Should spin training be included in primary instruction?
In the late 1940s, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (today’s FAA) was in a quandary. The flight training business was booming, thanks to hordes of World War II ex-servicemen eager to make like birds. By 1949, the number of private pilots had grown from 20,832 just before the war to 328,380 and the number of hours flown had more than quadrupled.
Unfortunately for the agency charged with both ensuring aviation safety and promoting aviation, the number of accidents was also growing, hitting an all-time high of 9,253 in 1947. (For comparison, total GA fixed-wing accidents in 2012 were just 1,157, even with more hours flown). Worse, almost half (48 percent) of all late 1940s GA accidents were stall/spin crashes, despite mandated spin instruction.
The CAA’s seemingly perverse answer was to dump the spin requirement except for CFI applicants. That June, 1949 decision started a raucous argument that continues in a muted form even today. Would adding spins to the private pilot curriculum produce safer pilots?
Here are the facts.
For its 1949 decision, the CAA gave two reasons. Spins aren’t possible without a stall, so officials reasoned that pilots must be better taught to recognize stalls. From then until 1991 instructors made sure beginning pilots could recognize impending stalls and recover before they developed into full stalls. (In 1991, the FAA shifted the training emphasis from stall avoidance to stall/spin awareness.) The CAA’s second stated reason was that airplane manufacturers would be encouraged to build more spin-resistant airplanes if spin training was not required.
For flight schools especially, there was a third reason. By 1948 the post-World War II flight training bubble was losing air fast, and schools that had been bursting at their seams started seeing fewer and fewer new students. Until then, flight schools hadn’t been worried about students who were afraid of spins, washing them out without a care. By 1949, many schools had changed their minds.
But all that was 65 years ago. Which side should win the argument?
Relying on accident statistics alone, the CAA made the right choice. In the late 1960s the original 48 percent stall/spin GA accident rate had been reduced to about 25 percent. Fast-forward to 1993 to 2001 and the rate fell to about 14 percent. Most recently, a 2003 Air Safety Institute study of stall/spin accidents estimates that only about 10 percent of fatal GA accidents are stall/spins.
”Wait, not so fast,” says Rich Stowell, nationally known as “The Spin Doctor,” a founder of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE), 2014 National FAASTeam Representative of the Year, 2006 National CFI of the Year and author of the 2007 book The Light Airplane Pilot’s Guide to Stall/Spin Awareness. “Those numbers don’t prove that spin training removal itself has decreased the stall/spin accident rate.”
First, says Stowell, the term stall/spin was almost generic for accidents in the 1940s. In fact, not until 1965 did the NTSB start consistently categorizing accidents as stalls, spins, spirals, or mushes and in 1982 again changed its coding system. “Even the definition of an aircraft accident changed over the years,” says Stowell, “so depending on the context a stall/spin might represent spins only, stalls plus spins, or stalls, spins, spirals, and mushes lumped together.”
In addition, manufacturers largely took the CAA’s 1949 hint and started designing airplanes less easily spun.
Not in question is that stall/spin accidents are more than 90 percent fatal and usually start at low altitudes. A study of 1,771 stall/spin accidents from 1972 to 1997 by FAA flight test engineer Lowell Foster found that an astounding 93 percent started at or below airport traffic pattern altitude. Of the remaining seven percent, only nine accidents—less than one half of one percent—were deemed recoverable.
Based on that study and others, Stowell says that conventional spin training is virtually useless in a low-altitude inadvertent stall/spin. “Consider how spins have historically been taught,” he says. “Training flights are specifically for teaching spins: yoke back, one rudder mashed as the break occurs, and the pilot knows exactly what is happening every second. That’s not the way it happens in the real world, where the pilot has no idea what’s coming.”
Stowell advocates real-world scenario practice with an experienced instructor, learning to avoid sudden aircraft loss of control rather than recover from the results, very similar to the CAA’s rationale 65 years ago.
For flight schools, considerations for teaching spins also include costs of acquiring, insuring, and maintaining a suitable aircraft. A few contemporary training aircraft, including the popular Cessna 172, may be spun with restrictions on weight and center of gravity, but are often not because of fear that spins may cause wear on gyroscopic instruments.
To spin or not to spin? After 65 years, that’s still the question.