Stalls and spins

When not to trust your instincts

Before whirling views of the ground filled the Mooney M20’s windscreen, I had asked my commercial candidate, Hal, to demonstrate a power-off stall.
Illustration by Neil Webb
Illustration by Neil Webb

The commercial pilot airman certification standards allow the heading to change at most 10 degrees in either direction, but Hal was having trouble maintaining that tolerance. Then the left wing dipped sharply, and he instinctively applied right aileron, but it only exacerbated the left roll. Before I could finish, “I have the flight controls!” the aircraft was spinning toward the ground.

I reached over to confirm that the throttle was at idle and found that he had applied full throttle as we entered the spin. I retarded the throttle, neutralized the ailerons, stepped on the right rudder pedal, and applied enough forward pressure on the yoke to make the gyrations stop. I figured it was pretty obvious, but I explained anyway that his performance had not met ACS standards as I maneuvered us back to the airport. Hal sat in stunned silence for the rest of the flight. It’s no secret that we designated examiners are compensated handsomely for our services, but that day, I confess, I wondered whether it’s all worth it.

Deficiencies in stalls aren’t limited to the flight portion of the exam. When I ask how one recovers from a stall during ground sessions, I often hear, “Add full power and pitch to the horizon.” Got it. Well, what happens if you find the airplane in a stalled condition, but the nose is already below the horizon? With alarming regularity, the candidate pauses and responds, “Full power and pull back on the stick to bring the nose up to the horizon.” I’ve even had CFI candidates explain that the airplane wings cannot be stalled with the nose below the horizon. These are the same candidates who have received, but clearly not earned, a spin endorsement that attests to their instructional knowledge of stalls and spins.

Of course, pitch attitude and angle of attack are two very different things.

As I wrote up a notice of disapproval for one practical exam candidate who confused the two, I invited his instructor to join us for the discussion. To my amazement, the instructor told me that I had it wrong. He claimed that, “When we practice stalls up high, we push forward on the stick to bring the nose toward the horizon. But in the pattern, it’s important to recover only by applying power—pushing forward on the yoke would only make the airplane nose into the ground.” It hit home that in this instructor-student relationship, the blind was leading the blind.

One of the best demonstrations that an aircraft really can stall at any attitude involves looping an aircraft certificated in the acrobatic category. During a loop, a pilot experiences every pitch attitude of which an airplane is capable but, at no point in a properly performed loop do the wings stall. This assumes that the pilot employs proper back-pressure on the stick during the maneuver. If the pilot miscalculates an appropriate starting altitude and finds himself too low on the back side of the loop, he could find himself in a no-win situation: pull back too hard and the wings will stall but not hard enough and the airplane will fly into the ground.

But sometimes a pilot with sufficient altitude can pull on the stick too hard because she simply overestimates the necessary back-pressure. I was such a pilot when Seattle instructor Bruce Williams shared aerobatics with me in his Extra 300L, the one he so generously donated recently to the AOPA Air Safety Institute. I arrived for our flight armed with the loop muscle memory I recalled from my Cessna 152 Aerobat, Wilbur. On the back side of the maneuver (upside-down, nose low), I used a similar back-pressure I remembered from Wilbur, and it was just too much for the Extra. While Wilbur is certificated in the acrobatic category and stressed for aerobatics, the Extra is a more nimble aerobatic performer, so the control pressures are very subtle. I’m not sure which was more obvious—the wings shuddering with displeasure or Williams’s voice expressing his in my headset. But after I relaxed some back-pressure, quiet returned and we completed the loop nicely.

Many of the stalls we practice and demonstrate on a practical exam feature the nose pulled high above the horizon and, when the stall break occurs, pushing the nose to the horizon is typically enough for the recovery. Such practice is valuable as the stall one might encounter as part of a go-around. But that practice is just not enough. The notorious base-to-final stall usually occurs with the nose below the horizon and, at the stall, back-pressure on the yoke combined with opposite aileron deflection only seals the fate of the pilot and passengers by sending the airplane into a spin with insufficient altitude for recovery. You might think that you’d never find yourself in such a situation, but folks do many times each year. If we are distracted, nervous, or overloaded, any one of us can find ourselves oblivious to stall warning indications.

The moral of the story is that the pitch attitude of the airplane doesn’t affect the recovery when it comes to stalls. If you’ve not experienced stalling an airplane in a nose-low attitude, you owe it to yourself and your passengers to seek out comprehensive stall training. No matter what the aircraft pitch attitude, you’ll learn to resist any temptation to deflect the ailerons and that pushing forward on the yoke or stick is the key to recovery.

Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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