Any Attitude, Any Airspeed

I am sure you have heard old flight instructors or pilots say, “An airplane can stall in any attitude or any airspeed.”  Come on, admit it.  You really didn’t believe them did you?  I mean, how is it possible an airplane going straight down in vertical flight can stall?

It is rather hard to grasp the concept of the wing of an aircraft in a fully stalled condition with the nose pointed straight down at the earth and the throttle wide open.  After all, when you learned how to fly slow flight and stalls, wasn’t it amazing how quickly the airplane began to fly when you lowered the nose just a little bit?  So if a pilot had the nose pointed straight at the ground, the wing would have to be flying.  Right?

Well, not necessarily.

I have been that pilot.  Had the nose of the aircraft pointed straight at the ground, had the throttle wide open, had 550 plus knots indicated, and had my wing completely stalled out.

My operations officer, another squadron pilot, and I were in a “fur-ball” against two Tomcats.  The Tomcat crews had to get a check in the box for their 2 v 3 dogfight qualifications.  As we finished the fight, my Ops O detached me from the formation to go out and find and fight a lone F-14, piloted by a somewhat inexperienced nugget.

All I had to go on was the fact that he was in the western operations area cruising eastbound at about 20,000 feet.  I was up about 28,000 feet hawking the sky below for the lone Tomcat.  We were both becoming fuel critical and would only have a chance to engage in limited DACM (dissimilar air combat maneuvering).

I obtained the visual first and was anxious to get the fight going so when the pilot radioed, “Challenger, where are you?” I answered by telling him I was about five miles out at his one o’clock.  I could see him, but he could not see me, even with the guy in the back seat running radar.

He called again and I answered, “I am at your high two o’clock, two miles.”  I could not believe the two guys in the Tomcat could not see me.  He called again for my position as I was approaching his three o’clock position.  I told him again where I was.  Now I was getting irritated and more anxious to get the fight going.

As I went by his wing line, I rolled my A-4 about 140 degrees starboard and put about 4.5 g’s on the airplane.  Using the altitude advantage, I converted to speed and put myself a mile and a half in trail, co-altitude.

“Challenger, I don’t see you, say your position.”

“Dead six, mile and a half.”

The next thing I saw was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.  The Tomcat pilot, now knowing full well my position, was not about to let himself get shot out of the sky from a straight and level cruise position.  One moment I was looking at the stern of his aircraft; in the next millisecond, I saw the full planform of his plane from the top with the wings sweeping forward.

I began to pull to try to stay with him.  Fat chance!

We ended up in a rolling scissors in close combat.  I would go across the top while he scooted across the bottom.  He truly had the advantage, but I was not going to give up without a fight.

As I would come across the top and pull my nose down, I would accelerate to well over 500 knots.  And he was there!  So close!  All I had to do was pull my nose up and put him in my gunsight!

I could feel my wings full of lift.  I felt as though the aircraft was an extension of my body.  I only had to pull, just a little bit more, to get my nose pointed at the Tomcat.  Then I could have my victory.

Unfortunately, my Skyhawk did not have it in her.  Even though I had the nose pointed straight down into the Caribbean Sea with more than 500 knots on the airspeed indicator, each time I pulled on the stick, the wing moved from a flying condition into a critical angle of attack.  She would buck and shudder and threaten to depart controlled flight if I didn’t straighten up and treat her right.

Eventually, the Tomcat pilot won.

When everyone hit bingo fuel and the Tomcats went back to the ship and the Skyhawks returned to Guantanamo, I reflected on what had just happened.  Like many pilots I had listened to the older pilots and flight instructors tell me how airplanes can stall in any attitude and at any airspeed. 

Like most young pilots, I did not fully believe them.

Now I do.


© 2010 J. Clark

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