Of all the words you never want to hear in an aircraft, those two probably rank just behind “Do you smell something burning?” A recent accident reminds us why. Even though it happened in Australia, the flight instructor and Cirrus salesman responsible wasn’t reported to have prefaced it with “Hold my beer,” but the prospective customers he terrified distinctly heard him say “Watch this.”
The fateful words were uttered during a sales demonstration flight in New South Wales (near Katoomba, if you’re keeping track) on May 10. The potential buyer, a private pilot, was in the left seat and the CFI/salesman was in the right. There was also a back-seat passenger who the Australian Transportation Safety Board’s report doesn’t identify. Apparently an earlier flight had left the prospect with concerns about the Cirrus SR22’s handling and stall behavior, so one goal of the flight was to demonstrate its Electronic Stability Protection system, a “mother knows best” arrangement that uses the autopilot servos to nudge the airplane from the edges of the flight envelope back toward the middle. The pilot can overpower it, but this takes a conscious effort.
Following a series of steep turns showing that the computer preferred 30-degree banks to angles exceeding 45, the salesman talked the private pilot through a wings-level power-off stall. Then he said … well, you know … extended the flaps 50 percent, rolled into a 25-degree right turn, and pulled the throttle back to idle. As the airplane approached the stall, he pointed to the vertical speed indicator, at which point the Cirrus broke into a spin to the right.
We’ve heard unofficial suggestions from experienced Cirrus instructors that full forward stick and opposite rudder may be enough to break a spin if the center of gravity is forward, but usually won’t work if there’s anybody sitting in back. It didn’t this time. At about 2,000 feet agl the salesman said, “I’m sorry,” and pulled the chute (for the record, the model’s only approved method of spin recovery). After a few nervous moments during which the disabled airplane drifted across a set of high-tension power lines, it hit a tree and settled onto a fence in someone’s back garden. All three walked away unhurt.
Inevitably, their accounts of what happened differed somewhat. The instructor said that he’d provided a pre-flight safety briefing and followed a formal procedure to assure the positive exchange of flight controls. Both passengers insisted he had not. The instructor also intimated that an “uncommanded rudder input” by his prospective customer had instigated the spin—less than gallant given that he was acting as PIC.
He did acknowledge that he “was probably overconfident,” which he attributed to having performed the same demonstration as many as 50 times during the preceding six months. According to press accounts, he’s promised never to do it again—and also to “properly brief his passengers.” Apparently this was enough to satisfy the ATSB. We haven’t heard how it played with his employer.
Neither do we know what effect the whole episode had on the sale. Seeing that a company-trained salesman/CFI could accidentally provoke a spin probably didn’t do much to allay the customer’s unease with the airplane’s stall behavior. On the other hand, it provided a very compelling demonstration of the aircraft’s ability to survive an unrecoverable loss of control—if you look past that terrible helpless feeling as they waited to see whether they’d hit the power lines. The potential buyer asked the salesman whether they could restart the engine and pull away from the wires; he didn’t know. A Cirrus spokesman later said that starting the engine after a parachute deployment only makes the fuselage circle below the canopy.
We can smile this time because nobody got hurt, but even when no blood is spilled or aircraft bent, “Watch this!” episodes exact a cost. Overenthusiastic instructors who demonstrate aggravated stalls or even steep turns on intro flights have scared away more than one prospective student—probably thousands. A YouTube clip showed one knucklehead laughing his way through a series of zero-G pushovers as a little girl got sick in the back seat. Think she’ll ever learn to fly? Other attempts to show off, whether for people in the aircraft or audiences on the ground, have ended with in-flight break-ups (“I think I can roll this airplane”) or uncontrolled descents. The guy who told a lineman “Let’s see if I can scare these guys to death” promptly crashed inverted into a reservoir.
Whether they’re trying to sell one airplane or aviation, flight instructors (and everyone else who takes up nonpilot passengers) serve as the industry’s ambassadors. We’re there to show how responsible we are and how seriously we take their safety, not dazzle them with the brilliance of our airmanship.