Proficient Pilot

The no-spin zone

December 1, 2011

Barry SchiffNo one likes to admit failure, and I’m certainly not an exception to the rule. One misstep I dislike mentioning is when I failed the flight test for my flight instructor certificate in 1956 when I was 18 years old. I was in the rear seat of the Aeronca 7AC Champion and looking forward at the back of the examiner’s head as I completed the 720-degree steep turn.

“Okay, Barry. Not bad. Now let’s see a two-turn spin to the right.” He had to yell because training aircraft did not have intercoms in those days. It was an era when instructor applicants had to demonstrate spins during the flight test and not just present logbook evidence of having done them (as is the case today). Spinning from the rear seat of a “Champ” could be dizzying, though. You felt as though you were looking through a tunnel that seriously limited your view of the outside world. I had no problem with the maneuver and began to feel that I had the checkride nailed.

The government inspector, L.N. Lightbody, then yelled, “That was good. Now let’s see an over-the-top spin to the right.”

What? My confidence began to erode. I had never heard of such a thing. I leaned forward—we didn’t have shoulder harnesses either—so that he could more easily hear me. “I don’t know what that is,” I confessed.

“OK, then. Let’s see an under-the-bottom spin to the left.”

I admitted that I didn’t know what that was either.

A forefinger motioned toward the airport, and Lightbody said sternly, “Let’s go home.” An hour later I wadded the pink slip into a hidden corner of my wallet. I was shattered.

My instructor, Paul Bell, later told me that he had never heard of anyone being required to perform those kinds of spins during a flight test. He speculated that Lightbody wanted to nip my cockiness in the bud, take me down a notch, and teach me some humility. (I can’t say that I didn’t deserve it.)

“In any event,” he said. “Let’s schedule some time tomorrow, and I’ll show you how to do them.”

The next day found us over the steaming San Fernando Valley at 7,000 feet, a major feat unto itself, as anyone who has flown the 65-horsepower Aeronca can attest.

Bell asked me to establish the aircraft in a full-throttle, climbing turn to the left while simultaneously and slowly pulling back on the control stick. “When the airplane stalls, hold the stick in your lap, apply full right [top] rudder, and retard the throttle.”

Whoa! I was totally unprepared for what happened next. The Champ rolled rapidly from a left bank through the inverted attitude and into a conventional upright spin to the right. After spinning twice, Bell shouted for me to recover conventionally (opposite rudder to arrest rotation, forward stick to break the stall, and then back-pressure to recover from the ensuing dive).

My heart was pounding. I had never been upside-down in an airplane before even though it had only been for a split second. I practiced the over-the-top spin a few more times and soon found the maneuver to be easy to perform and lots of fun (as long as you know what to do and what to expect).

In later years I learned that some airplanes will do almost the same thing when stalled inadvertently during a full-power climb with flaps extended (as for takeoff). Propeller P-factor has the same effect as applying rudder. The Bonanza is one such airplane. This is one reason why Beech does not recommend using flaps for takeoff, not even during a short- or soft-field takeoff.

Bell then set me up for an under-the-bottom spin.

“Establish a right gliding turn,” he commanded. “As the turn progresses, slowly bring the stick back. Just as the airplane stalls, apply full right [bottom] rudder.”

The result is far less dramatic than the over-the-top spin. The nose simply yaws more into the turn and simultaneously goes down as the spin begins to develop (the incipient phase of a spin). Recovery is the same.

When inadvertent, the under-the-bottom spin most often is the result of a low-altitude turn from base leg to final approach. The pilot overshoots the extended runway centerline and is reluctant to steepen the bank when so close to the ground, a phenomenon known as “ground shyness.” He instead and unwittingly adds bottom rudder to increase the turn rate. This causes the nose to go down somewhat, so the pilot, again unwittingly, attempts to keep the nose up by applying back-pressure to the control wheel. He is setting himself up for a spin into oblivion.

The best way to cope with a centerline overshoot is to roll out of the turn and go around.

The over-the-top and under-the-bottom spins teach much about the conditions during which an airplane can spin and may be performed safely in any airplane for which spins are approved. It doesn’t have to be an aerobatic airplane. One characteristic that both types of spin have in common is that when either occurs inadvertently and at low altitude, a timely recovery is likely impossible. Avoidance obviously is the key to survival.


The deadline for young people to submit a 500-word essay to enter my solo-scholarship contest is midnight, December 15. Details were announced in this column in October.

Barry Schiff has flown 325 types of aircraft and is trying for 400. Visit the author’s website.