by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2017 issue
The FAA, in its infinitesimal wisdom, has seen fit to once again issue an edict intended to affect training and, in their opinion, increase safety. This latest action is directed towards slow flight and stall training. This will result in modification to the appropriate Airman Certification Standards for Private and Commercial check-rides. The stated basis for this change is that “loss of control in flight” continues to be the “leading cause” of general aviation accidents. The proposed changes to the practical test requirements are spelled out in Safety Alert for Operators, SAFO, 17009, dated 5/30/17. If you wish to read this for yourself, you may access it at: http://www.faa.gov/other_indistry/airline_operators/airline_safety/safo.
We will state the FAA recommendation concerning slow flight and stall training, then offer comments.
Slow flight statements. Essentially SAFO 17009 says the FAA will test a pilot applicant’s ability to identify the stall warning and/or first stall indication and then the applicant’s ability to adjust the power/pitch to a speed which will allow continued operation without the stall warning or stall to occur. Their example cites slowing the airplane to the stall warning, then adjust power/pitch to hold altitude and increase airspeed to just above the speed at which the stall warning activates and use that speed for maneuvers. To Quote: “The FAA maintains that the desired slow flight characteristics can be experienced, and therefore the learning objectives achieved in climbs, turns, descent and straight and level flight without intentionally flying the airplane with the stall warning.” (Frankly, I am not exactly sure what is to be learned. It seems to me this is a great deal like the old story about the fellow who gave directions to Sam’s house by saying: “Go down the road until just before you see John’s house and then turn left.”)
FAA’s stated position on stalls is: “A pilot should always initiate stall recovery when a stall warning has occurred.” Acknowledge cues of the impending stall and recover promptly after a full stall has occurred. This can be achieved by the pilot applicant stating, “Stall warning” or ‘buffet” and then recovering to normal flight. The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) Skill Element for private pilots now requires the applicant to acknowledge the cues and recover promptly at the first indication of an impending stall. There are additional statements regarding the commercial ACS requirements. Restating them here would add nothing to our discussion, so to save space, they will not be repeated here.
My concerns with this approach are based in part on the fact that the majority of stall spin accidents in general aviation occur when turning to final. I find it very difficult to understand how this training is going to reduce this type of accident. The usual cause of these accidents is that the pilot overshoots final when turning from base and attempts to correct, resulting in uncoordinated flight, further resulting in a stall-spin at an altitude too low to recover. The FAA recommended training does nothing to prevent this occurrence as far as I can tell. If a pilot does not recognize an impending stall by this point, we have another problem indeed. I suggest that focus on coordinated flight, ground reference maneuvers, and prompt go-around decisions would be far more effective.
We do train for ground reference maneuvers, but how often do we point out that the airport pattern is a ground reference maneuver also, and that all those ground speed changes and the pilot’s turning radius are in play? The most dangerous situation in the pattern is when a crosswind becomes a tailwind on base, increasing ground speed, resulting in overshooting the final path. The key thing then is when attempting to correct, and with attention on the runway, the pilot applies too much rudder resulting in uncoordinated flight and then, often too low, the nose comes up, the airspeed decreases and one wing stalls and there you have it – an uncoordinated stall, a wing drop, and the ground comes up rapidly.
According to the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Milwaukee, this is one of the two major causes of fatalities in our state, and I suspect in most states. The issue here is not that the pilot does not understand what is happening, but rather that there is insufficient priority on situational awareness, coordinated flight, and power/pitch relationships.
Frequently, when checking out a pilot to fly our airplanes at Morey Airplane Company, Middleton, Wis., the pilot is unfamiliar with the relationship between pitch and power. When too low, they often bring up the nose, rather than add power. If too slow, they add power, rather than adjust pitch. As far as coordination is concerned, the ball often resides at its limits when turning onto final. Yet, when performing stalls, pilots recognize the onset and generally recover well.
My conclusion is that the revised test requirements and the implied training involved will do nothing to reduce stall spin accidents in the pattern. I believe it would be far more effective to relate the training we presently provide to day-to-day operations of the airplane.
The problem I see with the FAA changes to the requirements are that for the light airplanes that make up the vast majority of general aviation, I do not believe it will achieve the goals that the FAA has set for it. When applied to heavier aircraft with high-wing loading, the results may be more positive.
An issue with the general FAA approach to such issues as addressed herein is that the focus is on heavier, higher wing loading aircraft. In fact, the first sentence of the Background in SAFO 17009 states: “Loss of control in flight continues to be the leading cause of fatal general aviation accidents in the United States and commercial aviation worldwide.” (Italics are the author’s.) The FAA seems to be equating general aviation with commercial aviation and the two are not always synonymous. The training of pilots to always land with power in the pattern and the use of full flaps on all landings, also suggests this. This is to the point that pilots often consider a no or partial flap landing as an emergency procedure, and heaven forbid, power should not be available until touch down. The procedures described in SAFO 17009 make more sense when applied to higher wing loading, higher performance aircraft, however, their effectiveness in helping pilots recognize and/or recover from loss of controlled flight remain questionable in my mind.
The training that focuses on power landings and full flaps appears to be because jet aircraft must be flown in recognition of the fact that a turbine engine needs time to spool up from idle to full thrust. This then necessitates early application of power on go-around well in advance of the need. Therefore, the flaps, slats, landing gear and any other hardware are hung out to increase drag so the engine may be operated at a much higher power output than could be tolerated in a clean aircraft configuration. Then, if a go-around is required, the engine can be spooled up to full thrust much sooner than from idle and all that hardware can come up simultaneously resulting in a proper go-around. The reason for stating this here is that this relates directly to the FAA approach to teaching general aviation pilots.
In attempting to prepare pilots for this approach, they are taught to land with full flaps and controlling the pattern with power. Now this is okay except for the fact that in doing so, pilots are not trained to fly the airplane with feel, but rather, they are trained to use power to complete the landing with all the flaps hanging out. This can result in problems with crosswinds and loss of awareness of aircraft flight conditions. There are other issues created by this approach, but landings are a good example of issues created by this approach.
Frankly, it seems to me that the real issue is not understanding stalls, etc., but rather basic control of the airplane and recognizing the existing flight situation. Flying by the numbers is all well and good, but it should be in addition to, rather than in lieu of, talking with the airplane. All too often the pilot has no awareness of the aircraft that is not presented by an instrument. Listening to the air going by, seat-of-the-pants awareness of coordination, and pitch and bank attitude by reference to the horizon, coupled with instrument indications, may be a better approach.
In summary, it is my position that the FAA places far too much emphasis on training for large turbine aircraft compared to smaller aircraft. Yes, they both adhere to the same laws of physics, but there are also operational differences created by the physical difference in the airplanes. I do believe that with proper adjustment in our training requirements, both can be accommodated with advantage to both. That may be the subject of a later article. For my part, I intend to continue the training regime I have used and will add the requirement of SAFO 17009 to enable students to pass the check-ride. Perhaps, in the process, advantages to the new requirements may be realized.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.