ANGLE OF ATTACK
Flying|December 2020
CAN AOA GAUGES HELP PREVENT LOSS-OF-CONTROL ACCIDENTS?
ROB MARK
Early on, pilots are taught that safety of flight depends on, among other things, a consistent flow of air across the airfoil and a positive angle of attack to produce lift. AOA is the angular difference between the wing’s chord line and the relative wind. Increase back pressure on the controls and lift increases, up to a point. Too steep an angle of attack, and that sweet lift-generating airflow goes haywire. Reduce the angle of attack, and the wing will fly once again. So vital is your awareness of the aircraft’s AOA at all times, the Wright brothers’ first airplane included a rudimentary AOA indicator built from a piece of wood and a length of yarn. So if the physics behind this are simple, why do these loss-of-control accidents occur?

The FAA’s Dave Sizoo says, “There’s a loss-of-control fatal accident, on average, once every three days.” Sizoo, a former F/A-18 pilot, is an agency flight-test pilot. He spoke to the seldom- spoken about disconnect between what we teach new pilots about angle of attack and how they translate that new knowledge into good flying habits once they climb into an airplane. “You’re tested on the theory behind angle of attack in the knowledge exam,” Sizoo says. “But when a new pilot enters the cockpit, they usually can’t find the angle of attack indicator.” The reason is that AOAs don’t exist in most small airplanes. The FAA promoted their use, but they are still not prevalent in the GA fleet. “When a student does not have an AOA indicator in the cockpit, they are taught to use airspeed as a proxy,” Sizoo says. “However, the published stall speed they learn is only valid at one weight—in coordinated, unaccelerated flight—and that may create a false sense of safety beyond those conditions.” In ground school, new civilian pilots learn, for example, that aircraft stall speed increases by 40 percent in a 60-degree bank when the pilot tries to maintain level flight. This increases load factor. Sadly, history has proven that many pilots who overshoot that turn from base to final aren’t thinking about how their 85-knot base-tofinal speed might suddenly need to jump to nearly 120 in order to maintain a similar safety margin above stall. The precision flying required to aim for the three wires on a Navy carrier makes understanding angle of attack critical to fighter pilots. That’s why, early on, Navy- and Air Force-trained pilots learn their fighter’s angle of attack indicator is accurate at all weights, configurations, accelerations and angles of bank.

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