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Afraid of stalls? You're not alone. In fact, nearly every pilot is apprehensive about stalls when they're starting out.
Picture this: your stall warning horn is blaring in the background, your aircraft's nose shudders downward, and a random wing drops. You try to correct, and everything gets worse. It's no wonder nearly every student pilot has sweaty palms when they're practicing stalls.
The first misconception of stalls is that you're falling out of the sky. Your plane is still flying during a stall, it's just not generating enough lift to stay at altitude. In fact, a stall is 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 the nose of the aircraft pitching down? That's your aircraft's stability at work. Your plane's center of gravity is forward 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 opposes the nose down movement. During a full stall, turbulent air from your wings can decrease the stabilizer's effectiveness, reducing its lift. The stabilizer might also exceed its critical angle of attack with all of the back pressure you're holding with the control yoke. Either way, your tail-down force decreases, and the nose drops.
Remember, this is a good thing. As your nose drops, your airspeed increases, angle of attack decreases, and your wings can generate enough lift for you to maintain altitude again.
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. That causes it to drop.
But you don't correct with ailerons, that will only make it worse. Trying to raise a wing with an aileron actually increases angle of attack and deepens the stall, Instead, use opposite rudder to raise the wing.
The "falling leaf" maneuver is a series of full stalls where you never release back pressure on the yoke. During the maneuver, your plane looks like a leaf slowly rolling and falling through the air.
Four successive stalls in a falling leaf maneuver
To start a falling leaf, = entering a full, power-off stall just like you normally would. When the aircraft pitches down, continue to hold elevator back pressure, and leave the power at idle. Your aircraft will pitch back up, stall again, and pitch back down. Continue holding the back pressure until you've mastered the art of keeping the plane wings level, or you near your minimum safe altitude. (Which should be at least 1,500 feet above the ground for a single engine plane.)
Like any maneuver, the falling leaf has some common errors. If your wing drops and you're reacting too late with rudder, you're probably looking at the aircraft's nose too much. Look up and focus on the horizon. Let your peripheral vision tell you when a wing starts to drop, so you can react with opposite rudder.
Some students also punch the rudders too aggressively, and hold the pressure too long. In this case, you'll see the aircraft over-correct, rapidly rolling left and right. Lighten up your rudder pressure, and dance on the pedals. Don't keep pressure in too long, just tap the rudder pedal to raise a wing.
Last off, you might find that your aircraft naturally recovers and doesn't enter a secondary stall. In this case, you're not applying enough back pressure on the yoke. Bring your yoke (or stick) full back.
BruceAir does a great job of demonstrating the maneuver in the video below. Watch how they "dance" on the rudder to keep the wings level throughout the falling leaf.
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 do it, and they'll help you identify and errors as they occur, saving you frustration.
Bring along some cold water bottle too. The pitching and rolling can be a bit rough, and you may feel a bit sea-sick on your first few tries. The cold water helps.
Even if you're a certificated pilot well past your check ride, the falling leaf is great maneuver to practice. It keeps your legs nimble, and helps you develop a feel for your airplane when you're approaching a stall.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at email@example.com.