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To spin or not to spin

To spin or not to spin

Were early aviators asking the right question?

To spin or not to spin

Capt. F.B. Hennesey in a Curtiss biplane. He taught military pilots in College Park, Maryland. At a demonstration in San Diego, his foot got caught
between the steering wire and a strut, and the biplane went into a spin. He was able to right the aircraft just 200 feet above the water.

Lincoln Beachey helped invent aerobatics. At the 1911 Los Angeles airshow Beachey was a mechanic when a star pilot got hurt. Beachey took his place. In a Curtiss biplane he climbed to 3,000 feet into the air—and his engine failed. He went into a nose-diving spin that no pilot had ever survived. And he did what no pilot had ever done: regained control and landed safely. He later became the most famous performer on the Curtiss Exhibition Team. When so many young pilots attempted to emulate his feats—and died doing so—Beachey temporarily stopped performing.

To spin or not to spin? That used to be the question.

To spin or not

The argument continues even today, 65 years after the Civil Aeronautics Authority (predecessor to today’s FAA) decreed that spin training for private and commercial pilots no longer would be required. (Spin training for CFIs is still required.) Proponents say spin training improves survival chances in an inadvertent stall/spin; opponents argue that since spins first require a stall, pilots should be better taught how to recognize stalls. Either way, it’s the wrong argument. (See “Spin Training: Did It Really Help?” p. 43.) “Traditional spin training is of little or no value in an accidental stall/spin or other upset situation,” says Rich Stowell, nationally known as the “Spin Doctor” and a founding member of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE). “Studies dating to the 1970s show ‘spin or no spin’ is totally the wrong question. Context-based upset recovery training [UPRT], which includes stall/spins, should be your focus.”

Upset training? The FAA mandated upset training for airline pilots in November 2013, then on March 18, 2014, issued draft Advisory Circular 120-UPRT to explain how such training should be conducted. Although written for airline pilots, the very first paragraph says, “the FAA encourages all airplane operators, pilot schools, and training centers to implement UPRT.”

In other words, the FAA believes upset training is good for you. A 2003 AOPA Air Safety Institute study estimated that 10 percent of recent GA accidents involved a stall/spin, which would mean about 115 accidents in 2012. A 2013 report from the FAA’s Loss of Control Working Group shows that the overwhelming majority occur in visual weather, and those that occur in instrument conditions are most often a steep spiral that allows speed to build—and results in disaster when the pilot pulls back hard on the yoke.

Why wouldn’t traditional spin or even aerobatic training do the same thing? Essentially, UPRT trains pilots to avoid upset situations, as well as how to recover should they occur.

“Pilots who believe performing one or two intentional spins will improve their survival chances in an accidental encounter are fooling themselves,” says Stowell, who also is the 2014 National FAASTeam Representative of the Year, 2006 National CFI of the Year, and author of The Light Airplane Pilot’s Guide to Stall/Spin Awareness. “Most spin training today is taught like every other flight maneuver, with little consideration for the context in which stall/spin accidents happen. The pilot knows in advance he’ll be pulling hard back on the yoke, then mashing a rudder pedal. He’s been thinking for hours, maybe weeks about the steps to recover. No surprises.”

But in a real-world loss of control situation, says Stowell, it’s all a surprise.

Even experienced pilots often suffer a “startle response” that Stowell describes as the pilot catching his breath and exclaiming “holy moly!” before starting to respond. Untrained pilots are much worse, says Bill Crawford, owner of aerobatic instruction school FlightLab in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “Confused pilots often freeze when the aircraft reacts unexpectedly. Aerobatic instructors see this all the time.”

The chance of recovering from a stall/spin at a low altitude—where most occur—is effectively nil. A study of 1,771 such accidents from 1972 to 1997 by FAA flight test engineer Lowell Foster found that an astonishing 93 percent started at or below pattern altitude. Of the rest, only nine—less than one-half of one percent—were started high enough to be recoverable. In 1970, NTSB research revealed that about 40 percent of stall/spin accidents that occurred from 1967 to 1969 were during impromptu low-level aerobatics, buzzing, or other “hey, y’all, watch this” stupid pilot tricks.

Susan Parson, editor of FAA Safety Briefing, detailed her long-ago experience with a typical stall/spin scenario in the March/April 2014 issue. “I overshot the base-to-final turn. I had been trained to avoid steep turns in the pattern, so I didn’t go much beyond a 30-degree bank. Since that clearly wasn’t enough to correct my overshoot, I unconsciously applied bottom rudder to slew the nose around to the runway heading. Bad move.” It was only the last-minute stall warning horn screech that saved her. She recommends a white paper titled Maintaining Aircraft Control, recently released by SAFE and available free on its website. (See “Resources,” p. 42.)

“Nine out of 10 flight instructors I fly with have never done a stall in a slip,” says Stowell, “so they’re teaching slips with no idea what can go wrong.”

In UPRT-type training, including comprehensive stall/spin awareness programs, pilots fly routine scenarios that have resulted in sudden upsets, learning firsthand what can suddenly cause loss of control.

“After all,” says Stowell, “prevention is a much better strategy at the low altitudes where many loss of control accidents start.”

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