The FAA has released the Airman Certification Standards for the Commercial Pilot, they go into effect June 12, 2017. As expected, they have changed the wording on how slow flight and stalls should be done. Also as expected, the internet is furious.
Facebook has brought out all the experts in the matter, expressing opinions like “God forbid that they [students] should be allowed to fly into the danger zone” and “I thought I heard the stall warning horn, although it turned out to be the wind whistling through the door seal, so I recovered.” The general consensus appears to be that testing to a full stall is a necessity and anything less is creating unprepared pilots. Unfortunately, it appears that few people have taken the time to understand the intention of the new standards.
"We are teaching students to ignore the stall horn, a device that warns the pilot of most the common cause of fatal accidents."
I disagree with the common internet wisdom, and I’ll get into why that is in a little bit, but first I want to highlight the larger problem with primary pilot training. A pilot certificate of any level is a commodity. The typical student begins their training asking for 2 questions; what is the price and what is the time required? They ask these questions to all their prospective flight schools and make the decision on where to train based largely on these factors. The assumption is that the certificate at the end is a testament to their stills and is proof they are well trained. Because the certificate is the same, so was the training. This just isn’t the case.
The Practical Test Standards, and now the Airman Certification Standards are designed as a testing document, not as a training syllabus. Unfortunately, as students expect to earn their certificates in minimum time with minimum cost, instructors have found it’s easiest to train to the test. Thus, anything in the ACS effectively becomes training standards. The FAA realizes this and has attempted to design the ACS to take into consideration how people learn with the intent of making a document that is effective in developing safe pilots. This isn’t the ideal way to train, but so long as training remains a commodity, instructors will continue to use the testing standards as a training document.
Looking back at the PTS, pilots were expected to demonstrate slow flight as a minimum controllable airspeed. Any further decrease in airspeed or increase in load factor would induce an immediate stall. This is a great demonstration of the aerodynamics involved, and something every student should be familiar with, however there is a nasty unintended consequence. Slow flight is usually introduced in the beginning of a students training, a time where the law of primacy has a large impact on a students perceptions. During minimum controllable airspeed flight, the stall horn is activated, as it should be. The problem is we are teaching students to fly this profile, and disregard the stall horn. This is a textbook example of negative learning. We are teaching students to ignore the stall horn, a device that warns the pilot of the most common cause of fatal accidents. Because this is taught during early stages of flight training, it has powerful lasting effects that are difficult to relearn. By changing the testing standards to recover from a stall at the first indication (usually a stall horn), the FAA is attempting to leverage the law of primacy to teach new pilots that the stall warning horn is an indication that a stall recovery is needed. This may not be ideal, and certainly neglects some stick and rudder skills, but it does emphasize the correct response to a warning device.
What should pilot training look like? Training needs to not only prepare the student for the test, but also equip them with all the skills they may need for their level of certification. As it pertains to slow flight and stalls, it’s important to initially develop the association that stall horn requires a stall recovery. That needs to be established early in a students primary training. The goal is to build a stimulus-response reaction to the stall horn that becomes a natural instinct. Once that is firmly established, an understanding of high AOA flight is highly beneficial. In my opinion, every pilot should have experience with and understand what happens to the directional stability of an aircraft in a stall. This does need to be accomplished carefully and with a through briefing that includes a discussion that we will intentionally disregard the stall horn for the training event. If the stall horn comes on at any other time during the flight, we will treat it as an actual warning and respond appropriately.
Building stick and rudder skills should not come at the cost of training a pilot to ignore a warning. These two are natural enemies of each other and negative learning occurs easily if the content of the lesson is prioritized over the structure and presentation of the material.