Spin myths

June 3, 2010

My first surprise came moments into our first spin.

Bill Finagin, a veteran aerobatic pilot, instructor, and airshow performer, drew my attention to the ball in the inclinometer. As the airplane spun to the left, I expected the ball (which shows yaw) to be displaced to the right.

Instead, it sat right in the middle of the instrument as the airplane settled into its dizzying rotation.

“Lots of people are surprised by that,” said Finagin, 73, of Annapolis, Md. “They’ve done spins or read about spins, but they’ve never actually focused their attention on the ball during a stabilized spin.”

Finagin has been studying spins—and pilot perceptions related to spins—for many years, and he believes removing the mystery that has long surrounded spins will improve our understanding, make spins less intimidating, and improve recovery techniques. We put some of Finagin’s ideas to a strenuous test in the two-seat Pitts S2-C that he uses to teach aerobatic flying, and the results were surprising and thought provoking.

First, on the subject of spin recoveries, pilots have long been taught that applying full opposite rudder and forward stick is the quickest and best way to recover from spins. The FAA’s Advisory Circular 61-67C is very clear on this point: “When the rotation slows, briskly move the elevator control forward to approximately the neutral position. Some aircraft require a mere relaxation of back pressure; others require full forward elevator control pressure.”

Opposite rudder slows or stops the spin, and elevator lowers the angle of attack and breaks the stall. It’s an effective, proven technique—but the steps must be performed correctly, and in the right order—and applying the recovery controls too briskly, or holding them too long, can result in an inverted spin.

Take, for example, entry into an upright spin to the left. When the pilot adds full opposite rudder and full forward stick, the airplane abruptly transitions to an inverted spin. A pilot who finds himself in this situation unintentionally could be in real trouble. He’s applied recovery controls, yet the airplane continues to spin.

Aerobatic pilots know this as a “cross-over” spin, and it results from the same control inputs as a standard spin recovery.

Other spin misconceptions center on flat spins and inverted spins. Many pilots believe that flat spins—those aggravated by high engine power, high propeller rpm, and outside ailerons—have faster rates of rotation than upright spins. But watch the rotation slow as the inverted spin in this video goes flat—and see how the spin accelerates again as the nose drops just before recovery.

Many pilots regard inverted spins—or worse yet, inverted flat spins—as nearly unrecoverable. In fact, there’s much more effective rudder available to recover from an inverted spin than an upright one. The rotation stops quickly once the pro-spin inputs are removed.

Finagin advocates a four-step recovery technique for unintentional spins and departures from controlled flight that pilots can put to use without hesitation—and without fear of making the situation worse—even when they’re confused or disoriented by the unusual attitudes and strange sensations that can accompany spins.

  1. Rip the power to idle.
  2. Forcefully neutralize the stick and rudder pedals.
  3. Look at the airspeed indicator, and once it shows 100 knots or more (roughly 1.4 times the airplane’s stall speed) …
  4. Pull out of the dive.

We tried this simple method from a variety of unusual attitudes, and the result in the Pitts was the same each time: a coordinated, wings-level, 45-degree descent.

There’s no guarantee this method will always work, and a NASA study of spins in light, general aviation aircraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed some aircraft in certain load conditions won’t recover from fully developed spins at all.

But unlike spin recovery techniques that require timely and correct control inputs performed in a certain sequence, this one is quick and intuitive to employ.

“There’s no reason for spins to be mysterious,” Finagin said. “My goal is to demystify spins and show how they can be understood and dealt with.”