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Any time you place yourself in a several thousand pound machine and force it to travel through the air at high speeds and altitudes, there is going to be some risk. Many think that the primary risk in flying is mechanical failure or weather. Contrary to this belief, most airplanes (even those made of cloth and wood) that crash do so as a result of pilot error --frequently from attempting to fly too slow!


The stall is the initial result of letting the airspeed decay below what is required for the wings to produce sufficient lift. With insufficient lift to counteract aircraft weight, the airplane is not being "held up" by the wings any more and it accelerates toward the ground. At low altitude, the stall can be immediately disastrous but with enough altitude below, the pilot can take action to recover.

Recovery from the stall is accomplished by correcting the condition that led to it. Since the stall is caused by attempting to fly at too high an AOA, the pilot must immediately reduce the AOA by moving the stick forward. At the same time, the throttle is advanced to full power to rapidly increase the airspeed needed for a return to level flight or climb.

Aircraft are almost always designed to give some warning prior to a stall. In very large aircraft, special sensors detect the impending stall and physically shake the control stick. Cessna uses a buzzer located in the wing root for its light aircraft. High-performance aircraft have a horizontal stabilizer placed so that, as a stall is approached, the turbulent air coming off the top of the wing hits the horizontal stabilizer and shakes the flight controls. In extreme conditions, the whole airplane will shake. These warnings are difficult to ignore; they give the pilot sufficient time to act to prevent the stall.


If a stall is maintained and yaw is somehow induced, a spin can result. Spins can be recognized by high descent and roll rates, and a flight path that is straight down. Clearly, this is a situation to be entered with some forethought. Harder to recover from than a stall, and much more dangerous in terms of altitude loss, the spin is an extremely complex maneuver and beyond the scope of this text. The good news is that if you do not stall, you cannot spin.


"All good things must come to an end," and most flights end with a landing. The relative difficulty of this maneuver is often expressed by a student pilot after the first solo flight: "The first thought that came to mind after I took off was `Oh boy, now I've gotta land this thing!'"

After lining the airplane up with the runway and configuring it properly (landing gear, proper flap setting, speedbrake out), the pilot uses the throttle setting to maintain the proper airspeed (100 knots) and uses the elevators and ailerons to keep the airplane headed for the runway. The airplane is set up in a shallow descent (about three degrees) aimed at the near end of the runway. If this part of the landing, the "final approach" is flown correctly, it will look like the jet is headed for a collision with the approach end of the runway.

As the airplane closes in on the approach end, the pilot begins to ease the stick back to level off the airplane several feet above the runway and slows to landing speed by reducing the power to idle. As the airplane levels off just above the ground in idle power, it will lose speed rapidly because there is little or no thrust to counter the drag. The pilot continues to move the stick back to increase the AOA and keep the airplane flying for just a little while longer. In a well-flown landing, the airplane will settle to the ground just before the stall AOA is reached.

Now a land-based vehicle, the airplane is controlled with the brakes and slowed to taxi speed.

The Axis System

A good understanding of the basic axis system used to describe aircraft motion is necessary to appreciate flight data. Aircraft translational motion is described in terms of motion in three different directions, each direction being perpendicular to the other two (orthogonal). Motion in the X direction is forward and aft velocity. The Y direction produces sideways motion to the left and right, and up and down motion is in the Z direction.

Translational Axes
Translational Axes
Rotational Axes
Rotational Axes

The rotational motion of an aircraft can be described as rotation about the same three axes; pitch rotation (nose up or nose down) is about the y axes, lateral or roll rotation (one wing up or down) is about the x axis, and yaw rotation (nose right or left) is about the z axis.

There are several slightly different versions of the basic axis system just described. They differ primarily in the exact placement of the zero reference lines, but are generally similar in their directions. (For example, the body-axis system uses the fuselage center line as the x axis, while a wind-axis system uses the direction that the aircraft is moving through the air as the x axis.)

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:33:18 ZULU