Not Flying Straight and Level

Removing the blur from spins and unusual attitudes

April 1, 2007

"Pull the power, neutralize the ailerons, apply rudder opposite the direction of spin, and once you've stopped spinning, push the yoke forward to break the stall."

Up until recently, these words constituted my spin training. Like many private pilots, I had an instructor years ago who told me these words many times. We talked about the scenarios that commonly lead to spins while flying. We went through spin scenarios and recovery by drawing them on the board, and we talked through a lot of spins with our hands when just sitting around during lunch.

As a student pilot, I took this spin training very seriously and along with other procedures, rehearsed the sequence in my head again and again while driving, working, lying in bed, and naturally while flying. The four steps became second nature. Unfortunately, because it was never practiced, the spin did not.

"OK, for this first one I'm just going to pull back the power and hold altitude" is what I hear through the headset from my instructor Sam Montgomery of Executive Flyers Aviation, just outside Boston. "As the nose comes up and we enter a stall, I'm going to apply full right rudder to get us into the spin." I'm ready. Even though this will only be a demonstration and I won't have my hands on the controls, I've rehearsed this moment so many times I'm sure I'll just follow along and watch the whole process as it unfolds. Then it happens, my whole flying world falls apart.

"I bring the power back...going to keep the nose coming up...and right about here I'm going to hit full right rudder and bring the stick to my lap. It just snaps into the spin there...and out of the spin right there and pull out of it."

I hear the words, sort of, but I definitely don't follow along. I remember that Montgomery kept talking as he neutralized the ailerons (power was already pulled), applied left rudder, and broke the stall, but I don't really hear much of it. I am too focused on the Massachusetts countryside that suddenly fills my view, all of my view. I feel the airplane roll over, and it feels like we are heading straight for the ground at a fairly good clip. I can't remember which way we are pointing to start out, and I definitely don't know which way we are pointing once the spin is over. As the saying goes, it is all just a blur.

Unprepared

In my defense, I have to say that my situational awareness is pretty good. And stalls have always been a favorite maneuver of mine and I practice them regularly, without any white knuckles. I don't think anything could have prepared me for a spin until I was actually experiencing it. According to Mike Goulian, I'm not alone. Goulian, who with his family runs Executive Flyers Aviation at Laurence G. Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts, where I received my spin/unusual attitude training, says, "Most pilots, even experienced ones, are very disoriented the first time they're in a spin." His family has operated Executive Flyers since 1964. It is the oldest flight school in the Northeast and Goulian and his instructors have trained hundreds of pilots in spins, unusual attitudes, and aerobatics. He's also a three-time national champion in aerobatics, a three-time member of the U.S. National Aerobatic Team representing the country in world competition, and currently one of the top names on the airshow circuit.

My decision to enroll in a spin/unusual attitude recovery course was founded in a desire to be a safer pilot. But it also was driven by a desire to build on my existing skills, knowing that the situational awareness and the ability to execute such maneuvers also would make me a better pilot in all aspects of flying (of course, if I want to be completely honest I would have to admit that this was a necessary step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a test pilot).

My early conversations with Goulian reinforced these ideas (although I did not mention the childhood dream). He says the desire to be a safe pilot is the main reason people enroll in the course. And right at the start Goulian stressed the importance of being able to recognize how not to get into these situations as much as he emphasized learning how to recover from them. This was a theme that would continue throughout my training.

Many steps along the learning curve of pilot training can seem overwhelming. Even straight-and-level flight can be a challenge the first time someone takes control of an airplane. Throughout pilot training, we practice these steps until they become second nature, and many flights down the airway, it's possible to look back and wonder why it ever posed a challenge to begin with. In the end, it's not just the specific skill that makes us better pilots, but also the overall understanding, awareness, and ability to fly aircraft in different situations and circumstances that lead to increased safety and ability. After my first spin, I hoped these latest maneuvers would follow the same pattern.

Spin training and unusual attitude/basic aerobatic training for the private pilot are still topics that arouse debate. Some critics of the training point to research that shows few accidents would have been prevented even if the pilot had proper training (and many of them did), because many spins and unusual attitudes occur at altitudes too low to recover, usually during takeoff and landing. In fact, when spin training was required, many accidents happened during the training. But a large part of spin and unusual attitude training is recognition and prevention.

Shiny side up

For many pilots there is a collective anxiety and misunderstanding of spins and unusual attitude training. As pilots, we're taught to keep the shiny side up, and often the lack of experience of either being upside down or in a spin only adds to the misconceptions and fear, according to master flight instructor Rich Stowell. "Pilots imagine it's far worse than it actually is," says Stowell, who has instructed hundreds of students in spins and upset recovery, racking up more than 28,000 spins over the years. He's eager to point out the excellent safety record of the specialized aerobatic schools that teach the maneuvers these days. He cites a 1997 survey of schools listed with the International Aerobatic Club where zero stall/spin accidents were reported during stall/spin training flights through roughly 135,000 hours of specialized training.

Pilots who go through these unusual attitude and spin training courses can expect to complete as many as 20 or 30 spins by the time they are finished and spend plenty of time upside down, on a knife edge, or in other unusual attitudes. And although they understand their new skill set will not prevent accidents in all scenarios, they know the knowledge and experience should help them understand and avoid the circumstances that can lead to being flipped on their back or into a spin. Of course, they're also much better prepared to properly handle their aircraft should they find themselves there. And as I discovered, as much as we can read and listen to the reasons and the theory behind spin training, there is no substitute for experience.

Let's talk about spins

Back at Executive Flyers, Montgomery is holding a model airplane that looks like it's been through plenty of maneuvers over the years. "In a spin you're beyond the critical angle of attack, but one wing has a higher angle of attack than the other wing," he explains, twisting the model in the air. "So what happens is, one wing has less drag...."

My introduction to spin and unusual attitude training starts with a solid review of the material I remember from my private pilot training, including a discussion about the dynamics of flight, what happens to an airplane during a spin, and the situations that lead to a spin. The good news is that this time there is a shiny American Champion Decathlon waiting outside so I can actually experience everything I am learning at the desk!

After going through the basics of the situations that lead to a spin, Montgomery covers the four steps to recovery. But instead of simply taking the fairly simple approach, after talking about normal spins, he talks about aggravated spins and what could go wrong. "In an upright left-hand spin," Montgomery points out, "if you were to increase the power, you could end up in a flat spin." He explains this is because the increased power leads to increased gyroscopic force, which when turning left will lift the nose, or flatten the spin. He explains how in a right-hand spin, the increased gyroscopic force from increasing the power will lead to a tightening of the spin as the nose is pushed down and more mass is now along the axis of rotation. Another possibility in an aerobatic aircraft with enough elevator authority is to apply too much forward stick after the spin stops and actually push over to inverted, leading to another spin entry, this time upside down. Of course, he makes it clear that every airplane behaves differently in a spin, and most of the specifics we would be talking about apply to the Decathlon. But the concepts and ideas cover a wide range of aircraft.

An experienced teacher

Montgomery has been flying since he was young. His grandfather had a Piper Cub and a grass strip, which made it easy to get into the air on a moment's notice. After a short time in the Air Force as an engineer, Montgomery now specializes in teaching the unusual attitudes course for Executive Flyers. He prefers the backseat of a spinning Decathlon to the Cessna 172s, or even a Cessna Caravan charter route that might be available to him on any given day.

As he continues through the possible problems that could be encountered, I am trying to remember the list in order to avoid them during our flights. One of the simpler ones stuck in my head. Once the spin is stopped, he says, people often hold in the opposite rudder a bit: "Everybody does that." If nothing else, I don't want to be an everybody.

Walking through the hangar, we check our pockets for any objects that might find their way loose in the airplane during our flight. My anticipation builds during the preflight as we stand next to the Decathlon and Montgomery explains a few steps I haven't been exposed to until now: "Pull that ring, pull the handle back toward you, then you have to hit the second, then third, latch," he says, pointing to the door. These are the simple steps to remove the door during flight should we need to egress and use the parachutes for our descent.

"You have two seat-belt buckets to undo, the red and the black, and then you're free to go," Montgomery adds, pointing to the seat harness. "When you get out of the airplane, look down at the D-ring on your parachute, grab it, and pull it arm's-length out." Fortunately, he clarifies that the more likely scenario is simply finding ourselves in a maneuver where he would have to recover. That seems like a reasonable possibility, I think as I snug up the straps on my parachute.

Flying over historic battlefields of the American Revolution on our way to the practice area, including the North Bridge where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired, we practice Dutch rolls and some steep turns as well as slow flight to get accustomed to the airplane.

The first flight ends with some stalls, with an emphasis on angle of attack through a demonstration of accelerated stalls that can happen at any attitude and any airspeed. We start with a 60-degree banked stall and finish with a stall from a dive with the nose pointed at the ground. The maneuvers point out again the difference between reading or hearing about something like the importance of angle of attack and actually experiencing it.

Day two

Back at the practice area the next day we climb up to 5,000 feet, and I once again review in my head the morning's lesson on flight and spin dynamics. This morning I learned that the reason many aerobatic airplanes have a rudder that extends past the end of the elevator is to allow enough authority during a flat spin. Otherwise, airflow over the rudder could be blocked by the elevator. I just love learning new things about airplanes! But as we make our clearing turns, I'm more focused on the day's task — spins. I prepare for my simple follow-along as Montgomery begins his demonstration.

Slow down, stall, stick back, right rudder, blur.

As we recover from that first spin, I'm not sure what to think. It truly does overwhelm the senses, and I can't imagine what would have happened if I had found myself there on my own. After a few more demonstrations to the right and the left, I start to get the slightest confidence that I might be able to figure these out.

Climbing back to 5,000 feet, Montgomery reviews where all the unwinding of the altimeter has gone. "The most altitude is lost in the initial part of the spin and then in the recovery of the spin." We lose between 500 and 700 feet during just a quarter-turn. It is a straightforward demonstration of why a spin in the pattern is so dangerous and why it usually leads to an accident. These first spins are from a wings-level attitude and with immediate recovery.

Now it's my turn. As the airplane slows and the stall buffet begins, I'm doing some last-second cramming of the acronym I've learned, PARE: power, ailerons, rudder, elevator. As I push on the pedal and watch the ground slice across the windscreen to the left, I go through the motions and manage to stop my first spin in the incipient stage with wings more or less level and recover from the stall. It isn't quite as disorienting as the first spin, but I am not entirely clear what happened. Montgomery tells me I recovered in less than a full turn (I was a long way from counting revolutions), and I'm pretty sure we lost more altitude than we did during his demos. But I'm fairly proud of having made it through the first one without any glaring mistakes. "You still have some left rudder in," I hear through the headset. Damn, I'm like everybody.

Besides the twirling countryside, another thing that surprises me during the first spin session is that it actually takes some effort to get into a spin. But in the air and on the ground, Montgomery reiterates that it can be much easier than you think when you're doing multiple things at once.

The classic example is the base to final turn. "You're in the pattern and you have a left crosswind, so when you turn base you're going to have a tailwind and it's going to be a quick base," he says with the model in hand. "You're going to get blown beyond final and you want to save it, but you don't want to overbank, you don't want to get that steep close to the ground."

Getting blown past final is a situation many pilots find themselves in, but rather than go around or execute a teardrop approach, they kick in a little left rudder to cheat the corner. Now the right wing is going a little faster than the left, causing the airplane to bank farther to the left. Since this is what the pilot is trying to avoid, he attempts to level the wings out with opposite aileron, he says. "So you're basically in a skid, the wind is hitting the side of the fuselage, slowing the airplane down, and you're kind of distracted because things are going poorly in this turn."

This is when the situation can go from bad to worse, especially if you've never felt these forces and experienced the picture from inside the cockpit. "You don't realize you're approaching the stall while still pushing the left pedal, and that's when it breaks into a left-turn spin," Montgomery says.

And as I have already learned, if this is happening during the turn to final, and the pilot makes an immediate recovery with only a quarter-turn spin, he is still most likely to intersect the ground about the time he needs to apply forward elevator to break the stall.

This is where Montgomery stresses the importance of being able to recognize the entry to the spin, not simply learn how to recover from it. Stowell agrees. "You'll have a better understanding of what the control inputs were on your part that led to the spin in the first place," he says of the training. "And if you don't want to spin, you're not going to duplicate those inputs at some inappropriate time like in the pattern." And Stowell points out that the instruments might not always warn you in ways you may be counting on. He has been able to enter spins in many aircraft without the stall-warning buzzer going off, and he adds, "In all of the cases with the slip-skid ball only half a ball out."

Recovery

Back in the air, the emphasis on the next flight is unusual attitude recovery. Our transit to the practice area is punctuated with some aileron rolls. These are simply fun to do and I ask to do a couple more as we head to the reservoir. Besides being fun, the aileron rolls are an important step in learning how to recover from any type of knife-edge or inverted flight.

Many scenarios, including encountering wake turbulence during takeoff or landing, as well as thermal or mountain turbulence, have caused pilots to find themselves seeing green or brown on top of blue out the windscreen. And unlike a spin where the airplane is stalled, during many unusual attitude scenarios the airplane is still flying. So being able to return to wings level quickly (shiny side up, that is, as we also practice wings-level inverted flight) can prevent an accident closer to the ground than may the spin scenarios.

We practice stepping on the sky, which involves applying rudder on the side that is closest to the sky in order to keep the nose up and aid in the roll to level flight. A similar technique with the ailerons is simply learning to roll to the closest horizon. Sometimes this means continuing a roll rather than trying to reverse it back to level.

Montgomery puts the Decathlon in several situations, both with me watching and more important, with my eyes closed. By the end of the flight, my situational awareness and confidence grow leaps and bounds as I start to quickly recognize an unusual sight picture out the window and return to level flight with minimal altitude loss, if any. I'm eager for our next session of spins, where I hope this experience will transfer over.

"There's one...reservoir, highway, and two...reservoir, and just before the highway appears again, push right rudder, elevator forward, and fly away from a well-executed three-turn spin."

The good news is that these are the thoughts running through my head as the Massachusetts countryside is once again spinning across my view. Not only is it no longer a blur, but also I'm able to keep track of the terrain below and the instruments and easily count the rotations as we spin.

I enjoy practicing some precision spins, trying to finish on the same heading we enter, and Montgomery puts me in some real-world-scenario spins, where I try to recover with minimal altitude loss. Throughout these final lessons, it's extremely gratifying to keep track of everything as it happens, to talk it through on the headset and analyze it as we climb back to the practice altitude. My flying world is back together.

Jason Paur is a freelance writer and private pilot in Seattle.