In aviation, a little fear can be a good thing. A wary appreciation for what could go wrong makes for a safer pilot than brash cockiness in the cockpit. The key is not to let healthy fear become debilitating panic in the face of stress. Seized by overpowering fright, an impulsive pilot may overpower the one thing that could avert disaster—the more experienced pilot beside him.
On June 8, 2006, a CFI-in-training and his instructor were killed when they failed to recover from an intentional spin. The accident airplane, a Cessna 152, showed no sign of mechanical failure and had been used earlier that day for spin training without incident. The student reportedly had a history of impulsive and panicked behavior during stressful situations, including locking his grip on the yoke and refusing to give up control of the airplane.
The flight departed Phoenix Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., at about 2:45 p.m. The airplane proceeded northwest toward the local practice area, climbing to 6,100 feet msl. The 200-hour pilot, who held a commercial certificate, was enrolled in a multiengine CFI course that required spin training as part of the curriculum. The purpose of the instructional flight was to introduce the pilot to spins and practice spin-recovery procedures.
Radar returns showed the aircraft completing several maneuvers that included short climbs followed by quick, 1,000-foot altitude losses, consistent with the instructor demonstrating spin entry and recovery for the student. At approximately 3:30 p.m., the Cessna climbed to 5,500 feet msl. Returns then showed the airplane plunging 2,100 feet in 20 seconds before disappearing completely from radar.
The wreckage was discovered on the side of a hill near a golf course. Airframe deformation and ground scarring were consistent with the airplane striking the ground in a spin. Amid the debris, accident investigators discovered a kneeboard with a piece of notebook paper secured in its clip. A handwritten note on the paper included a list: “ aileron neutral;  throttle idle;  opposite rudder;  pitch down.” Investigators found no evidence of mechanical failure or other anomalies that would have contributed to the accident or prevented spin recovery.
Interviews with students and instructors at the flight school helped piece together a probable cause for the accident. One instructor, who had flown with the accident pilot about 10 or 12 times, described the pilot’s skills as good within the training environment but lacking in situations “outside the box.” He recalled the student pilot acting impulsively on numerous occasions when a stressful situation was simulated, such as failing an engine or stalling the airplane. The student would stiffen on the controls, “seizing the yoke as if petrified.” During one flight, the instructor had to physically jab the student in the leg to get him to relinquish the controls. Another instructor described a similar experience with the same student.
If the 230-pound male student had panicked during his first experience with spin recovery, it would have been next to impossible for the 100-pound female instructor to override his control inputs. The NTSB blamed the crash on the failure of both the flight instructor and student pilot to regain control of the airplane in a timely manner during an intentional spin maneuver, resulting in a collision with terrain.
While only required for the CFI ticket, spin training can be a worthwhile experience for any pilot. Spin-training mishaps are extremely rare, and the Cessna 152’s safety record is among the best of any spin-certified aircraft, according to data in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s special report on stall/spin accidents. The report further notes that recognition and prevention are the most important aspects of spin training, given that more than 80 percent of stall/spin accidents occur when the aircraft is maneuvering less than 1,000 feet above the ground—an altitude that makes spin recovery unlikely.
This accident also demonstrates the importance of a relaxed approach to flying. Stressful situations are inevitable. The key is to remain focused and calm when faced with the unexpected. That may be easier said than done, but pilots who survive in-flight emergencies consistently cite level-headedness and reliance on checklists or proven safety routines as critical to their success. Unfortunately, those who succumb to panic and seize at the controls frequently encounter tragedy—the literal implications of a death grip.