In aviation, a stall is an aerodynamic condition in which an aircraft exceeds its critical angle of attack, and can no longer produce the required lift to maintain normal flight. While they use the same word, a flight stall is drastically different from an engine stall, which aircraft, as well as automobiles, can experience. An engine stall is a mechanical failure, while a flight stall is an aerodynamic failure and loss of lift.
The most critical component of a stall is a wing’s angle of attack, which is measured by the angle between the chord line (the imaginary line leading from the leading edge to the trailing edge of the wings) and the relative wind. The angle of attack is dependent on the shape of the airfoil, including its platform and aspect ratio. At a high angle of attack, the airflow over the wing is disrupted, and at the critical angle of attack, the airflow over the wing is disrupted enough to inhibit lift, resulting in the nose of the aircraft falling. The critical angle of attack for an airfoil never changes, but factors like weight, control surface configuration, and load factor, can change the airspeed at which an aircraft can stall.
In a stall, lift drastically decreases, which is reflected by a sudden pitch down of the nose of the aircraft. This can feel like the aircraft is falling and has no lift, but it is actually just a decrease in lift and a change in the aircraft’s level. A stall can be accompanied by a roll or yaw to one side if the aircraft is uncoordinated. If this happens and recovery procedures are not initiated, the aircraft can enter a spin, which is much more difficult to recover from.
In a stable aircraft, the nose dropping is often enough to regain the proper amount of lift for the airfoil. If this happens the aircraft is easily recoverable just by lowering its pitch attitude and increasing airspeed. Unstable aircraft, however, have more difficult stall-recovery requirements.
Stalls typically occur at slow airspeeds. For this reason, slow-speed flight, especially during approach and departure, are critical phases of flight, and pilots must be very careful during these moments to prevent a stall. However, stalls can occur at any airspeed, regardless of altitude.
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