Stall Spin Awareness: What Your Instructor Should Be Telling You

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Stall/Spin Awareness
The industry has not done a good job keeping people from spinning into the ground. In this short article I will distill down the essence of the problem and hopefully provide another perspective that might keep you out of trouble.

History Lesson
Although we have failed to eliminate stall/spin accidents, it is not for a lack of trying from everyone in the industry. There are hundreds of books and articles on the subject and it’s a pretty major portion of our primary training – or at least it feels major when you are doing it.  For all this we are doing better; these kinds of accidents were much more prevalent in the past than they are today.

The reason we still see these kinds of events is that we don’t really train to avoid stalls and spins. Most of the training is to show you how to get into a stall; and recover to satisfy your checkride – no spins. The spin becomes the boogie man because we don’t expose primary students to it. (We barely expose instructors to spins). This creates unnecessary anxiety that can turn up when you find yourself inadvertently in a spin – read panic. Also, we don’t teach you what it will look like when you get into an unintentional stall; safe to say that it won’t be straight and level flight or a mild 20 degree bank.

Redacted Aerodynamics
Stalls occur when the airfoil reaches it’s critical angle of attack. What does that mean in english? In simple terms,  it means that the angle between the relative wind (not the horizon) and the airfoil have become so acute that the airflow can’t stay attached and lift is lost. It can happen going straight up or straight down – the attitude relative to the horizon is irrelevant. But we are trained that it happens with the nose above the horizon – totally not true. Also, you can stall at any airspeed. We train in a one G environment which equates to the airplane’s published stall speed (usually at gross weight), but as you add G loading the speed that you stall goes up.

This stuff is really subtle when you encounter it in the real world.
3 Deadly Sins
Sloppy Base-to-final Turn
  • This is where I believe the majority of us law-abiding citizens get into trouble. I personally lost a friend to this scenario. Here’s the setup: You overshoot the turn to final, maybe you have a little wind pushing you on base leg so you find yourself overshooting final and horsing it around the corner and feeding in left rudder (assuming left traffic pattern) to point the nose at the runway and the next thing you know you have roll-coupled the airplane into a incipient spin with no room to recover. It is vitally important that you not skid this turn and simultaneous load up Gs while letting your airspeed decay. I’m not talking about slips –  you can do those all day long with outside rudder, good airspeed control and no G loading to help get down. Bottom line, if you find yourself way out of position, it’s time to go around for another approach; resist the temptation to salvage it.

Engine Out Loss of Airspeed

  • This one is not common because our engines are so reliable, but if you find yourself in a low energy state (like on takeoff) with an engine out, you must push the nose down aggressively to avoid a stall and maintain speed. Also, as you are setting up for an off-field landing you have to manage your energy appropriately. Turns are fine, but watch the G loading. Observe your airspeed. It is far better to land under control in the trees wings level than to stall and spin into an open field.

Hot Dogging

  • This is a senseless way to crash, but it happens every year. You decide you want to do some low passes with a corresponding aggressive pull-up, maybe throw in a bank for good measure and you have a recipe for disaster. Ironically this stall more closely resembles one of the stalls we learned in training – the power on stall. You just pull and load up the airplane until it’s out of energy. As the accelerated stall occurs and it quits flying, it usually happens without much warning; couple that with the torque of full power, a spin is almost guaranteed. Remember you were doing a “low” pass so recovery isn’t likely before contacting terra firma.

This is a relatively short discussion of a long topic, but I felt that a few points on the subject could help our awareness.

I highly recommend an emergency maneuver course or some aerobatic lessons – you will learn a ton and your confidence (and competence) will double.
Want to know more about stall/spin aerodynamics, roll-coupling, and actual spin recovery? Check out Rich Stowell or Gordon Penner’s works. These guys are both experts in the field and they have a real passion for teaching.

Some other good books on stalls and spins:
Gordon has written dozens of articles and has free videos on that you can find the one on stall spin awareness here.
We would love to hear your thoughts – please comment below.





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