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Kick Your Fear Of Stalls With A Falling Leaf

Afraid of stalls? You're not alone. In fact, nearly every student pilot is apprehensive about stalls - especially full stalls.

Think about it... Your stall warning horn's blaring in the background (a sound that clearly indicates you should stop doing whatever you're doing), your aircraft's nose suddenly jerks down and a random wing drops. You try to correct and everything gets worse. No wonder nearly every student pilot has sweaty palms during their first (and second, and third) full power-off stall.

D. Miller / Flickr

Guess What - You're Not Falling Out Of The Sky

The first misconception to clean up is that you're not falling out of the sky. The plane's flying - it's just not generating enough lift to stay level. In fact, a stall can be defined as the point where "an increase in angle attack results in the decrease in lift." You still have lift - just not as much of it.

What about that wild pitching? That's your aircraft's stability at work. Your center of gravity is ahead of your wing's center of lift. As you stall, the amount of lift decreases and the center of gravity pulls the nose down.

Your horizontal stabilizer also opposes the nose down moment. During a full stall, turbulent air from the wing may decrease the stabilizer's effectiveness, reducing its lift. The stabilizer may also exceed its critical angle of attack - with all of the back pressure, you're holding it at a high angle of attack. Either way, your tail-down force decreases and the nose drops.

Again - this is a good thing. As your nose drops you'll gain airspeed, reduce your angle of attack, and begin flying again.

What About The Roll - Why Does A Wing Drop?

If you're not perfectly coordinated, your wings will fly at different angles of attack. The wing with the higher angle of attack is in a deeper stall and generates less lift. This causes it to drop.

Don't correct with ailerons - you'll only make it worse. Trying to raise a wing with an aileron actually increases angle of attack and deepens the stall, as we explain here. Use opposite rudder to raise the wing.

The Falling Leaf - A Great Way To Get Over Your Fears

The "falling leaf" maneuver is a series of full stalls where you never release back pressure. During the maneuver, your plane looks like a leaf slowly rolling and falling.

Four successive stalls in a falling leaf maneuver

Start the falling leaf by entering a full, power-off stall as normal. When the aircraft pitches down, continue to hold elevator back pressure and leave the power at idle. The aircraft pitches back up, stalls again, and pitches back down. Continue holding the back pressure until you've mastered the art of keeping the plane straight - or you near your minimum safe altitude. (Which should be at least 1,500 feet above the ground.)

Why on Earth would you do this? First, it teaches you that an airplane still flies during a stall. Watch your VSI - you'll descend at roughly 500 feet per minute. That's definitely not falling out of the sky.

Second, it teaches you how to control a stalled airplane with rudder. You dance on the rudder pedals, lifting a wing as it begins to drop. Once you get good at keeping the plane straight, try gently flying it though a turn. Eventually, you'll be able to fly perfect turns while executing a falling leaf.

The Common Errors

Like any maneuver, the falling leaf has its common errors. If your wing drops and you're reacting too late with rudder, you're probably looking at the aircraft's nose. Look up and focus on the horizon. Let your peripheral vision tell you when a wing starts to drop.

Some students also punch the rudders in and hold the pressure too long. In this case, you'll see the aircraft over-correct, rapidly rolling in each direction. Lighten up your rudder pressure and gently dance on the pedals. Don't keep pressure in - just tap a rudder pedal to raise a wing.

Finally, you may find that the aircraft naturally recovers and doesn't enter secondary stalls. In this case, you're not applying enough elevator back pressure. Bring your yoke (or stick) full back.

A Great Example

BruceAir does a great job of demonstrating this maneuver in the video below; the stall starts at 0:57. Check out his other videos, as well. He's shared some excellent aerobatics and stall/spin scenarios.

Support Your Local Instructor

If you're a student pilot or you've never flown this maneuver before, take an instructor along for your first try. They'll show you how to correctly - and safely - execute a falling leaf. And they'll help you identify errors as they occur, saving you frustration.

Bring along a cold water bottle, as well. The pitching can be a bit rough - you may feel a bit seasick on your first few tries. This will pass, but cold water helps. Looking out at the horizon and opening the air vents improves the situation, as well.

Improve Your Dancing Skills

Even if you're a certificated pilot far past your check ride, this is a great maneuver to practice. It keeps your legs nimble and helps you develop a feel for your airplane in the slow-speed region. If your flying routine's getting stale, this is a great way to shake it up and boost your proficiency.

Aleks Udris

Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at aleks@boldmethod.com.

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