Just DON'T Pull Back

A number of fatal accidents over the past 5 years have occurred due to pilots inadvertently stalling the aircraft shortly after take-off, during the go-around or during a turn – But what do many of these events have in common? An increase in backpressure on the controls at low airspeed!

In this article, we take a look at three common scenarios which may lead to a stall/spin event:

  • Pulling back in an attempt to outclimb terrain
  • Pulling back in the initial stages of a go-around
  • Pulling back into the turn


Pulling back in an attempt to outclimb terrain

When it comes to take-off, pilots must ensure they carry out the relevant performance calculations prior to flight. Temperature, pressure and humidity all impact density altitude. A high density altitude combined with a high aircraft weight can be a recipe for disaster with the take-off roll significantly increased, or potentially the failure to climb. Another cause for failure to climb may be a technical failure where the aircraft fails to produce full power.

If a pilot commences their take-off and is faced with one of the above challenges, the first ability to combat this is through the decision to conduct an aborted take-off by terminating the take-off with sufficient runway to safely stop. One rule of thumb in the decision to abort a take-off is by ensuring the aircraft reaches 70% of the take-off speed by 50% of the runway length available!

In the event that a pilot continues with a take-off and is faced with obstacles, it is vital that the pilot resists the urge PULL BACK on the controls resulting in a stall and collision with terrain.

The following video, shows one example of a pilot who narrowly avoids collision with terrain, however avoids the temptation to pull back on the controls entering a stall with a high likelihood of fatal results:

The next video is one with a less successful outcome, in which luckily, all occupants of the aircraft survived.

Several things I note in this scenario are:

  1. Pre-flight performance calculations could have potentially avoided this accident
  2. Earlier identification of poor performance could have resulted in an aborted take-off OR even the decision to conduct an emergency landing after take-off with less likelihood of a fatal outcome
  3. The pilot avoids the temptation to pull back on the controls prior to impact which may have made the difference between walking away and ending in a fatal outcome 

There is a saying “Fly the airplane as far into the crash as possible”. While this is often referenced in relation to forced landings, it is certainly relevant in this situation. Remember you are better off walking away having destroyed an aircraft, than to be fatally injured trying to save the aircraft.

Pulling back in the initial stages of a go-around

Go-arounds – They’re something we don’t like to practice or conduct, felt almost like a sign of weakness, however I can certainly tell you from experience there are times where I wish I conducted a go-around rather than attempting to save a botched landing or unstable approach. In reality, how often is someone given a hard time for conducting a go around, compared to the embarrassment of a poorly executed landing? Almost never!

It is, however, vital that pilots remain proficient in the practice of conducting go-arounds as if they are not managed appropriately, they can result in fatal consequences.

The main danger is that often the decision to conduct a go-around is left until the last minute, rather than making an early and safe decision to go-around. When left till the last minute the ground may be rushing up at you, or an obstacle may be present resulting in the tendency to apply full power and immediately PULL BACK on the controls. In doing so, the aircraft is faced with a low airspeed and high nose attitude that may lead to a power on stall/spin with potentially fatal consequences.

During a go-around, it is vital that pilots apply full power and briefly maintain level flight which may require forward pressure on the controls, allowing the aircraft to build airspeed. Apply appropriate rudder to maintain coordinated flight. Then and only then, may the pilot increase the pitch to set climb attitude and slowly retract the flaps as required.

The following video outlines critical safety information in avoiding power on stalls during a go-around or after take-off – Common causes of fatal accident in RAAus operations!

Pulling back into the turn

Time and time again we see stall/spin occurrences from aircraft operating within a turn. There are of course a number of factors at play here, however an important consideration must be the increase in load factor and therefore stall speed with an increase in angle of bank. In addition to this, we see a decreasing airspeed in the turn with the result being a higher likelihood of the increasing stall speed meeting the decreasing airspeed and a stall occurring. 

There is a term used in aviation “low and slow, nowhere to go”. This refers to the lack of available options for recovery in the event that you encounter a stall at low altitude. There is a common misconception that “low” refers to flight below 500ft, however in reality, approaching the stall below even 1000ft may result in a situation where recovery is not achievable, particularly if the aircraft begins to enter a spin.

One common scenario where pilots may encounter this unfortunate situation is during farm spotting or mustering operations, or even when circling around a friends house – I mean, who hasn’t flown a few circles around a mates property to show off your aircraft? However before you PULL BACK into that next turn, pilots must consider their airspeed and the effect on stall speed in the turn. 

The scenario above may be referred to as a Moose stall (originating from Canada) or perhaps more appropriate down under – The kangaroo stall!  As well as a decreasing airspeed and increasing stall speed, there is a tendency to cross the aircraft controls to maintain visibility of your target on the ground, setting yourself up for a spin. In addition to these factors target fixation distracts the pilot from identifying these factors as they focus on the ground rather than scanning their instruments.

The following video gives an overview of the Moose stall while flying low and slow – Remembering again that low and slow may mean flying below 1000ft AGL, not necessarily low level operations below 500ft.

One example of a fatal accident in Australia, is the collision with terrain of a Cessna 172 used for photography during the Sydney Hobart Yacht race in 2014. The ATSB found that shortly after completing a photography run at about 50ft AGL, the aircraft entered a steep climbing turn. The aircraft had almost completed a 180 degree turn when the aircrafts upper wing aerodynamically stalled resulting in the aircraft entering a spin and impacting the water’s surface in an almost vertical nose down attitude. Both occupants were fatally injured and the aircraft was seriously damaged.


The safety message from the ATSB stated:

"Turning manoeuvres at or close to the aircraft’s critical angle of attack, or stall speed, if poorly handled, can result in a stall that will probably result in the aircraft entering a spin. This is particularly true for aircraft under 5,700 kg. The normally benign stalling characteristics of these aircraft types are exacerbated by the spin entry, which results in a steep pitch down and rotation towards the stalled wing. Recovery from this condition will take a considerable amount of altitude, dependant on the speed of response by the pilot and the use of appropriate control inputs."

The full accident report is available from: https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2014/aair/ao-2014-192/

I hope the scenarios above promote visibility of some of the main scenarios relating to fatal loss of control events. Remember that loss of control events can happen to any pilot regardless of experience. Proper flight planning, emergency briefing, and speed management is essential in avoiding a stall, and regular review of pilot skills should be conducted to familiarise yourself with stall symptoms and recovery.

Of course, in addition to this, if you’re low and slow – Don’t pull back!