The Insidious Stall

The thing that kills way too many pilots is the simple act of making the airplane stop flying. For those of you who do not know how to fly, that may be a shocking and terrifying concept. So before I make you decide to never ride an airplane again, let me explain a basic aerodynamic principle. This is one you can take to the bank because it is based on solid physics that you already trust whole heartedly. As surely as the chair you are sitting on will hold you up, exerting an equal and opposite force upward against your body, air will exert an equal and opposite force against a wing and hold the airplane up in the air. This condition will exist forever, unless one of several variables change. Now I don’t have the wisdom to get too deep into this topic, but the short and sweet version is this: the variable that is constantly changing, and the pilot works to manage throughout the whole flight is angle of attack.
Angle of attack is the angle at which the wing hits the air. Anyone who has been 10 and riding in the back seat of a car with the window down already knows all about angle of attack. Stick your hand out into the air. Turn it flat, with your palm down. Then slowly turn your hand so the side toward the front of the car (in the direction of travel) is up, and you hand wants to go up! Turn the forward end down, and the opposite occurs. That is your hand creating lift. Airplane wings are just big hands in the wind out there. Now if you were really astute at this experiment, you would notice that if you keep turning your hand until the forward edge is almost straight up, your hand no longer wants to go up, but backwards. That is the condition called excessive angle of attack. That is making your hand stop flying. That is what kills too many pilots.
Now I’m sure you are thinking there is way more to it than that. Yes, there usually is. Bad decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. The pilot was hungry and had to pee. He was flying into bad weather, and in the mountains. He was angry with his boss. He had been flying a bit more recklessly over the last few months, and no one had said anything, or even noticed. And then he did something in the airplane that was a little excessive or extreme, and then it stopped flying.
What does “stopped flying” mean? Well, unlike your hand out the window of the car, pilots don’t usually make their airplane wing go totally perpendicular to the relative wind, but they do get the wing at too high of an angle of attack. When that happens, the wing stops creating enough lift. It’s still working fine, but it’s not making enough lift, and the airplane complains about it. What that looks like is the airplane shudders, and then the nose drops down below level. The airplane has been designed to do that so that as it begins a descent, compliments of gravity, it will speed up, the angle of attack is reduced, and the wing starts flying again.
Pilots train hard to recognize this situation and to react appropriately. Reduce the angle of attack, increase the speed, and then fly the airplane back to what you wanted it to do without going over the maximum acceptable angle of attack.
Sadly, when the pilot is not expecting the airplane to stop flying, the reaction that comes most naturally, due to fear of falling, is to try to increase the angle of attack to get away from the ground. This equates to a bad idea, because then you are driving the hand to a perpendicular to airflow position, which is really not conducive to flying. That moment is when the dying starts.
What is interesting about this whole concept is the fact that every airplane has a critical angle of attack at which it will always stop flying. Any pilot can exceed this critical angle at any speed right up to the point where the airplane starts to disassemble in flight. However, the place where we train to recognize the critical angle is only at a very very slow airspeed. So then people start using the term stall speed. There is no such thing. Any plane can stall (stop flying) at any speed. You don’t need to be slow to stall, all you need is a critical angle.
We as Christians have created stall speeds for ourselves. Those of us brought up in a Christian home, or who have been in the “Christian world” for a long time know the boundaries very well. Don’t drink, don’t look at porn, don’t cuss, don’t gossip, and don’t be mean. Those are the “stall speeds” that so many people try so hard to avoid. The reality is that anyone, anywhere, in any position, bench warmer to Bishop, can reach that critical angle and step into sin. It doesn’t have to be one of the cardinal stall speed sins, like cussing. No one is immune, and no one sin is worse than another. Jesus made it clear that anyone who breaks the law at any one point is guilty of it all. No matter if you are in a little buffet of a stall called gossiping, or a full on spin called murder, you broke it all and your airplane ain’t flying. What’s really awesome about the whole deal is that Jesus has forgiven us! All we need to do it go to him, ask forgiveness, and get back to flying right.


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