February 2012 Volume 55 / Number 2
Start an argument in any hangar merely by asking if spins should be mandatory for the private pilot certificate. The FAA decided to drop spins from the flight check in 1949 on the basis that preventing spins in the first place was far better than learning to spin and recover. The prevention logic is that if the aircraft never stalls, it can’t spin. There has been a decline in spin-related accidents over the years, so the concept seems to have worked—and yet, every year a number of pilots stall and spin in at low altitude, and the arguments start all over again.
Should spins be reintroduced to the flight test? My view, which is shared by a number of very spin-experienced CFIs, is no. We simply do not have the training infrastructure to support system-wide spin instruction. There is considerable consensus that more accidents would occur in the spin training than from actual inadvertent spins. But should pilots have exposure to spins? In my view, yes. How’s that for a political answer?
My introduction to spins as a primary instructor was brief but met the spirit of the regulations. A few students periodically tested my skills, usually during a power-on stall. The Cessna 150s weflew would swap ends rapidly and rotate. Recovery was straightforward, but you needed to know the drill—power off, ailerons neutral, opposite rudder, neutralize or push the elevator forward, recover from the dive, and thank the student for livening up the lesson. Then proceed to explain why the aircraft had departed controlledflight, how to avoid that, and let’s try again. I also resolved to do a better job briefing and demonstrating that the rudder rules. Stalls and approaches to stalls were, and should be, thoroughly reviewed.
Let’s talk about training infrastructure and why mandatory training would be difficult to implement nationwide. Spins, being aerobatic maneuvers, have increased risk over normal flight. There are roughly four parts to managing that risk. We recommend an instructor who has had more than just an intro to spins and is proficient in doing them in the make and model in which you’ll beflying. The International Aerobatic Club has an excellent instructor training program. The aircraft must be properly certificated and maintained.
Personally, I prefer an aerobatic machine that’s hard to break and spins and recovers easily, no matter how ham-fisted the pilot. Excellent maintenance is essential. Some of the old warhorses that serve well as primary trainers are not up to my standard for spin practice. Parachutes, and a way to rapidly exit the aircraft, add extra confidence.Finally, having reasonably sterilized airspace in which to maneuver vertically is a smart safety precaution.
Last fall I had the opportunity to fly with Bill Finnigin, a well-known aerobatic instructor based out of Annapolis, Maryland, in his Pitts S–2C. Bill arranged for an aerobatic area over the Frederick airport for about 45 minutes from 7,500 to 1,500 feet. The Potomac Tracon assigned a squawk and rearranged arrivals into Dulles and Baltimore. This resulted in little inconvenience and a much safer operation for all. There was also a VFR notam advising of rapidly falling aircraft above the airport.
We thoroughly briefed theflight, which included a laptop video of exactly what I would see, what the aircraft was doing, and how to recover. There are three phases in spins: entry or incipient, fully developed, and recovery (or impact, if recovery is unsuccessful). During entry, the aircraft falls off on a wing and pitches steeply down during the first turn. Once the spin is stabilized, the rotation rate speeds up.
The first maneuver was a normal spin. In all my prior training I’d never gone more than about three turns or so. That was always just enough to get stabilized, but we averaged about 10 to 12 turns on each maneuver, which burned through about 4,500 feet of altitude while Bill and I discussed what was happening and why (altitude is your friend). Next was a flat spin where power was introduced and the nose rose above normal spin attitude. This can also happen if the center of gravity is too far aft and the nose does not fall through in the stall. It may be unrecoverable, although in this case it was simply a matter of reducing power to idle and once the nose came down, a normal recovery was executed.
To induce an accelerated spin, the stick is held back and moved counter to the spin—something that a panicked pilot might do by attempting to recover with ailerons. Bad idea! The rotation rate speeded up significantly, but recovery was achieved by neutralizing the controls and recovering from the dive. In recovering from this right-hand spin I came out of the dive in a right turn. My eyes (and Bill) told me that we were still turning right, but it took about 10 seconds for my brain messages to unscramble what my inner ear was erroneously communicating as level. Full-blown vertigo is nasty stuff and not something typically experienced in a simulator.
A couple of unusual attitudes finished the ride. Should pilots, other than CFIs, have some exposure to spins and other unusual attitudes? I think so, but under carefully controlled circumstances. The instructor should let you do most of the flying and be sensitive to individual physiological differences. Spin training builds confidence and aircraft-handling skills, but competent stall education will also keep you out of a deadly low-altitude encounter. There are tens of thousands of pilots out there who have never spun and areflying safely.