have and continue to practice stalls slow flight and power off approaches in first in my 172 as a student and as an owner. I felt if i could perform them comfortably I’d be prepared if they happened unexpectedly. In Canada spins are part of the PPL. I have been known to do a few with some brave passengers but mostly alone. When i bought my 182 i did stalls and slow flight as part of my first few flights, and continue to do them. I fly with my kids and one of our games was whoever in the right seat if they saw me not “with it” could pull the throttle (in cruise at a safe altitude) on me and we would then do a engine out drill all the way down to almost landing in a field. If i caught them trying it was not fair so we would just continue along. They are comfortable in the air with me and It gives me the confidence to hopefully handle an emergency. The best drill is an unexpected one for that startle factor.

  13. John
    John says:

    I also took a course with Patty, unusual attitudes.
    Learned some of things taught incorrectly when I fist learned to fly about stalls

    Very important to practice stalls and not fear them

  14. Scott
    Scott says:

    Yup…great article! I go practice stalls and slow flight every six months with an instructor as part of my self imposed semi-annual flight review, along with single engine work in my twin. Haven’t done spins since training five years ago (an absolute gas once you get comfortable with the recovery) and if there wasn’t a big “intentional spins prohibited” placard on the panel, I’d work on those too.


  15. Cal Tax
    Cal Tax says:

    Great article!! It is great training and what any pilot must know is recognition of the stall and how to recover with a minimum of altitude loss. That will save their life someday when they are NOT expecting a stall to happen.
    Many airplanes have different warnings of an approaching stall and it’s just common sense to be familiar with every airplanes particular characteristics, whether it is a 172, F-105 or Cirrus Jet.
    Good training saves lives. It saved mine!


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