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Nobody thinks it will happen to them. But something happens, or a chain of things, and there you are. Low, slow, and approaching a stall.
And how well you react in those few seconds makes all the difference in the world. Often times, it's the difference between a safe recovery and a fatal crash.
The Air Safety Foundation conducted a study of 450 stall/spin accidents from 1993 to 2001 to see where they happened, and how they compared to other types of accidents. And to keep the focus on GA, they only looked at accidents where aircraft weighed less than 12,500 pounds.
So where did the accidents happen? At least 80% of them started from an altitude of less than 1000' AGL. What's the significance of 1000' AGL? It's the traffic pattern altitude at most airports.
That brings up the major problem with stall/spin accidents down low. The altitude loss in a stall recovery for most GA aircraft is estimated to be 100-350 feet. Which, in many cases, gives you enough room to recover from a stall in the pattern.
But spins are a whole different animal. In the 1970s, NASA studied altitude loss in spins of several aircraft, one of which was the Piper Arrow.
What they found was eye opening. The Arrow had an average loss of 1,160' in spin entry through recovery. And, keep in mind, that's in an aircraft flown by a test pilot.
It doesn't take a math genius to figure out the problem here. If you're flying a 1,000' AGL traffic pattern and you get yourself into a spin, you're not going to have enough altitude to recover, no matter how quick your reaction, or your recovery technique.
"But this would never happen to me." The thought has probably already crossed your mind. So who are these stall/spin accidents happening to?
According to the ASF study, student pilots and ATPs were the least likely pilots to have a stall/spin accident. That leaves the majority of stall spin accidents to private and commercial pilots.
It makes sense that the most experienced pilots, ATPs, are some of the least likely to get themselves into a scenario like this. But student pilots? They have the least flight time and experience. This study, and many like it, propose that students are still under enough supervision, and are still cautious enough, to keep themselves away from a stall/spin scenario.
But private and commercial pilots like you and me (which are the vast majority of GA pilots) are the prime candidate for a stall/spin accident.
There are a lot of reasons that could be the case. Lack of proficiency and complacency are two of the leading factors. (When's the last time you practiced stalls, or better yet, turning stalls?)
So what's being done to help prevent stall/spin accidents? The FAA hasn't outright said it, but their recent change to slow flight in the new ACS is a clue.
In the old Private Pilot PTS, slow flight was performed at "an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack, increase in load factor, or reduction in power would result in an immediate stall".
So in the old way of doing things, you would ride the stall warning horn and aircraft buffet throughout the maneuver.
Now, with the new ACS, thing have changed.
According to the ACS for slow flight, you now need to "establish and maintain an airspeed, approximately 5-10 knots above the 1G stall speed, at which the airplane is capable of maintaining controlled flight without activating a stall warning."
So you're still flying slow, but fast enough to not even activate the stall warning horn.
The FAA recently said this: "The FAA does not advocate disregarding a stall warning while maneuvering an airplane. With the exception of performing a thoroughly briefed full-stall maneuver, a pilot should always perform the stall-recovery procedure when a stall warning is activated."
The FAA clearly doesn't want pilots to be complacent about the stall warning horn. By changing the maneuver, their hope is that the stall warning horn will be as ear-piercing as ever, grabbing your attention as you approach a stall. In addition to that, there have been cases of student-instructor training accidents that resulted from slow flight. By speeding up the maneuver, the FAA is, in theory, making the training environment safer.
But there are many instructors that are concerned about the change. By not taking slow flight all the way to an imminent stall, their fear is that pilots never truly learn what the aircraft feels like as it approaches the critical AOA, along with the mushiness and control buffeting that goes along with it.
Only time will tell if the change is effective.
This, like most things in aviation, always comes back to the basics.
There's no substitute for flight proficiency. And when things start to fall apart in the pattern, going around and giving yourself another chance is almost always the best option.
So the next time you're flying, climb up to altitude and practice some stalls and slow flight. And if it's been a long time since you've done either, grab an instructor so they can give you feedback on how you did.
A little practice and proficiency can go a long way. And it can keep you reading about accident studies like this, instead of becoming one of the NTSB's statistics.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.