Features  / 03.13 /

The 'S' word

How to reduce stall fear


If the request to climb to more than 4,000 feet was a clue, the first power-off stall was the smoking gun. Despite a confident persona, high intellect, and a fair amount of aviation experience, the student was afraid of stalls. The fear progressed along with the stall practice, from some simple nervousness with the vanilla straight-ahead power-off stall to full-on phobia with the challenging cross-controlled and accelerated stalls.

Fear in flight training is a topic that students and instructors don’t talk about very often. Although things are changing, flight training still is largely a male-centric, quasi-militaristic culture where it’s perceived that fear has no place. The phrase “man up” can be heard in Cessna 172s all across the country. Unfortunately, manning up only seems to work when lifting bales of hay or shoveling snow. To effectively overcome the fear of stalls, the issue must be approached sensitively and in a way that’s proven to work effectively. That means avoiding the fear altogether with education, or treating it with systematic desensitization or cognitive behavioral therapy.

The best way to combat the fear of stalls is by making sure there isn’t one in the first place. To a lot of students, stalls are just one of the many things that seem foreign in the beginning stages of flight training. Cars don’t stall—well, not aerodynamically—and we are rarely exposed to a falling sensation on the ground. So just going out and giving a stall a try isn’t always the best idea. A little ground training is in order first.

An aerodynamic stall (as opposed to an engine that quits) happens when the wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, or the angle between the chord line and the relative wind. In most training situations, we practice this by slowing the airplane and raising the nose above a certain pitch attitude, at which point the wing will stall. Each wing design stalls at a specific angle of attack, and this value never changes. If the airplane is going straight toward the ground at 200 knots, the wing will stall at the same angle of attack as it will when the airplane is flying straight ahead at 40 knots.

All of this leads to one very basic conclusion—reduce the angle and the stall stops. Forget power and everything else that goes in to a proper stall recovery. Simply reducing the angle of attack will take care of the problem. Power only reduces our altitude loss.

The wing doesn’t “stop flying” when it stalls. The aircraft doesn’t drop straight down like a rock, although it can descend rapidly. What really happens at the point of the stall is a sizeable increase in drag. That’s one reason jet pilots have been told for decades to “power out” of a stall. The Air France and Colgan accidents are changing that guidance to what piston pilots know—reduce the angle of attack and the stall goes away. Knowing there is an increase in drag can help to calm some fear. Instead of thinking about a stall as falling, we can think of it as the airplane slowing.

None of this addresses the other contributor to the fear of stalls, which is the possibility of a spin. Spins are nothing more than a stall with some adverse yaw. While they can be startling when they happen unexpectedly, in many training airplanes the pilot must actively engage pro-spin inputs in order to start the process—otherwise the airplane is only diving while turning. If the inclinometer shows a centered ball during stall practice, a spin is as likely as a stranger showing up at your door with a check for $10 million.

If the knowledge of how and why stalls and spins occur doesn’t ease the student's fear, only treating the fear with systematic desensitization or cognitive behavioral therapy will help.

Even if you’ve never heard of systematic desensitization, you’re likely familiar with the practice. This is a technique in which a patient faces a specific phobia through gradually increasing exposure. Let’s say the patient is afraid of spiders. Step one of the treatment may be to simply say the word “spider” and visualize one. Step 10 (usually there are 10 steps) will be to actually hold the creepy, crawly buggers. Each step represents an escalating amount of exposure, although exposure isn’t the only part of the treatment.

Clinical psychologist and flight instructor Michelle Kole says the patient must address the physiological response as well. “It takes a lot of work,” she said.
“You must practice deep relaxation
techniques.” And, honestly, most instructors aren’t professional psychologists.
But that doesn’t preclude us from employing the basic technique of graded exposure to stalls.

Just saying “stall” and thinking about the outcome can be scary for some students. They may imagine falling out of the sky or even dying. Talk through the maneuver and then work up to maybe demonstrating it with a model, and so on—through videos, simulation, slow flight, and finally a lazy, power-off stall. The key is to slowly escalate the exposure to the fear until you’re ready to try it for real. Given the amount of work involved and the techniques required, Kole doesn’t recommend a strict systematic desensitization approach. She does recommend slowly stepping it up, however.

Kole said cognitive behavioral therapy is probably easier and more effective. The concept behind cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is that one can change behavior by a change in thinking. “Positive self-talk is key,” she says. Fear is often defined as the distressing feeling we have as a result of a real or perceived threat. CBT is aimed at addressing the threat and changing our beliefs to minimize the body’s fear response.

One of the biggest things we can do to address the fear is to acknowledge it by “testing the evidence,” Kole adds. The conversation might go something like this:

Instructor: “Why are you afraid of stalls?”

Student: “Because I knew someone who died on the base-to-final turn by stalling and spinning.”

Instructor: “I can understand that you would be afraid as a result. Let’s talk about what happened and why.”

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to instead say something such as, “Well, that’s rare. I wouldn’t worry about it. Just don’t think about it.” This type of response is far from helpful because not only will the student not be over the root fear, he or she will feel weak and unprepared as well.

Over time, a proper CBT strategy will work up to something that involves a positive coping statement for the student that might sound like, “I know the wing can stall, but I know that if the ball is in the middle, it’s impossible for us to spin.” To get to that point, Kole said students should visualize themselves in the situation, being calm and handling it with ease. And that might mean slowing down a bit. She recommends sitting calmly in the cockpit prior to the flight and simply relaxing, almost in a meditative sense. Stop thinking about maneuvers and radio calls and how you’ll pay for the next three lessons, and instead sit quietly and focus only on your breathing. Athletes get in the zone. So can pilots. Kole does this prior to flying aerobatics, and she said it helps tremendously. “Either you can calm your mind and your body will follow, or you can calm your body and your mind will follow,” she said.

Many people use systematic desensitization and CBT to overcome stalls, whether or not they know it by the clinical terms. We asked members of a few online groups for their ideas on getting over the fear of stalls and many of the answers involve techniques that relate directly to one of the two methods. And no wonder—study after study has confirmed that both systematic desensitization and CBT work to reduce specific phobias. In the case of stalls, these are mostly likely the fear of falling or the fear of death.

Pilot Samuel Weaver is a perfect example. Weaver said he was very nervous about power-on stalls from the beginning, but usually dealt with them fine. Then one day, “I started to feel the left wing falling and added right aileron. Oops, bad idea,” he said. “The wings started to roll level and then the plane suddenly dropped over into an incipient spin due to the adverse yaw. I froze on the controls. Back on the ground, I told my instructor that that was the first time I had been really scared in an airplane.” Weaver’s instructor took him up in a Piper Cub to practice spins and he said that, thanks to information and experience, he is no longer afraid of stalls or spins. But most important, he said his instructor never pushed him.

Ian J. Twombly is editor of Flight Training magazine.