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Teaching spins

Turn a blur into a rewarding lesson


What I remember most about my spin training is—well, actually, what I don’t remember. I had been briefed thoroughly during ground school; nevertheless, those first few spins were just a blur. Once I gathered my bearings, I used the ground reference to count the rotations and maintain my orientation during the spin. But at first my only thought was incredulity that anyone would do this on purpose. Who knew that someday spin and aerobatic instruction would be my specialty?

Most people who come for spin training aren’t seeking a thrill. The idea of encountering a spin inadvertently is scary, so getting a jump on it seems prudent. Still, getting up the nerve to arrange a spin course can be daunting. I’ve been there. Fortunately, I found an experienced instructor who made it clear that safety was the highest priority. It didn’t hurt that he also made it fun.

I’ve taught spins and aerobatics to student pilots with fewer than 15 hours on up to professional pilots and flight instructors. I’ve learned that fear of spins is independent of the hours in a logbook. The Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) cautions that the element of fear does not promote effective learning. So the first flight introduces the unusual flight attitudes and demonstrates that the recovery procedure presented in ground school works every time. Once a level of confidence is achieved, then learning can begin. Additional ground and flight sessions cover more advanced material and foster understanding. Here are some other important practices:

Besides imparting necessary information on spins, detailed ground instruction provides an opportunity to share the instructor’s expertise and relate the safety goals of the school. It’s a great way to reduce stress and anxiety.

Ground instruction should include a discussion of aircraft certification under Part 23 for the three most popular categories of aircraft: Normal, Utility, and Acrobatic. Airplanes approved for intentional spins must demonstrate good spin and spin recovery characteristics into the developed phase. Others undergo little or no spin testing and are not approved for intentional spins. Utility category aircraft may fall into either of these two groups.

Compute a weight and balance for all fuel conditions to ensure the airplane will be loaded properly during every phase of the flight. Location in the envelope matters for every flight, but it’s especially important for reliable spin characteristics.

Introduce uncoordinated stalls, because many pilots never see them. Stalled wings and a lack of coordination are the ingredients of a spin, so the first time or two, we experience the full stall and witness the incipient phase of the spin. In a slip, the higher wing stalls first and the airplane rolls “over the top.” In a skid, the lower wing stalls first and the airplane rolls “under the bottom.” Of course, allowing the airplane to turn upside down is not the right corrective action for an inadvertent stall—so, subsequently, the student initiates the recovery as soon as the roll starts. The proper antidote at the onset means a spin never has to occur.

Double the FAA aerobatic flight minimums to 3,000 feet above ground level. In fact, at the start of training, I plan for recoveries above 4,500 feet agl. Safety, of course, is the primary purpose, but there’s a pedagogical one as well. The new trainee may be slow on the recovery or even freeze on the controls. That extra altitude allows me the time to sit with my arms folded and suggest calmly, “Try pushing the yoke forward.” It’s a real confidence-builder for any student who thinks I might step in and finish the recovery. With increasing proficiency, learning accelerates.

Ensure the student practices spin recoveries during the developed phase of the spin—for many trainers, this means beyond three or so turns. The Cessna 152 will not recover from a spin “hands-off” in the developed phase (see “Spinning 101,” p. 34), so when the student executes a recovery, we both know s/he was responsible.

There is no universal spin recovery procedure. Emphasize that the pilot’s operating handbook or flight manual is the final authority for a particular model. Checking out in a new aircraft should involve a review of its spin recovery procedure. It’s not a bad idea to sit in the aircraft and go through the motions if it isn’t approved for intentional spins.

A relaxed postflight briefing can raise the student’s level of learning to understanding and beyond. I can’t tell you how many “aha” moments I’ve seen after the flying was over and the airplane was tucked away in the hangar. Don’t miss out on one.

For me, spin training began as a blur. But with a knowledgeable instructor and a solid training
program, it can become one of
the most challenging, rewarding, and memorable experiences a
pilot can have.

Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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