A newly minted pilots pucker moment.
In short I’m a very low time private pilot (VFR) with about 68 hrs total time and 20hrs PIC. I love flying my family and friends around. As most new pilots I’m pretty cautious and quick to turn a flight down should ANYTHING be amiss! 
Here’s my tale of near woe! I was flying a C-172 which I’m familiar with and comfortable flying. I normally pick the plane up at airport “X" and fly in and out of there. HOWEVER the owner had it hangared at a different airport about 30min away because his other plane was in the hanger at airport “X”. So I found myself loading up the family to go pick up the plane for the day and depart out of airport “Y”. So life is good, pre-flight was great, beautiful weather and not a reason to turn the flight down! Though it was an airport I had never flew in or out of, I checked it out in advance via satellite, AFD and foreflight. It was plenty long and wide and nothing tricky so I was ok with it (or so I thought)!
All is ready the family is loaded up and we are now buzzing down the runway and off we go to airport “good times waiting” where we had planned the gazillion dollar lunch (an airport I have flown in and out of a few times). We arrived with no problems and a beautiful flight behind us, Time to go home! So off we go, back to runway “Y”. This is where it got interesting!
So I enter the appropriate pattern and all is well, I’m the only one in the air. Downwind I’m looking over the runway for animals or other critters that may have wondered onto the asphalt while we were away (its a paved runway with 3,000’). All is well in the world, I turn base, I’m a little fast but its not a big deal as I put in another notch of flaps and end up on final with my numbers looking good. At this point I’m doing my normal scan and looking at my point of aim for my stabilized approach. I’m a few hundred feet from the threshold and about as much AGL. EVERYTHING looks good but all the sudden my airspeed just dropped like crazy I was down to near stall speed!
I paused for a split second confused! Looked out the window, back at the air speed indicator & attitude indicator. I did that rapidly a about two more times (up down up down up down) confused as hell because out the window it looked good, power setting was normal, pitch SEEMED normal… It was about that point my brain said HEY STUPID I DONT CARE WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE PUSH THE NOSE DOWN AND ADD POWER! I did so without a second thought instinctively. I went for a go around! The wife picked up on that wasn’t normal, and I downplayed it to her as I just wasn’t set up right and we’d just make another go at it (to keep her from freaking out).
I go around get my pattern all set, downwind, base and final. I’m a little shaken because I still had no clue why the airspeed dropped the first time. Internally I’m a little more than stressed and on edge. Sooooooooooo now I’m getting short at about the same spot the airspeed dumped last time. I’m really on edge, hyper focused, doubled my scan and was on that airspeed like a hawk! I was lined up just fine with no cross wind to worry about, thought I might have been just a tad steep but my airspeed was solid. I hit my transition point and touched down just fine, all be it a little stressed and perplexed as to what went wrong the first time. 
So I pondered on it a good bit and tried to think of what I missed on the first try! I came up with nothing. But I just couldn’t accept it as a one off. I finally mustered up the courage to share it with a very experienced pilot buddy. Heres how that went. 
Me - “ blah blah blah, as I have explained above”
Pilot buddy - “so you were flying into airport “Y” 
Me - Yep! 
Pilot buddy - never landed there before? 
Me - nope! 
Pilot buddy - (he chuckled a bit) “ Heres what happen, that airport has a slight up-slope, no more than you’ve probably seen at other airports, its subtle and hardly noticeable! HOWEVER the terrain in the area has an optical illusion effect because of the hills, ridges and mountains in the area, in the way it looks out the side of your windows and horizon. They make the terrain look like it's at an angle that its not. Your brain kinda seen what it wanted too not what was there. 
Me - mind blown and quite un happy with my eyes relationship with my brain for that moment! 
In any case I wanted to share a power off stall situation that happen in real life. I hand never considered the terrain as playing such a mean trick on my poor little new pilot brain. That scenario just never came up in my training.  
2 Replies
Dean Brock
16 Posts
  First let me congratulate you on having your private with such a low total time!!  Its obvious that you have had some great training and the other elements of success (Passion, Time & Relationships).  As an experienced CFI, I have just learned something important from your post.  I am continuously harping on the concept of ...."If you set a consistent attitude, and a consistent power setting, and a consistent configuration.... a predictable AIRSPEED will result.  I teach that as I am on the subject of looking out the windows at the real world and not focusing on the instruments when VFR.  Your post will make me now add a "however" to my teaching!
Mark Masse
4 Posts
Interesting...To me, it seems that if you’re flying a truly stabilized approach and not manipulating any setting (throttle, flight controls, flaps or CG shift) to cause any significant airspeed change, the only thing left to cause a significant decrease in airspeed is a change in wind conditions, such as a sudden decrease in headwind or an increase in tailwind. 

Other than a localized change in wind over the wing caused by the terrain, I can’t imagine the “look” of the terrain causing an airspeed loss on a truly stabilized approach where I’m not making any control influences. 

In your description, I don’t see mention of the reported wind, or what your stabilized approach speed was on short final.  My suspicion is that it may have been gustier than expected, with a change in the wind causing an airspeed change. 

This has happened to me on more than one occasion, where the seemingly steady winds have abruptly changed inside a half mile on final, causing a chirp of the stall warning horn and a hasty correction on my part to fix the situation, usually at airports with no weather reporting equipment. 

Just another part of the flying experience!