How to stall a plane

Today was my second lesson in flying a plane. There was some uncertainty at the beginning, because the forecast included low-ish clouds (~2000 feet) which would interfere with the type of flying I’m currently allowed to do (i.e., no clouds). But it cleared up a bit so we went for it.

This time, the pre-flight walkthrough to check out the plane only took 1.5 hours instead of 2 hours, and I did the checks instead of watching my instructor do them. The fuel was just under 1/2 full, so I placed a call for the fuel truck. I inspected the wings, the body, the flaps, the ailerons, the elevator, the rudder, and so on. When we were ready, I towed the plane out to the yellow line and we got in.

This time, I got to:

  • Talk to the ground and tower controls. My instructor had me practice this first before going “live”, but it was still a bit challenging to be flying the plane and remember what to say and process the response and reply appropriately. My big debut went like this:

    “El Monte ground, Skyhawk 19760, row 18. Taxi to active with Charlie.”

  • Do the run-up engine tests
  • Strobe light – squawk on – throttle full for take-off. And take off!
  • Practice steep turns (45 degrees)
  • Practice slow flight, at 80 mph
  • Practice fast flight, at 110 mph
  • Experience a stall!
  • Help land the plane

My takeoff this time was much more controlled (we didn’t wobble left/right as much). However, there was a bit of turbulence throughout the flight that made controlling it just a bit more challenging.

I learned that the pilot’s goal in slow flight is different from that of fast flight. In slow flight, you want to keep the speed constant around your goal (like 80 mph). You change the pitch of the plane to control the airspeed. If you want to go up or down in altitude, you give it more/less throttle (and control the nose to maintain desired speed).

In contrast, in fast flight, your goal is to keep the altitude under scrutiny. Here, the pitch controls the altitude. If you want to speed up or slow down (and maintain altitude), you give it more/less throttle (and control the nose to maintain desired altitude).

What a stall is like: We slowed down to 70 mph, then down to about 50 mph. The plane was still flying smoothly, but as our speed went down further, the stall horn started to sound. My instructor pulled the nose up on the plane so that it would keep flying at the same altitude, even slower, until we finally stalled. I observed breathlessly, but nothing scary happened; the nose went up a bit and then started down, all on its own. Pointing the nose down reduces the angle of attack, which reduces lift and causes you to lose altitude and gain speed, and suddenly you’re not in a stall anymore. The instructor didn’t do any of that so as to show me how the plane responds on its own; apparently the plane is designed to do this bit of recovery. You can (and likely should) help it along by pushing the nose down more and giving the plane more throttle.

The landing was the most stressful/exciting part of the flight. I think I was already getting a bit mentally tired by that point, and looking forward to being on the ground. As before, my instructor talked me through the final approach and down toward the ground. I stared at the “19” marking the start of the runway to ensure that it stayed stationary (from our perspective) which meant, as he said, that “if we keep going, that’s exactly where we’ll crash.” Then I kept saying,
“Your plane?”
“Your plane?”
“Your plane?”
I was increasingly anxiously waiting for him to take over and handle the transition from air to ground since we hadn’t discussed it and I only have a fuzzy theoretical sense of how that happens. Instead, we had both our hands on the controls and I could feel him guiding it along while I mentally flailed wondering whether I should do something or just be hands-off since I really, really didn’t want to accidentally bump it the wrong way. And then he was leveling off, just a few feet above the runway, and we touched down. He instructed me to brake, and I managed to keep it much straighter this time, and then we turned off the runway to power down. Whew! He reassured me later that he’d felt comfortable having me on the controls and that we weren’t operating outside of a situation he could control or take over, if I did bump the controls or give other random input. Over the next few lessons, I hope to learn exactly how that works and what I SHOULD be doing :)

Later I reflected on a point my instructor made, about how the hardest part of flying is the transitions — between ground and air, or level flight and turns, or slow and high speed flight. This is mainly because you do one set of things with the controls to initiate (and maintain control of) the transition, but then you have to back off and let things settle into the new configuration. There’s a tendency to keep doing the transition action, or do it too long. I realized that this is equally true of, say, driving a car, but we don’t notice it because we’ve already assimilated that practice. As I drove home from the airport, I paid attention to how I automatically start undoing the steering wheel turn well before I arrive at my new pointing, and how I know how much steering wheel turn to give to achieve a desired vehicle turn, which *is* different depending on the speed, even though I don’t think about it consciously. So at some point, the plane control process should also work its way into my muscle response and things will get easier.

I flew a plane!

I began my day by checking the weather:

KEMT 241445Z 00000KT 10SM CLR 27/03 A3000

The El Monte airport had zero wind, 10 miles of visibility, 27 C, and an altimeter setting of 30.00 inches Hg. Perfect conditions for my first flying lesson!

The lesson included two hours of pre-flight instruction and walking through the checklist you use to ensure that the plane is ready to fly safely, and one hour up in the sky. That time was dense with information, which I hope to retain by review and repetition (and scheduling my next lesson ASAP!). The plane was a Cessna Skyhawk 172.

What I got to do myself:

  • Follow the instructor around and take notes on the checklist as he demonstrated each check
  • Drag the plane out of its parking position onto a painted yellow line
  • Flip switches, set wing flaps, adjust throttle, etc. to ready the plane for taxi
  • Turn the switch to start the engine and watch the propeller spin up
  • Taxi the plane out to the run-up area using foot pedals to control direction and braking
  • Practice maintaining altitude, climbing, descending, turning
  • Final approach to landing
  • Push the plane back in to its parking spot, chain it down, etc.

The instructor was there the whole time, guiding and making minor corrections to help, and he would sometimes demonstrate controls by actively pushing pedals or steering and letting me feel what he was doing from my side, since the controls are tied together.

Some of this was straightforward, and some of it was rather challenging. For example, taxiing is done by steering a big vehicle with only your feet via rudder pedals, and it definitely takes some getting used to. You press right to go right, left to go left, and both forward with toe pressure to brake. Meanwhile, your hands are itching to grab onto the steering yoke, but that only manipulates the wings, so it only works while you’re in 3D motion (i.e., the air).

Once you’re up in the air, there’s also a complex interaction between where the nose is pointed (the pitch of the plane), the position of the yoke and the trim tab, the position of the rudder, the amount of throttle, and the speed of the plane. In a car, you press on the gas pedal to accelerate. In the plane, you have to manage all of these things simultaneously. I’m sure it all fits together as you gain experience, but it’s a lot to hold in your head at once while FLYING A FREAKING PLANE FOR THE FIRST TIME.

The biggest rush was when I got to do the takeoff. I pushed the throttle all the way in with my right hand, had my left hand lightly on the yoke, and worked the rudder with my foot pedals. This was the hardest steering challenge, because the plane naturally drifts to the left (due to the direction the propeller spins) and it seemed to me like the amount of compensation I needed changed as we accelerated. So because I have no experience, I was doing some oscillation and overcorrection trying to get us to stay straight on the line, meanwhile fighting off some mental ?!?!?s about why keeping the plane going straight would be that hard. And we’re accelerating, and eating up the runway, and the instructor told me to start pulling up, which I probably did a bit too gradually, but we had plenty of space. And I felt us go UP into the air, and we were there!

What I didn’t get to do yet:

  • Talk to the control tower and other planes
  • Land the plane

However, I did the final approach (with much coaching) all the way down to the ground, watching the runway grow in front of me, and thinking “Okay now, time for you to take over, isn’t it time for you to take over, I don’t know how to land this thing, PLEASE TAKE OVER NOW!” and that’s when he did.

At the end of the lesson, I was presented with a pilot’s log book and my first log entry (click to enlarge):


It takes a minimum of 40 hours to get your pilot’s license, but it’s based on demonstrating the necessary skills, not just logging time. Apparently most people take 50-60 hours, and certainly I’d rather have really solid skills since there’s no reason to rush. Still, I’m now 1/40th of the way to that minimum! And I can’t wait to get up there again!