GONE: Slow Flight at Minimum Controllable Airspeed

In its 1965 Flight Training Handbook, the FAA dedicated over two pages of text to explain the concept of flight at minimum controllable airspeed (MCA). Today, the most recent edition of the FAA’s How to Fly an Airplane Handbook offers no discussion whatsoever on MCA. If you have the impression that the FAA doesn’t want pilots to practice flight at MCA, then you are correct.

It turns out that the FAA now considers practicing slow flight at MCA to be less beneficial (if not harmful) to a pilot’s development. The FAA’s reasoning is that flight at MCA is typically accompanied by the presence of an activated stall horn or light. As the FAA sees it, any extended exposure to a stall warning that’s not accompanied by the immediate application of stall recovery procedures makes a pilot more vulnerable to a stall/spin accident.

To handle its critics, the FAA went so far as to say that students will experience flight at MCA when they practice stalls. Apparently, the few seconds of exposure students experience just before an airplane stalls is a sufficient educational "substitute" for actual practice at MCA. Hmm, I wonder why the FAA didn't take that (il)logic a bit further and argue that, since airplanes touch down at or near stall speed, pilots should forgo stall training. After all, each landing is both MCA and stall practice. Yes, that's a goofy notion but it's no more strange than the FAA's rationale for avoiding training at MCA. The folks who make this policy believe that a stall horn (or stall light) is more valuable to a pilot's survival than experience and skill in the MCA environment. Whether that makes any sense at all is irrelevant. The FAA's policy, delivered by fiat, is what it is, and it's official.

For this reason, the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) now requires that an applicant demonstrate slow flight in the following manner: Establish and maintain an airspeed at which any further increase in angle of attack, increase in load factor, or reduction in power, would result in a stall warning (e.g., airplane buffet, stall horn, etc.).

The FAA is quite clear that slow flight is to be performed without any stall warning present. Therefore, you can fly as slow as desired on your checkride as long as it doesn’t involve the activation of a stall horn or light, much less an experience of stall buffet (in case your airplane isn’t equipped with a stall horn or light).

To be helpful, the FAA suggests that one way to determine the target airspeed at which to demonstrate slow flight is to “...slow the airplane to the stall warning when in the desired slow flight configuration, pitch the nose down slightly to eliminate the stall warning, add power to maintain altitude and note the airspeed.” This will place the airplane a few knots above the speed at which the stall warning activates, or upwards of nine to 10 knots above the airplane’s actual stall speed. Given that the ACS allows a pilot to fly up to +10 knots in excess of the selected speed chosen for a slow flight demonstration, it’s possible that a pilot could be demonstrating slow flight at a speed above the recommendation many airplane manufacturers suggest for a normal approach. 

Before this change took place, pilots regularly demonstrated slow flight at MCA with the stall horn/light activated or with the stall buffet present. This meant that these pilots were just a few knots above actual stall speed—an activity that requires a much deeper understanding of what’s happening in the pre-stall regime. Pilots practicing flight at MCA learned about how the airplane handles as it approached a stall. These pilots also learned about the five major clues that typically precede a stall, thereby helping them identify when they are approaching stall territory. For this reason I would hope all flight instructors would still teach flight at MCA while simultaneously prepping their students to fly at higher speeds during checkride demonstrations of slow flight.

next post → ← previous post


  • Pat Shaub - July 16, 2021

    I don’t doubt that the FAA has backed off teaching MCA. They backed off teaching stalls and long before that, spins even though both are responsible for a large share of GA fatalities. But when will the ACS reflect what the CFI shouldn’t teach and the DPE shouldn’t check this time?

  • Ric Petit - June 29, 2021

    I like Tom Woodwards reply….
    Oddly enough, all my students were asked to fly to a full stall by the examiner on their PP checkride. So glad I teach them to fly slowspeed with the stall horn and a full stall( note my logbook entries always say we practice stall AND stall recoverys, keeps the lawyers confused)

  • Vaughn Schultz - June 29, 2021

    Once again the FAA has failed student pilots and instructors. They seem to do a good job of certificating airplanes and and a poor job of certificating pilots.

  • Harry murlowski - June 29, 2021

    Sadly some of today’s new flight instructors were never taught the airmanship of MCA and are therefore not qualified to teach their students MCA. Too many pilot mills are teaching cookie cutter curriculum, the students aren’t allowed to go get proper PIC time and they are given easy check rides.

  • Andy Foster - June 29, 2021

    I totally agree with your stance on this. I believe in training students to handle airplanes in any regime they might encounter and always found MCA training to be both valuable and a skill I enjoyed being proficient in. For the moment, since I’m a Light Sport guy and still using a PTS, it’s required there and I’m not looking forward to seeing ti converted to an ACS and having MCA removed. BTW, my Flight Design CTSW doesn’t have a stall horn or a light. Knowing you’re getting slow is a matter of feel of the aircraft, sound, and kinesthetics. I believe there are bigger fish to fry in reducing loss of control accidents than that (like accelerated stall and distraction training).

  • Mark Fryburg, CFII, AGI - June 27, 2021

    I agree. While I’m currently ground instructor only, I urge students under my care to get MCA and deep stall training. I also urge pilots I know to practice those — with an instructor. BTW, before I got my private ticket back in the “dark ages”, the FAA required spin training. Another good idea long gone,

  • Donald Childs - June 27, 2021

    Thank you for your insight. As a CFI in Airplanes and Helicopters, I referred back to my first flight instructor. He insisted on teaching basic airmanship, which is what the MCA maneuvers is all about. Because of his teaching early on, I survived a solo engine failure at less than 20 hours TT. So I tried to continue teaching BA as he did, in a collegiate flight school, but was told “the airlines will teach them what they need to know, just get them through”…”these are just 172’s.” Knowing how to fly a 172 using BA still applies to bigger aircraft (Miracle on the Hudson; Air France, etc).

  • Woodward Tom - June 27, 2021

    I’m waiting for the day the FAA requires the skill of flying at cruise speed, after all that’s where we spend 95% of our time.

  • Charles McDougal - June 25, 2021

    You and I have both tried to educate the FAA on how unwise this train-wreck of a policy really is. And you and I have discussed it between ourselves and with many others; to no avail. The FAA has repeatedly lowered standards of performance required during training and testing in response to a perceived problem. In this case the problem is loss of control; so the FAA fix is to give pilots less training in critical portions of the flight envelope which often precede LOC accidents. It’s so backwards, I would be completely bumfuzzled if I had not seen this tactic before. The only way I make sense of this is knowing the federal government often does things that show ignorance and lack of effective problem solving skills. True aviation educators will continue to speak and teach the truth. But one worries about how these actions will affect pilot competency on an industrial scale. Thanks for raising this issue yet again.
    Charlie McD

Leave a comment

Stay in Touch

Physical Product Ordering Only (800) 437-7080

If you'd like to order a PHYSICAL product by phone, please call the number above. Digital (downloadable) products can't be ordered by phone.

Latest Posts

  • Why We Fly?

      By Rod Machado Pop psychologist Leo Buscaglia once said, “When you learn something new, you become something new.” This is a vivid description of the benefits of learning to fly. Students, in the throes of flight training, are constantly... read more

  • Airport Holding Markings: You Can Fool Some of the People...

    By Rod Machado Here's the scenario: From your present position shown in the graphic above ATC says, "....taxi to Runway 19R via taxiway Whiskey, hold short of Runway 19R at Whiskey Eight." (The beginning of Runway 19R is located at... read more

  • GONE: Slow Flight at Minimum Controllable Airspeed

    In its 1965 Flight Training Handbook, the FAA dedicated over two pages of text to explain the concept of flight at minimum controllable airspeed (MCA). Today, the most recent edition of the FAA’s How to Fly an Airplane Handbook offers... read more

  • How to Be a Good Student

    By Rod Machado Every student wants a good instructor. That’s given. What’s often not understood by these same students is that good instructors also want good students. The problem is that no one teaches students how to be good students. Sorry, but... read more

  • How to Sabotage Your Flight Training

    By Rod Machado Are you interested in sabotaging your flight training experience? OK, then let me help. Here’s how to do it. Before you begin your flight training, demand to fly with as many different instructors at the flight school... read more

  • What General Grant Can Teach Pilots About Anxiety

    By Rod Machado When Bob stepped into his Cessna 172 on a recent Sunday morning, he had no idea how difficult it would be to apply power for takeoff. No, his airplane was fine. His anxiety level wasn’t. He sat... read more

  • May the G-force Not be With You

    By Rod Machado This is a actual letter I received from a student pilot along with my reply. Dear Mr. Machado: I don't know what to do. I'm a student pilot whose instructor insists that the turbulence we feel during... read more

  • It's Time to Speak Up

       “Hey Rod, tomorrow I’m taking my little airplane out to see what it can do. I’ll see ya later.”   Those were the last words I ever heard my best friend speak. I never saw him again. The next day,... read more

  • The Forgotten Mechanic

    The Forgotten Mechanic Here’s today’s riddle: Name something that all pilots need and use all the time, often don’t know by name, and depend on completely for the safety of every flight. The answer isn’t obvious, and neither is this... read more

  • Weber's Law

    By Rod Machado If you closed your eyes, held out a cup, and asked someone to gently pour water in it, how much liquid would need to be added before you noticed a change in weight? One drop? Probably not.... read more

  • It’s a Long Way Down, Isn’t It?

    Psst! Psst! Come here. Come a little bit closer. I’ve got something I want to ask you, and I don’t want anyone else to hear. Are you afraid of heights? It’s probably embarrassing to admit it, but if you’re like... read more

  • A Foot in the Mind

    By Rod Machado Psychologist Robert Ornstein, in his book Evolution of Consciousness: Origins of the Way We Think, talks about a person he knew as Jim. Jim’s reputation was based on his ability to get others to do things for... read more