First week of November 1998


"Daddy, do I have to practice stalls?"




"Because why?"

"Just...well just because... Because I had to practice them..."

For a moment I closed my eyes and wondered if this conversation was really real, or whether it was just a passage that was excerpted from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I thought of birds, and couldn't imagine them being fearful, or even particularly mindful, of stalls. I couldn't imagine birds having people- type nightmares of f-a-l-l-i-n-g endlessly thorough space, and wondered if they didn't instead have nightmares of not being able to fly. ...Running, running endlessly through tall grass and brambles, the patient yellow eyes of a cat stalking just behind...

Well, the conversation was real, although I have taken some liberties in paraphrasing it. It took place across the front seats of an airplane, between me and a pilot who needed a two- year checkout. I have had conversations like this before, but this was the second person in the same week. Maybe it has come time to reassess what I do with stalls and students.

To first clarify a point, stalling an airplane has nothing to do with the engine. It is not the engine that stalls, it is the wings. Wings stall because the pilot tries to make them lift too much with too little airflow, and like an overworked pack mule, they abruptly stop doing anything at all. We do stalls in practice so that we can avoid them in real life.

The problem is that nobody ever accidentally stalls an airplane on purpose, and the idea of doing stalls to avoid stalls sounds just as silly. When a pilot accidentally stalls an airplane, it is invariably at a low altitude, and invariably there are so many other things going wrong that the stall is just the last and final detail of a chain of events. The pilot is so overburdened and confused with the details of things going wrong that the warnings of the approaching stall are deferred.

The stall then, is a symptom of poor planning, poor decision making, poor low speed control of the airplane, and ultimately, poor training. Stall training therefore, should not focus on the stall but upon control. Control of the pilot workload and the pilot's control of the airplane at speeds near a stall are the keys to stall avoidance.

As I said at the opening, I need to change the way that I go about stall training. First of all, I will remember that many people have a genuine physical fear of the feeling of falling during the stall recovery. I won't dismiss this as foolishness. There are a number of techniques and habit patterns that enhance stall awareness which I plan to emphasize, and none of these maneuvers involve stalling the plane, or even saying the word "stall".

The best thing that an instructor can do is to leave each student comfortable and at ease with the airplane and all its moods. A pilot who avoids all forms of slow speed flight simply because of the chance of a stall will not continue to learn about how airplanes fly, and will never fly effectively.

Stalls are one of aviation's growly dogs, and there are only so many growly dogs that we can afford to detour around in one lifetime. This is one dog that is worth meeting, understanding, and patting on the head. We don't need to like it, or even trust it, we just need to work with it.

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