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To spin or not to spinTo spin or not to spin

In 1949, the Civil Aeronautics Board eliminated the requirement that applicants for a private pilot certificate demonstrate spin entry and recovery during their checkrides. In many ways, it seems to have been a good decision: At that time, more pilots were being killed practicing intentional spins than by spins entered inadvertently. (A similar consideration eventually led the FAA to quit simulating engine failures just after takeoff on the multiengine practical test.) One result, though, is that it’s become common for pilots to earn their private and even commercial certificates without ever even seeing a spin, at least from the inside. Given that stall/spin accidents continue to cause dozens of fatalities every year, there’s room to wonder whether it’s really enough to emphasize teaching spin awareness rather than recovery.

One point worth remembering is that relatively few accidents arise from inadvertent spins entered at altitude, and in most of those, the spins were deliberate. The great majority of spin-related fatalities result from uncoordinated stalls in the traffic pattern or overly aggressive low-altitude maneuvering. Under those conditions, recovery is usually impossible; even with perfect technique, most light airplanes need at least 1,000 feet to recover from a spin once it develops. The chief safety benefit of spin training would therefore seem to lie in improving the ability to recognize an incipient spin and prevent it from ever occurring.

Of course, there are other reasons a pilot might seek spin instruction. Some may view it as emergency training, or need it to get past an exaggerated fear of stalls. Some might want to increase their mastery over the aircraft and comfort with unusual attitudes, and others just think it’s fun. CFI candidates, of course, have no choice, although the logbook endorsement attesting to their “instructional proficiency” probably carries more weight for some of them than others.

But the fact that someone asks for spin training (and is willing to pay for it) doesn’t oblige any particular school or instructor to provide it. While it’s not unduly dangerous when done properly, there are some real risks. It’s true that we see relatively few accidents during spin training, but then, there’s not that much of it going on.

Before deciding to go ahead, several items are worth considering.

The aircraft. Of course, if your fleet doesn’t include any airplanes certified for intentional spins, you’re done. Even if it does, however, there are other considerations. Can the gyros be caged? If not, should they be disconnected or removed? Has there been any recent work on the flight controls or control surfaces? An exceptionally careful inspection is probably a good idea. After a Cessna 152 failed to recover during spin practice, killing both student and CFI, investigators found that the rudder bumpers had been installed inverted. When the right one moved past its stop, it jammed the rudder at full deflection.

Weight and balance are also especially critical. Odds are your instructors don’t make explicit calculations for every routine training flight, but, in a spin, controllability may only be available within a much narrower loading envelope. A newly minted private pilot spun a Cessna 172 into the ocean with two passengers aboard after ignoring Cessna’s prohibition against attempting spins with the back seat occupied, and several unrecoverable flat spins in Pitts S-2s have been traced in part to centers of gravity aft of limits.

The instructor. Do you have a CFI who is really comfortable with spins, and has taught them or practiced them recently in the same model of aircraft you’re going to use? If not, is someone more experienced available to help get at least one of your instructors up to speed? The time to brush up on the finer points of recovery technique is probably not when a nervous student is seeing it for the first time.

The student. Two different considerations come into play here. Is the student reasonably calm and level-headed? In a fatal Arizona crash in another Cessna 152, the student—a 230-pound male—had a reputation for freezing at the controls. In all likelihood, he simply overpowered the 100-pound female instructor who’d agreed to introduce him to spins.

Even if the student won’t endanger the instructor, will he or she endanger others later? Any doubts about whether the student has the maturity and good judgment to put this training to appropriate use could be grounds for refusal, or at least postponement. The pilot who spun the Cessna 172 into the Pacific was 19 years old and had held his private pilot certificate for three days. Another 19-year-old working on his commercial had previously received spin training in a Diamond DA20, and apparently decided that to try one during an otherwise uneventful cross-country in the same airplane. He failed to recover, spinning down more than 6,000 feet before crashing by the shore of a lake.

If you find you’re not staffed, not equipped, or just not comfortable with the risk-reward ratio, don’t agonize. Keep doing the things you do best, and send the student off to an upset recovery recourse or aerobatic instructor to whom spins are entirely routine. Both of them should thank you for the referral.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

Manager, Safety Analysis
David Jack Kenny analyzes GA accident data to target ASI’s safety education programs while also supporting AOPA’s ongoing initiatives and assisting other departments in responding to breaking developments. David maintains ASI’s accident database and regularly writes articles for ePilot, Flight School Business, Flight Training, CFI-to-CFI, and other publications.

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