Fear is a lousy teacherWhen the student pilot arrived for a lesson that Sunday morning, I noticed he hadn't flown in about two months. We had previously completed most of his FAR Part 61 requirements for the flight test and would be beginning the three-hour requirement in preparation for seeing the examiner. The student had shown some propensity for airsickness earlier in his training, but as he gained more flight experience the malady abated.
Because he had been out of the cockpit for awhile, I decided that this morning's flight would be a "back to basics" lesson. He had achieved a high score on his knowledge test and in the course of his training we had discussed aerodynamics in general and stall/spin scenarios in particular. I had particularly emphasized the danger of slow, uncoordinated base-to-final turns that can quickly lead to an unrecoverable stall/spin. He had always displayed a good understanding of the theory.
That morning we began with steep turns, slow flight, and flight at designated airspeeds with various flap and power settings. I asked for an approach stall, and he slowed the Cessna 152 to an appropriate airspeed just above stall with full flaps. He was reasonably coordinated with the power set at idle. Then the unexpected happened. At the point of full stall, the nose dropped as it should have-but the left wing plunged violently, and the airplane started to rotate to the left.
We had plenty of altitude, so I resisted intervening to see whether he remembered his spin-recovery procedure. He attempted to recover by holding the elevator full aft and applying full right aileron. I waited another second to see if he would correct his mistake, but he panicked and began shouting, "Help!"
I neutralized the ailerons, stomped on the right rudder pedal to stop the rotation, pushed the wheel forward to break the stall, raised the flaps, and gently pulled the 152 out of its dive. The student immediately became violently ill. He announced that he couldn't fly any more and needed to get on the ground "right now." I searched frantically for an airsickness bag, to no avail. The best I could come up with was a piece of paper towel we had used earlier to wipe the oil from the dipstick. There was an airport about two miles away, so I landed the airplane and taxied to a remote area so we could talk and he could throw up in peace.
Several critical things went through my mind as I landed the airplane. First, I believed that this flight may have had a tragic outcome had the student been by himself and had continued to use the spin recovery method he had employed. Second, I wondered whether he had learned from this experience; would it ensure that he never made this mistake again? And third, was he so frightened by the experience that he would give up flying?
After he began feeling better, we walked around and talked for about 20 minutes. I told him that I knew he had endured a frightening experience, but what had just happened to him might have saved his life. Now he had dramatic proof that bad things can happen in an airplane if you don't react properly in surprises or emergencies. We went through the spin-recovery technique in great detail, and I think that for the first time he really understood. But would he re-member if faced with another airborne surprise? I can only hope so. Before that morning, spin recovery was just a theory to be learned to get past the knowledge test or the designated examiner's oral exam.
The student's failed recovery technique was pure instinct. If the nose is headed for the ground the tendency is to pull back on the yoke. If the aircraft is rolling to the left the propensity is to apply right aileron. As instructors, it's our challenge to instill in students that instinct is not always the best way.
He asked why the aircraft went into a spin when he thought that he had the ailerons and rudder coordinated. The 152 we were flying had more than 8,000 hours' total time. It had been involved in one training accident that I knew of and may have been out of rig. When that is the case, airplanes tend to fall off on one wing or the other when reaching a full stall. Each airplane you fly-even those of the same make and model-has different flight characteristics, and you need to be ready for anything.
Then I came right out and asked the question. "Will what happened today discourage you from becoming a pilot?" Despite his green facial color, he assured me that it would not. That afternoon I called him to see how he was feeling and to encourage him not to let this experience affect his interest in flying. I went through the litany again about how much all of us learn each time we fly, and reminded him that he would be thankful for the experience he had today. He responded positively.
What should I have done differently? First, I forgot about his tendency toward airsickness. Second, I failed to gauge the intensity of his fear of spins. As soon as he applied the wrong spin recovery technique, I should have interceded rather than waiting for him to decide that what he was doing wrong. By that time, his brain was so bombarded with conflicting stimuli and his inner ear was so disoriented that he could not make a rational decision. Fear is a lousy teacher.
This is a classic good-news/bad-news story. The good news is that the experience will, I hope, enable him to react properly in a future emergency. The bad news is that it could have caused him to lose the desire to fly. In a case such as this, continuous encouragement from the flight instructor will be a major factor in restoring the student's passion for flight.
Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Richard Hiner