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Is pilot training a no-spin zone?

Maybe not, after all

Here's the assignment for today's class. We are going to study elephants. We will do this by talking about elephants and hearing stories about elephants. We will learn what they eat, where they live, what they like and don't like, and how to avoid one if you happen to encounter it on the trail. But we will never actually see an elephant during the course of our studies. The reason for this is that seeing one galloping down the trail might make you want to hurl yourself at its feet to see what it feels like to be stepped on by an elephant. Nevertheless it is our hope that by the end of the course, titled "Elephant Awareness," you will know enough about elephants to stay out of their way when you go out walking in the jungle. And if, by some misfortune or misunderstanding of what you have studied, you do encounter an elephant, you'll know how to escape.

Sound familiar? Substitute spin for elephant, and flying for walks in the jungle, and you will have an only slightly satirical interpretation of the modern view of how pilots should be educated about, yet protected from, accidentally spinning an airplane into the earth.

Well, maybe we've improved slightly on that model. After much reflection we have decided that it will be all right for you to see an airplane in a spin -- in a training video, for instance. (Heck, you might see one spinning at an airshow, anyway.) But no touching, and no trying this at home. When you go for your private pilot flight test, the examiner may say to you, "Tell me everything you know about elephants." Answer the question, but under no circumstance try to show him one. That would be, to make use of that wonderful FAA word, disqualifying.

So with this as a backdrop, it was no surprise that the moderator of a panel discussion for flight instructors was able to evoke a lively debate -- as well as consume about an hour of his schedule for the day -- by asking, "Should we be teaching student pilots spins?" Predictably the room divided up pretty much down the middle. There was the Yes Camp, who argued that the only way to truly understand spins is to enter and recover from one, and the No Camp, who have held sway over government flight-training policy since June 1949. They countered that avoidance training should suffice, and that training accidents prove that spin training does more harm than good. They pointed out that not all aircraft used in training are spin-approved. At least one member of this group expressed the fear that showing certain student pilots how to spin, in the name of safety, would lead to their going out and "trying it" on a solo flight when no one was watching.

A cage-rattler in the crowd who had heard all these conventional arguments pro and con the last time these same people had convened for their two-year recertification debates had been brooding intermittently on the issue. Now he offered a newly hatched perspective on the spin/no-spin question. It went like this: If a flight instructor is giving quality, practical test standard (PTS)-based instruction on stalls (which are prerequisite to a spin) and maneuvering during slow flight (that is, flight at maximum possible angle of attack, which is prerequisite to stalling), the student pilot cannot help but nibble at the edge of spins. That's right. You'll actually catch a glimpse of the elephant in its natural habitat; perhaps even get to pet one -- even under the current supposed training embargo on spins.

How can this be true? Because it is the rare student pilot who is going to perform only perfectly coordinated stall entries when practicing stalls and recoveries for solo and the flight test. This reality is one of those famous "learning opportunities" that flying so richly provides those who would take them. Some of these stall entries will be accompanied by wing drops and heading changes -- described more dryly in aerodynamese as rotation around the vertical axis. An elephant. Right there in your cockpit.

The typical student pilot experiencing this kind of stall behavior for the first time will do...what? As many CFIs know, they'll crank in gobs of aileron at the first indication of a wing going down, ignore rudder inputs completely, and perhaps even make the whole thing more entertaining by adding that blast of power they've been taught to use during a traditional stall recovery. (The sight cue of a sudden uncommanded banking of the airplane tends to overwhelm new pilots' less sophisticated grasp of arcane concepts such as adverse yaw, also known as aileron drag, during the earliest stages of flight training.) They will be mystified by the airplane's rebellious reaction to this usually successful set of inputs and will instantly become willing audiences for the CFI's heroic recovery demonstration.

An alarming experience? Sometimes. But if the recovery from this kind of stall, often requiring the instructor's intervention, is quickly followed up with some detailed analysis of the airplane's response and the control inputs necessary for the recovery, presto! You are talking about, and experiencing, spin entries and recoveries, the way they happen in the real world -- as unintended losses of control. This is another point on which the discussion of whether spins should be part of training gets sidetracked into lavish hangar tales of skill and daring. But intentional spins, performed in an approved airplane, at approved loadings at a safe altitude, are not the problem training seeks to address. That's for your aerobatics class next summer. The problem of unintentional spins is what happens to a surprised pilot, spinning an overloaded, unapproved airplane at an altitude from which any recovery is unlikely. That's an elephant of a different color.

So, while the experience of that first "bad" stall entry is fresh in the student's mind, the flight instructor can take time to revisit the PTS task of maneuvering during slow flight, with the focus on studying how control response lags, and adverse yaw increases, as airspeed decays during maneuvers. That, after all, is how the stall entry deteriorated into spin material in the first place. Show and practice how the nose sloughs off in the opposite direction when a turn is attempted at high angles of attack in the absence of sufficient rudder to counteract the induced drag of the down-moving aileron. Work on that until the student automatically anticipates the problem and applies rudder with every application of aileron. (Did anyone ever make you recite the old saying: "Stick and rudder, stick and rudder, don't move one without the other"?) Verify that the student is alert to the yaw cue of incipient uncoordination, not the banking sensations, and comes in aggressively with the foot pedals to maintain slow flight or to keep a stall from developing motion around that third axis. Demonstrate how bad uncoordinated flight feels -- even in cruise flight, where it's the trigger of much passenger airsickness at the hands of sloppy, wheel-waggling pilots -- the point being that a trained pilot can sense slip and skid at all times and won't stand for its unintended presence during any phase of flying. Pilots who have never developed this kind of sensitivity to the aerodynamic moods displayed by their aircraft have probably skated much closer than they know to the edge of the aerodynamic jungle, where one more misdeed might have placed them within the columns of the stall-spin accident statistics.

A pilot and two passengers joined those unfortunate ranks on October 3, 2001, at Decatur Island, Washington. According an NTSB accident report, shortly after the Cessna 172N carrying the three on a scheduled FAR Part 135 flight departed from the northern (turf) runway, "the pilot initiated a 360-degree turn to the right (east). Shortly before completing the turn, the aircraft banked sharply to the left, pitched down, and struck trees in a nose-low attitude. Witnesses reported that the aircraft's engine sounded normal during takeoff and the initial climb." The pilot was not a novice, holding an airline transport pilot certificate with a multiengine land rating and a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating for single-engine land airplanes. He had about 3,100 hours of total pilot time with 140 hours in the six months prior to an August 28, 2001, medical application. However, the NTSB said the Cessna was 61 pounds over gross weight at the time of the accident. And the probable cause was stated as "the pilot's failure to maintain airspeed during a low-altitude turn, resulting in a stall. The pilot exceeding the aircraft's maximum gross takeoff weight was a factor."

None of the above suggests drastically altering the traditional stall-spin curriculum for private pilots. But observation of pilots suggests that the needed focus has been lost on far too many, absent a direct mandate to perform spins. Even a glance at the private pilot PTS conveys this impression: There are four tasks in the Area of Operations covering slow flight and stalls in the private pilot PTS. Task A, maneuvering during slow flight, lists six steps that must be demonstrated to prove knowledge of its objective. Tasks B and C (power-off stalls and power-on stalls, respectively) list eight steps apiece. Task D, Spin Awareness, is diminutive by comparison, with only three, and as previously noted, the test-taker addresses these with explanations, not demonstrations.

But don't be fooled; the spirit of the test is otherwise. Its basic rules (stated in the front of the PTS) list "stall/spin awareness" as a "special emphasis area" which "may not be specifically addressed under each task," but is "essential to flight safety and will be evaluated during the practical test." That might include a casual query from an examiner as to why rudder, and not aileron, should be a pilot's first line of defense against a stall progressing to a spin. Or what effect an aft-of-limits center of gravity might have on recovery from a stall. Or the meaning of such terms as adverse yaw or coordination. Or silently observing a stall recovery and later questioning the applicant on his or her technique and the reasons behind it.

The applicant who has thoroughly explored the realm where these terms take on their meaning won't flinch. Even the beginning of a problem -- if corrected promptly and surely -- won't spoil the day. Nor will the examiner, when it comes time to issue that new pilot certificate.

Editor's note: ASF believes it's a good idea for all pilots, including student pilots, to at least consider spin training as an adjunct to their aeronautical education. Not all flight schools have the equipment for spin training, which requires parachutes (assuming the pilot is not working toward a CFI certificate) and airplanes certified for spins. Also, not all instructors do enough to be proficient in the finer points of spin entry and recovery. A brief session with a local aerobatics instructor in an approved airplane can take much of the fear out of stalls and recoveries. An ASF special report on general aviation stalls and spins is available online. -- Ed.

By Dan Namowitz

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