Slow flight is an essential part of your flight training. There are numerous reasons why you might want to fly slowly, such as giving yourself room in the pattern, allowing an aircraft to clear the runway, and of course, when you are coming into land. Today, I will address what slow flight is, how to do it, and offer some expert tips to ensure success.
When Do We Use Slow Flight?
As you’ve learned, the slowest flying you will do is when landing your airplane. Slow flight is a challenge for new pilots. There seems to be so much to remember and so little time to remember it. That’s why you’ll learn — and repeatedly practice — the fine art of flying slowly.
There are several different places where you might want to practice flying slowly. Let’s take a look at them
Slow Flight in the Pattern
If it is good weather, there is every chance that you and everyone else will be taking advantage and getting out flying.
If the pattern gets busy, you’ll want to keep a good separation between you and the aircraft ahead.
The best way to do this?
Suppose you are flying into an airport with larger aircraft around. In that case, you will want to ensure that you are far enough behind to satisfy the minimum wake turbulence spacing requirements.
Giving Yourself Thinking Time
Sometimes you don’t want to be hurtling into the distance at a rapid rate of knots. Perhaps there is something on the ground that you want to look at, or you want to check your course.
By flying slowly, you will be able to stay nearer to a given area.
As you are probably already aware, some people get off the runway quickly, and others at a more leisurely pace.
If you get too close to the aircraft ahead and they haven’t cleared the runway in time, you might have to execute a missed approach.
It is far better to fly slowly, increase the gap and give the pilot ahead plenty of room to get off the runway before you begin your approach.
The landing is the culmination of your flight and is the flight phase where you will be naturally required to fly slowly (potentially all the way down to a full stop).
In general terms, landing is the slowest flight phase. The airplane can behave slightly differently when flying at a slow speed.
When landing, you’ll be configured with your flaps out and wheels down, both of which add significant drag to the airplane, resulting in a much slower flight.
Slow Flight During Training
The purpose of slow flight maneuvers is to illustrate what the controls feel like as the plane approaches its stall speed.
Because the craft is flying at a slower speed — meaning less relative wind is flowing over the wings and tail — the controls don’t respond in the same way they do when lots of relative wind goes by. So, naturally, the flight controls require more movement to get the same effect when the plane is flown faster.
What Is Slow Flight?
Slow flight means keeping control of your aircraft at a speed just above the speed at which it stalls.
While you may still be flying straight and level, the airspeed will be much lower than the numbers that you are used to seeing when flying normally.
Slow flight is beneficial for several reasons, but there are a few things that you need to be aware of when flying slowly:
- You are closer to the stall speed – If you’ve read my article on stalling aircraft, you’ll already know that the wing is less effective at a slower speed. This puts you closer to stalling. Therefore, you have to be a little more cautious when flying slowly.
- The flight controls are less effective – Less air over the controls means they don’t work quite as well and are nowhere near as responsive. You’ll notice a tendency for the stick to feel slightly mushy, and you’ll have to move it more to produce a movement in the aircraft
- The aircraft nose will be higher – In order to maintain altitude and fly straight and level, you’ll have to fly with the aircraft nose at a higher pitch angle. As we just discussed above, the reason for this is that the wings produce less lift, so to compensate, you’ll need a higher angle of attack.
How Slow Can a Small Plane Fly?
This depends entirely on the make and model of your aircraft. Some aircraft are purposefully designed for slow flight (as it allows shorter take-off and landing distances).
Check your plane’s operating handbook for the specific airspeed suggested for slow flight maneuvers.
Your instructor will know the numbers, too. For many planes, it’s 1.2 times the stall speed. For a craft with a stall speed of 39 knots, the slow flight speed is 47 knots (39 X 1.2). If the airspeed indicator measures miles-per-hour (mph), that’s 45 mph to stall and about 52 mph for slow flight.
Back to Basics - Slow Flight (Video)
The Basics of Straight and Level Slow Flight
Here are the typical steps to maneuvering your aircraft in slow flight. I’ll explain why each step is necessary and a few other pointers below: -
1. Apply Flaps (if Equipped) to Reduce the Stall Speed
Deploying flaps makes the wing bigger and increases the wing's chord line. By reducing the stall speed, you give yourself a bigger buffer making slow flight much easier. Also, putting the flaps down means the nose lowers slightly, giving you a much better view ahead.
2. Pull Carburetor Heat on (If Equipped with It and Recommended by the Manufacturer)
When flying slowly, you’ll need to reduce the throttle. Carburetor icing is much more common at low power settings. The last thing you need is to put power on, only for the engine to cut out because of ice accumulation.
3. Reduce Power
By reducing power, you are reducing the amount of thrust applied in a forward direction. Consider this as having the same effect as taking your foot off the gas when driving a car. Less power means slower flight speed.
4. Reduce Airspeed and Maintain Altitude by Applying Back Pressure on the Control Yoke or Stick
For the lift produced by the aircraft wing to equal the aircraft weight, you will have to increase the angle of attack. This is achieved by gently pulling back on the stick. To gain a really good understanding of why this is required, check my article on the four forces of flight.
5. Apply Rudder Pressure as Needed to Maintain Flight Coordination
The torque effect of the engine, along with the change in airflow hitting the tail, means that you’ll have to multi-task and balance this force with pressure on the rudder pedals. If you fail to do this, the aircraft will change direction when you reduce power.
6. As Airspeed Approaches Stall Speed, Add Power to Maintain Altitude
Remember, this is an exercise in slow flight, not stalling. The aim isn’t to approach the stall, but to maintain level flight, so make sure you have enough power to stop the speed from decaying.
7. Adjust Pitch Attitude to Control Airspeed
This is a principle you’ll learn very early on in your flight training. Pitch, altitude, and speed are controlled using a mixture of power and airplane attitude. Get the balance just right, and you should be able to fly slowly with minimal control inputs.
8. Apply Trim as Needed to Maintain Slow Flight with the Least Back Pressure on the Yoke or Stick
If you are flying the airplane properly, you shouldn’t need to be constantly handling the controls. A well-trimmed airplane will allow you to fly ‘hands-off,’ meaning you can concentrate on other things. Besides which battling forces on the stick gets tiring really fast.
From this point of slow flight, you can gently practice various flight maneuvers such as climbs, descents, and turns. Your instructor also will show you how to maintain slow flight with incrementally more flaps (if your plane is equipped with flaps).
Practicing slow flight makes sense. You’re not only learning how controls respond at low speeds, but you’re also getting to practice a simulated landing at a safe altitude. If you goof, you have a 1,500-plus ft. margin for error.
Maneuvering During Slow Flight
When performing any practice maneuvers, make clearing turns before you start.
That means turning your aircraft left for a 90-degree turn, then right for 90 degrees, checking around you to see what other traffic is nearby.
The clearing maneuver also tells other aircraft in the area that you’re going to practice maneuvers and that they should stay clear. During your FAA practical test, your flight examiner is apt to flunk you if you don’t remember your clearing turns, so make sure you do them!
While it might seem a little unusual at first, you’ll be flying slowly every time you fly. How so? Well, during the take-off and landing, of course. By learning the characteristics of slow flight and being on the ‘back side’ of the power curve at a safe altitude, you’ll soon be aware of the limitations of your aircraft, so you can put those skills into practice when it really matters.