Stalls Redefined as Emergency Flight Operations

I managed to watch the recent NAFI-sponsored ACS webinar on replay ( I’d like to offer a different opinion from those provided by the FAA and ACS committee members in this video.

First, let me say that in all my comments on the ACS (Airman Certification Standards) beginning in 2013, I’ve never publicly mentioned any ACS committee member’s name or publicly commented on any committee member. I have no desire to hurt or embarrass anyone. I don’t do those types of things. Instead, I’ve kept names and personal references out of these discussions except where a specific ACS committee member elected to identify him- or herself in a public forum. This is the first video (other than my debate with a main ACS committee member John King) where a primary ACS committee member and FAA leader have elected to comment about the ACS in this type of public forum. Therefore, my comments here reference the opinions offered in this video. Once again, I will use no names because my intent is not to criticize any specific person. I prefer to criticize ideas, instead. The ACS committee members are all fine people and some are considered friends (how many still are is open to question:). I’m interested only in ideas, not personalities. And, as I’ve said numerous times: I’m not anti-FAA, I’m anti “bad ideas.”

That said, I believe the FAA and ACS committee are inflicting a terrible wound on general aviation (I've chosen my words carefully here). These folks may have good intentions but that's irrelevant. It's what you do that counts. And what they are doing will not serve general aviation well. Five years ago, anyone who suggested that the FAA would stop testing private and commercial pilot applicants on slow flight at MCA, much less test commercial pilot applicants on full stalls, would have been pilloried and placed in public stocks—or at least laughed off the airport. Well, that's exactly what has happened under the leadership of the ACS committee. So strap in, hold on tight and be prepared to better understand how this committee is disassembling the fundamentals of basic flight training one behavior at a time. 

The ACS Webinar
A few things in this video caused me to raise an eyebrow enough so that I can now scratch my back with my forehead. One of these was the discussion of stalls (time 20:25 on video). If you listen to the discussion here, you’ll hear the presenter say that the ACS committee wrestled with the slow flight issue trying to “make it match” the new standards. Make it match? Really?

As you know, the FAA no longer tests a private or commercial pilot applicant’s slow flight skill at Minimum Controllable Airspeed (MCA). The FAA and ACS committee feel that continuous operation of the stall horn during slow flight desensitizes a pilot to the necessity of taking immediate action to recover from a stall. The FAA and ACS committee were so committed to this change that the FAA removed the term Minimum Controllable Airspeed (MCA) from the slow flight section of the 2016 Airplane Flying Handbook (AFH). It’s completely gone. Now the standards in the ACS match. Good grief! (Note. So significant was training pilots to fly at MCA that, in the earlier versions of the AFH, the FAA had nearly two pages of text explaining and elaborating on the idea.)

Many highly experienced members of the flight instructor community believed this change to be a step backward in the development of essential airmanship training. So, the FAA and ACS committee had to rationalize this change. What explanation did they come up with? The ACS committee members in this video offered this explanation: “We are testing slow flight because you have to go through slow flight to get to the stall.” Let that sink in a bit. Read it again. This is the official FAA "slow flight" language that appears in FAA/ACS literature.

Really? This is an example of fantasy-based flight training. I wonder how many experienced instructors actually agree with the idea that the transition time between stall horn (or light) activation and the actual stall (for the purpose of demonstrating a stall) is a sufficient substitute for training at “minimum controllable airspeed?” Furthermore, the FAA no longer tests full stalls on a commercial checkride. Therefore, if a commercial pilot applicant is allowed to recover from a stall at the first peep of a stall horn, then how can that applicant "pass through" slow flight to get to the stall? He can't. Therefore, by FAA/ACS committee definition, that applicant couldn't have been tested on slow flight at MCA. These are the contradictions that creep into doctrine as you try to "make things match" without thinking them through clearly.

While watching this video I also observed, for the first time, the FAA and ACS committee’s new definitions for three different flight conditions (see accompanying graphic). The ACS committee redefined flight from the point of stall warning up to the critical angle of attack as an “abnormal flight operation.” Flight faster than the stall warning speed is defined as a “normal flight operation.” By creating the artificial designations of normal and abnormal flight operations the ACS committee was able to comfortably state, “We’re testing slow flight such as you would use in a normal flight operation such as in the traffic pattern.” By this new definition, normal flight operations are those that don’t activate the stall warning device. Let’s remember that the FAA/ACS committee allows pilots to be tested on their slow flight skills at speeds up to 1.34 Vs. That’s faster than the speed at which most manufacturers recommend flying a fully loaded airplane on final approach.

But wait! There’s more. In this webinar, stalls were redefined as an “emergency flight operation.” Keep in mind that when the ACS committee redefines something, it is most likely doing so to make the “thing” in question “match” the new standards. The ACS committee redefined a stall as an emergency flight operation for a very good reason. The FAA/ACS committee is no longer concerned that you can demonstrate your ability to recover from a stall on the commercial checkride (i.e., full stalls are no longer required by the commercial ACS). It is, however, very concerned that you can recognize and avoid a stall (I’m concerned about both). The thinking here is that if pilots are trained only to recognize pre-stall clues, they won’t stall. This is a naïve assumption.

Isn’t it reasonable to assume that most of the stall type accidents occurring over the past several decades had activated stall warnings (horns/lights) prior to ground impact? Are we to assume each pilot involved in one of these accidents recognized but “consciously dismissed” the stall warning? Most likely there was a stall horn (light) to be heard prior to ground impact. Isn’t this evidence supporting the idea that hearing a stall horn isn’t an inoculation against stalling? Isn’t this what common sense suggests? It certainly is why a NASA study once indicated that in over 2/3rds of all stall spin accidents where the pilot survived the crash, he or she didn’t remember hearing the stall horn. That also means that 1/3 of surviving pilots did hear it but did nothing about it.

Ask yourself why the pilot of Colgon Air stalled his airplane and continued pulling aft on the yoke for 37 seconds (until hitting the ground) with the stick shaker activated? He did so for numerous reasons but not because he consciously dismissed the obvious stall warning. He simply didn’t have enough experience with all the pre-stall clues that should trigger the proper stall recovery behavior, nor was he trained in the proper procedures to recover from a stall (you don’t pull aft on the yoke if you hope to recover from a stall). This is why all general aviation pilots need extensive training in slow flight at MCA as well extensive training in stall recognition and recovery procedures. It’s also why the FAA wrote the following in the pre-2016 version of its AFH: “…a ‘feel’ for the airplane at very low airspeeds must be developed to avoid inadvertent stalls and to operate the airplane with precision.” This statement or some variation of it was in all AFHs and FAA Flight Training Handbooks for the past 45 years. It is, however, no longer in the current AFH. I can only assume that the FAA no longer believes that this statement is true.

Additionally, referring to stalls as an “emergency flight operation” makes pilots more afraid of them and less likely to practice them. Yet, this definition helps the FAA/ACS committee defend the idea that full stall demonstrations should not be a required maneuver on the commercial checkride. After all, we are supposed to “avoid” emergency flight operations, aren’t we?

A part of me thinks that the FAA will eventually eliminate full-stall demonstrations from the private pilot checkride. They have to if they want to be logically consistent with ACS philosophy. After all, when pilots stall an airplane during private pilot training, they’ll hear the stall horn but keep pulling aft on the yoke until the airplane fully stalls. This is the opposite of the conditioned-response to the stall-warning stimulus that the FAA desires. It seems quite clear that the FAA believes that training pilots to remain solely within the envelope of “normal flight operations” makes them less likely to stray into the abnormal or emergency operations environment. And this is why I’m going to offer the following idea. It seems a bit heretical but it also seems to logically flow from the FAA’s evolving ACS philosophy.

It’s entirely possible that the FAA/ACS committee’s master plan is to make pilots and their instructors anxious (i.e., afraid) of stalls. Before you run off thinking that I’ve lost touch with reality, let’s remember that lead man on the ACS committee actively promotes the idea that pilots should be told that, “Flying is not safe.” His words, not mine. (Isn't it more accurate and reasonable to say that flying can be as safe as we want it to be?) Let’s also remember that fear is a very powerful motivator and this idea is not lost on some ACS committee members. Fear is the easiest of all cognitive behaviors to condition (e.g.,  get a painful bite by a spider and most folks will develop a significant fear of spiders. This is known as a one-trial learning).

If we define stalls as an “emergency flight operation” we’ve now given pilots a reason to be anxious (fear of the future) even before they perform their first stall. But if we assume that pilots will recover at the first indication of a stall, then they’re not in an actual emergency operation. Defining stalls as an “emergency flight operation” does nothing to increase a pilot’s understanding of stalls but it goes a long way in teaching others to fear them. I’ve never known pilots to be better off by making them frightened of stalls in lieu of helping them understand stalls.

Now you know why so many pilots and their instructors fly approaches at 1.4 to 1.6 Vs instead of 1.3 Vs as most manufacturers recommend. They’re afraid of flying too slow. Do you think the elimination of flight at MCA will help eliminate a pilot’s fear of flying at slower speeds? I certainly don’t. This also helps explain why too many pilots are afraid to exceed 30 degrees of bank in the traffic pattern. Pilots are told that exceeding this bank angle increases their exposure to a potential stall-spin scenario (this FAA recommendation is new and only appears in the 2016 AFH, not earlier versions, as best I can tell. If you want to establish 30 degrees as a personal limit in the traffic pattern, that’s fine. Just don‘t do so on the basis of fear). 

Finally, let me say that I’m not a conspiracy buff. But I can’t help but see a disturbing pattern here. Here’s how it looks to me.

  1. First, we tell new pilots that slow flight at MCA is “abnormal” and that we don’t do abnormal things in an airplane.
  2. Then we remove all statements referencing MCA (an abnormal flight operation) from the Airplane Flying Handbook.
  3. This is followed up by saying that we’ll only test for commercial piloting skill in the airplane’s “normal operating range.”
  4. And just to be on the safe side, we’ll allow pilots to demonstrate slow flight at a speed that’s actually higher than the typical approach speed manufacturers recommend for their airplanes (all the while hoping that these same pilots won’t notice the logical inconsistency here).
  5. Then we will tell pilots that stalls are an emergency flight operation and eliminate these from the commercial pilot ACS.
  6. To top it off, we’ll ask someone to be the lead man on the ACS committee who is on record saying that, “Flying is not safe.”
  7. Finally, if we don’t hear too much grumbling from the flight instructor community, we’ll eventually eliminate the full stall demonstration requirement from the private pilot ACS.

Color me a skeptic, but doesn’t it seem as if the FAA and ACS committee are replacing fear for understanding in hopes of reducing loss of control accidents? Hmm?

By Rod Machado | | All Rod's Posts, CFI Resource Center, PTS-ACS Arguments | 11 comments
next post → ← previous post


  • Warren Webb Jr - December 05, 2017

    Testing of stalls and slow flight, and the definition of slow flight may have changed, but stall training hasn’t changed. In the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, it is still highly recommended that stall training include entries from turning flight, plus accelerated, secondary, cross-controlled, and trim stalls. I’ve run into quite a few pilots who have not had this training which I think is a big mistake. How are you going to start to recognize you are heading toward a turning stall base to final when you have never seen one or recover from one if inadvertently entered.

  • Warren Webb Jr - December 03, 2017

    I think the FAA is going in the right direction with the emphasis to keep the airplane in a ‘normal flight operations’ zone. Two fatal accidents relatively near my home immediately come to mind – a Rockwell International twin that crashed while circling at night at Tweed-New Haven (KHVN) and the Lear that went down during the day while circling at Teterboro (KTEB). Both had tailwind components during the circle. The key question is this discussion is what would have prevented these accidents – better management of the airplane in the ‘normal flight operations’ zone, or more slow flight and stall recovery training. With the FAA’s new emphasis, I think the improved ground reference skills (allowance for winds), speed and bank angle awareness during the circle, and greater attention to airspeed (prompt lower pitch and higher power adjustments) would have kept each flight in a safe condition and avoided any problems. For anyone saying the need was more slow flight and stall and recovery training, I’d say you could do that a thousand times over and it would not help one iota because the slow flight zone is cutting it way too close and when those aircraft inadvertently come out of the normal zone into the stall at low altitudes, they are unrecoverable. The emphasis to avoid even the abnormal zone will help tremendously at any skill or experience level.

  • Ralph Butcher - November 26, 2017

    Excellent Rod! To me, a 27,000 hour pilot and 5,000 hour GA flight instructor. ACS is a perfect example of the blind leading the blind and total government ineptitude. They’ve plowed into a blind alley, and the accident rates of the future will forever haunt them.

  • Brian Lansburgh - November 26, 2017

    I will color you a sceptic… oh, by the way, may I borrow a few gallons of that sceptic paint! Rod, your point is very well taken. But it comes as no surprise. The skill level of the average general aviation pilot has been plummeting. And now it’s REALLY going down! Individual flight instructors, YOU can save it. Just keep training to higher than “minimum” standards. Let’s make sure that our students can fly, whether or not it is mandated.

  • Sandra Feliciano - November 26, 2017

    I agree with ou 100%. This is one example of the nonsense that is the ACS. I refuse to teach to these crazy standards and will not tell my students stalls are something to fear. They must fly under control to stated headings with the horn going off so they can see the difference in controlability and increase in control difficulty. These sensory concepts can only be learned by doing. We do stalls as a scenario: you’re coming in to land and try to stretch the glide or you’re trying to get over the trees at the end of the runway. When they get close to the check ride we determine the speed at which they should be flying for the practical test and they find it easier that what I had them doing. As a result, they have confidence rather than fear, and they understand the concept of stalls rather than seeing it as an exercise to fear. I also want to make sure they understand the importance of rudder control. Only one student has consistently not listened when I told him more right rudder. We got high and I let nature take its course…then he learned spin recovery. I don not want to be responsible for a pilot dying because he couldn’t recover from the mushiness of MCA or a full stall.

    I’m afraid this ACS nonsense is going to get pilots killed.

  • David Hersman, CFI - November 25, 2017

    I agree with Rod. If the FAA now says, “An airplane must pass through slow flight to reach the stall” what happened to their admonition staying “An airplane can stall at any airspeed, and any attitude.” I see some aerodynamic falsehoods emerging. That’s dangerous.

  • Rob Bremmer - November 25, 2017

    Pilots must understand by experience how suddenly a wing can srop in a full stall. Without practice, aileron gets used to lift the wing, accelerating the stall into a spin. The new approach is not well thought out.

  • Dan - November 25, 2017

    The ACS is the guidance used for testing on practical exams. Instruction, and in this case slow flight and stalls, is done by flight instructors in the field. Instructors should go well beyond the ACS to produce quality pilots.

  • Orjan Zahl - November 25, 2017

    In the meantime, while the FAA is designing airline style control of general aviation and eliminating the MCA and stall, the FAA/EASA/airlines are mandating UPRT training for all airline pilots, thus going the opposite direction….

    From an airline pilots point of view, there are some elements of our Threat and Error Management that can be transferred to General Aviation. However, the ACS Risk Management part is too extensive. I believe in KISS, keep it simple, stupid, e.g. in our take off and approach briefing (SOP) we always embed a threat analysis incl. appropriate countermeasures, i.e. there is CBs, we’ll use the WX radar.

    As a CFI, one of the MOST effective tools I have in my toolbox, is the elimination of the Element of Threat. I’ve seen over a hundred students suddenly smile and relax after understanding the stall, that include high time pilots with fear of stall/MCA. My experience is that these students recover and manage stall/MCA with confidence. And yes, should they out of fatigue or for other reasons unintentionally approach the stall, they would definitely know what the stall warning is, a wake up call.

    How would the a FAA mitigate anxiety and eliminate the Element of Threat, while teaching stalls and MCA?

    BTW, I recently renewed my CFI with Kings efirc ( agree with Rod, fantastic people, John and Martha), and I’ve taken their ACS courses as well…

  • Chris Anderson - November 25, 2017

    All very good points Rod!

    Did you know it is now possible for a commercial pilot to have never fully stalled an airplane? I’ll use this example. A commercial helicopter pilot adds on a commercial airplane rating. Per the FAA regulations and the Commercial ACS, the commercial helicopter pilot can “jump” directly to the commercial airplane bypassing the private pilot checkride. And, as you know, the private airplane ACS is the only ACS requiring full stalls.

    Another ACS issue. A private pilot wishing to add AMEL to his private pilot certificate must fully stall the twin but the commercial pilot adding the AMEL to his commercial certificate does not.

    As of now there isn’t an ACS for the CFI airplane. It will be interesting to see what happens with that.

  • Joshua Landry - November 24, 2017

    I absolutely agree.

    As I CFI I can confidently say I teach slow flight at MCA in order to teach landings. I can also confidently say that a full stall is necessary because the first time a student ends up in a full stall they nearly (or actually) spin the airplane. Personally I like to make it a point to do full stalls at varying angles of bank.

    I also instruct in an SR-20. The only way to spin that airplane is to do an accelerated stall. Something you do without ever “passing through” slow flight.

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

  • 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

  • Dive and Drive: Fact or Fiction? Maybe Both?

    By Rod Machado I am a "dive and drive" denier. There, I said it and I'm not taking it back. The term "Dive and Drive" is used by some instructors in the pejorative sense. It's a pointy phrase that's released like a... read more

  • Pilots, Poets & Psychologists

    By Rod Machado Mention the word poetry to a pilot and he'll act like he's in a hotel fire. He'll think: get low, get down, get out. Admittedly, even I get the heebie-jeebies at the mere mention of haiku (that's... read more

  • The Power of Flight Simulators

    Flight Training on a Budget By Rod Machado Over a period of two semesters, a young college student with two intro flights in his logbook acquired approximately 60 hours of supervised training using a desktop flight simulator. Curious to test... read more

  • The Prevalence Error - Why We Look but Do Not See

    Looking Good, but Seeing Little By Rod Machado Recently, I was having a difficult time seeing things that were in plain view. I was even thinking about visiting the Our Lady of Fatima Optometry Center, where their motto is, “If... read more

  • The Middle-aged Aviator

     By Rod Machado Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about middle-aged pilots (45-65 years) who gave up flying due to a sudden onset of anxiety. Apparently this wasn’t induced by any specific aviation trauma nor inspired by the relatively... read more

  • Cargo Cult Thinking

    By Rod Machado  Early in the 20th Century, pilots visited remote islands by air, dropping off goodies for Tarzan and Jane. On subsequent visits, these pilots noticed that the natives had built flimsy stick-and-twig replicas of their airplanes. Anthropologists named... read more

  • Recent Changes to Part-61 and Why They Are FANTASTIC!

    By Rod Machado Am I happy about the recent changes to FAR Part 61? You bet I’m happy. These changes will be helpful to general aviation in much the same way a corkscrew is to a Frenchman on Bastille Day.... read more