Proficient Pilot

What, me spin?

December 1, 2007

Aviation veteran Barry Schiff writes from southern California.

Some years ago I discovered with dismay that, oops, my flight review was going to expire in two days. I quickly called a local flight school and thankfully was able to schedule an instructor and a Cessna 172 for the next day.

During the subsequent flight, the young man in the right seat requested that I perform a power-on stall. I lifted the nose above the horizon and waited for the speed to bleed.

"Hey, the ball's not centered," the instructor admonished sharply. I looked momentarily at the slip-skid ball and saw that it was bisected by the left lubber line. Yes, I was holding too much right rudder. What bothered me, though, was not the criticism. No one flies an airplane perfectly. Rather, I was confused by the instructor's tone. I had the distinct impression that the skidding transgression had made him nervous. No problem. I released a little rudder pressure, watched the ball return to its cage, and continued applying back pressure until the airplane stalled.

After the flight and while walking across the ramp, I asked the instructor why that slightly skidding approach to a stall seemed to make him so apprehensive. "You should know better than to ask that," he said. "If you stall while skidding we could wind up in a spin." He replied in a way that convinced me that he had a serious aversion to spinning an airplane, even one like the older 172 I flew that is certificated to spin (in the Utility category). Had the airplane begun to roll right at the beginning of departure from controlled flight, immediate forward pressure on the control wheel would have resulted in quick and effective recovery. The Skyhawk is particularly docile in this regard.

After a lengthy and very private discussion, the instructor eventually confided that he had never performed a spin. This was despite the spin endorsement in his logbook that is needed to become a flight instructor.

In aviation's Neolithic Era when I became a CFI, three types of spin entry (normal, over-the-top, and under-the bottom) had to be demonstrated to the CAA inspector during the flight test. In later years the FAA (CAA's successor) eliminated the requirement for those maneuvers and required only that instructors obtain an endorsement from another instructor attesting to his spin competency, an endorsement that frequently represents only minimal or no spin training. To me, substituting an endorsement for the required demonstration of spin competency was a step backwards. Instructors need to understand and demonstrate the ways in which students can cause inadvertent spins and be comfortably proficient in recovering from them. For that matter, all pilots should know more about spinning than is taught today, which is virtually nothing.

There are two prevailing schools of thought regarding spin training. The first is the Old School and was advocated by noted aviation author and spin impresario, William Kershner, who recently flew west. He urged that all pilots take spin training because ,"it builds their confidence, reduces their anxiety, and makes them safer." Many agree with him.

The New School preaches that the best way to prevent spin accidents is to teach pilots how to avoid inadvertent stalls. After all, if a wing does not stall, the airplane cannot spin. This is true. The problem with this concept is that the associated training goals have not been met. There continue to be a number of stall/spin accidents every year.

The New School believes also that requiring pilots to undergo spin training probably would result in a quantum increase in student-instructor fatalities. Jack Eggspuehler, noted aviation expert and a previous president of the National Association of Flight Instructors, believes that the current generation of flight instructors attempting to teach spins "would be like the blind leading the blind." He shudders at the thought of "how many instructors and students would have to be recovered from fields if spin training were reintroduced."

Personally, I believe that it is wrong not to have some experience in spin recovery. Just ask someone who has inadvertently begun a spin without realizing it until it was too late. Oops. That's not possible.

On the other hand, learning to make a three-turn spin and scaring yourself in the process does not make a lot of sense either. One reason that spins were eliminated from student training curricula was so that those contemplating learning to fly would not be discouraged by the daunting prospect of having to spin (especially during times when student starts are dismally low).

The answer, I think, is a compromise between the Old and the New. Pilots should learn how to enter and recover from an incipient spin, the initial phase of spin entry. This, after all, is what is most likely to save your life. The maneuver is not nearly as frightening or dramatic as a fully developed spin with the nose seemingly pointed straight down.

The concept of spin training is controversial and may never be completely resolved, but pilots have the luxury of deciding for themselves. Those opposed to spin training need do nothing. Those who favor obtaining spin experience have the luxury of seeking out a qualified instructor and an airplane certificated for spinning. Learning firsthand the causes of spin entry and developing the proficiency needed to avoid and recover from a spin is satisfying and could have life-saving benefits.