Recovery Room

Understanding spins takes far more training than a one-shot exposure to a one-turn spin.


Spins have long been a source of fear for students, consternation for flight instructors and frustration for accident investigators. The reason is that spin recovery is primarily a stick-and-rudder skill, while spin avoidance is largely a judgment skill.

Pilots need to exercise better judgment, not only when it comes to avoiding scenarios that lead to deadly stall/spin accidents, but also to avoid many other common aviation accidents. Yet good judgment usually evolves only as a result of useful learning experiences.

For example, though many of the pilots I fly with understand intellectually that an airplane can stall/spin at any airspeed and in any attitude, their only practical stall experience consists of performing a contrived, wings-level stall to a Practical Test Standard.

Such limited stall experience imparts little practical experience vis–vis real-world stall/spin accident scenarios. As a result, many pilots never realize just how close they may be to stalling the airplane when performing a so-called dumb stunt, or how close they may be to a stall/spin departure when skidding a turn in the traffic pattern.

Theres no question that being able to recover from a spin is a moot point in the majority of stall/spin accidents. Insufficient altitude remains for recovery when the inadvertent stall/spin is encountered. Genuine stall/spin training, though such training might include intentional spin entries and recoveries as part of the overall training strategy, must also address the warning signs preceding an inadvertent stall/spin so the pilot can prevent an uncontrolled departure in the first place.

Too often the value of spin training is weighed against the following no-win situation: Put the best spin-trained pilot in the world in a spin close to the ground and even that pilot wont be able to recover in time.

This is undoubtedly true, but misses the point. The real question to raise is: Whats the probability that a properly spin-trained, stall/spin aware pilot whos exercising sound judgment will encounter an accidental spin close to the ground in the first place? In other words, when was the last time we read about an inadvertent stall/spin accident involving a pilot with the proven stall/spin expertise of, say, a Jim Patton? Or a Bill Kershner? Or a Sammy Mason?

This naturally leads to another interesting issue: What constitutes spin training? Is it the simplistic one-turn spin (all two of them) that flight instructor applicants and FAA examiners count as satisfying the requirement for a spin endorsement, or must spin training encompass more than that? Related to this issue is the question, How do we measure a pilots stall/spin experience?

To answer the first question, consider an instrument training analogy. Pilots certainly consider a couple of hours under the hood practicing holding patterns as instrument training, but practicing this maneuver in and of itself does not constitute the whole of the instrument training program. Learning to fly by instruments is a broad discipline indeed. And once learned, pilots must then continually practice, refine, hone, refresh their instrument skills. Otherwise, instrument flying skills will atrophy to the point where the pilot is unable to function safely in IMC.

The stall/spin environment can be just as mentally and physiologically demanding as the instrument environment. Both environments require the right kind of equipment for the job, and the margin for error in both environments is equally slim. You cannot be approximate in either one without suffering dire consequences. Pilots should not dabble in the stall/spin environment any more than they should dabble in instrument flying in IMC.

As Pat Veillette has pointed out in earlier issues of Aviation Safety, the military approach to spin training is technically detailed, well disciplined, and based on years of ongoing development – akin to the evolution and execution of modern instrument training.

Once a pilot completes the full and rigorous course of instrument training and is awarded an instrument rating, it then becomes that pilots responsibility to remain proficient in instrument flying skills and procedures. When a loss of control accident occurs in IMC involving a non-proficient instrument pilot, its not necessarily the fault of the instrument training. Were more likely to attribute the cause to the same poor judgment that underlies many stall/spin accidents.

Surely the instrument-trained pilot knew better. Surely the instrument-rated pilot appreciated the very real risks of flirting with IMC without being current. I think the same can be said regarding so-called spin-trained pilots whove spun in close to the ground. Just as the instrument-rated pilot must remain proficient in order to fly in IMC, all pilots – spin trained or not – must remain proficient in slow flight and the scenarios that lead to inadvertent stall/spins in order to fly at all.

Training Tracks
So what is spin training? Its been proven that effective spin training isnt the traditional way spins were taught – as intentional, controlled maneuvers devoid of any connection to inadvertent stall/spin scenarios. In fact, the Brent Silver study that showed airplane design was largely responsible for reducing stall/spin accidents between the late 1940s and the early 1970s can be interpreted another way: Traditional spin training was (and is) no better or no worse than the stall avoidance methodology that supplanted mandatory spin training back in 1949.

In an attempt to improve stall/spin awareness, the FAA implemented sweeping changes to stall/spin training requirements in 1991. Unfortunately, many pilots have not received the stall/spin awareness training mandated as outlined in Advisory Circular 61-67B (now 61-67C).

I have assembled anecdotal confirmation that, to this day, pilots continue to be deprived of the minimal stall/spin awareness training required by the FAA. For example, fewer than 10 percent of the pilots I query during safety seminars conducted across the country have ever heard of AC 61-67B or C, much less received a copy of it as part of their stall/spin education.

On top of that, consider the following e-mail I received recently from a brand-new private pilot: I am uncomfortable flying alone because I did not receive a lot of training dealing with spins and stalls. Actually my only stall training was the day before my check ride.

The negligence of this pilots instructor is appalling; the ignorance of the Designated Pilot Examiner, astounding. Yet the scariest part of this is that Ive dealt with thousands of pilots across the country, many sharing a similar story.

Thank goodness for the improvements in airplane design, because pilots sure dont seem to be getting a lot of help on the training side of the equation. But because most flight lines arent likely to lose their tried-and-true 1970s flavor any time soon, it seems that recent improvements in airplane design wont have any broad effect on the stall/spin problem for the foreseeable future. That leaves the door open for improved training methodologies as a way to reduce stall/spin accident rates below current levels.

Heres a novel idea: How about actually training and testing pilots to the stall/spin awareness standards that have been in effect for the last eleven years? And while were at it, lets also address the subject of risk management as John and Martha King advocate. And while were still at it, lets wise up and use better judgment in making decisions as to where well fly and how.

But dont discount hands-on spin training. Pilots can dramatically improve their odds with the kind of spin training that puts stalls and spins in the context of stall/spin accidents. Such training includes not only intentional spins, but recoveries from unintentional spins as well. It combines theory with practice at a safe altitude, using the right equipment, with knowledgeable instructors. Without a doubt it will instill a healthy respect for the complexities of spin dynamics.

Done properly, spin training will expand your experience without giving you a false sense of security about the dangers of fooling around with high angles of attack close to the ground or in airplanes not approved for spins. Finally, a truly valuable spin training program should encourage you to map out a continuing stall/spin training regimen, perhaps incorporating such training into every biennial Flight Review or annual FAA Wings Program.

Search for a Spin Master
Where to get such training is a problem that cant be ignored. Pilots love credentials almost as much as acronyms. Ratings, certificates, titles, flight time – people read a lot into these. After all, pilots tend to be goal-oriented individuals, and what better way to measure our progress than with ratings and numbers?

But what story do these accoutrements really tell? Take three instructors, each with 2,000 hours of flight time. The bulk of Instructor As time has been spent training pilots in the instrument environment. The bulk of Instructor Bs time has been spent training pilots in tailwheel airplanes, performing lots and lots of landings in all kinds of wind conditions. Instructor C concentrates on stall/spin and emergency maneuver training.

Three FAA certificated instructors, identical total times, but completely different types of experience. Its not that one instructors time is any better than the others. Theyre just different. Want to get an instrument rating? Id go with Instructor A for obvious reasons. Want a tailwheel endorsement? Schedule with Instructor B. Want to explore the stall/spin envelope in a spins-approved airplane? Instructor C. When evaluating experience, its important to look deeper, to know whats been done with the time.

Its silly to think a pilot is current and experienced in all aspects of flight just because he or she has multiple-thousands of hours. With any kind of assessment of a pilots or instructors flying abilities, its relevant to ask what percentage of that pilots total time has been spent in slow flight, practicing stalls, and reviewing critical flight operations that could lead to an inadvertent stall/spin.

Consider that 83 percent of general aviation flight time is spent in the climb, cruise and descent phases, but only 22 percent of aviation accidents occur during these phases. By contrast, pilots spend a mere 6 percent of their flight time in the critical phases associated with the traffic pattern: takeoff, initial climb, approach and landing. These phases, however, account for a dramatically disproportionate 57 percent of aviation accidents, according to the Aviation Instructors Handbook.

Id bet most pilots spend less than 5 percent of their flight time practicing slow flight, stalls and emergency procedures.

Similarly, just because a pilot is an aerobatic pilot does not mean that pilot has any more experience with spins than a non-aerobatic pilot. You might assume aerobatic pilots have a certain level of stall/spin experience based on the type of flying they do, but you may very well be wrong in that assumption.

For example, the competition aerobatic community has grappled for years with the stall/spin issue and spin training of pilots entering competitions. Pilots entering aerobatic competitions are not now, nor have they ever been, required to show proof of spin training. In fact, the entry level of competition in 2002 for the first time does not even include a spin.

In the other levels of competitive aerobatics, pilots may be required to perform only a one- or one-and-a-quarter-turn intentional spin. Being able to perform a planned spin in a well-practiced routine, however, bears little relation to recovering from an inadvertent spin entered from a botched aerobatic maneuver, or from a developed spin. Believe it or not, a whole lot of aerobatic pilots themselves have little or no practical experience with anything other than an intentional one-turn spin.

When investigators assign accident causes, wreckage patterns make it fairly obvious when a stall/spin accident occurs. Yet there are many other accidents that owe their true roots to the stall/spin regime but arent classified as such.

For example, when a pilot runs an airplane off the far end of a runway (blowing tires in the process), or porpoises on landing and crunches the nose into the asphalt, the accident report usually pins the blame on something such as improper airspeed control. Left unanswered, however, is the underlying reason for the excess speed carried by the pilot.

I believe many accidents ascribed to loss of control on the runway or carrying excessive speed to the touchdown zone are really due to the pilots fear of the stall/spin. Better to fly fast than to get anywhere near that stall experienced during flight training, right?

In addition, well never know how many pilots gradually turn away from flying precisely because of their unaddressed fears about stalls and spins. For many of them, flying was supposed to be challenging and fun. But fear ultimately drove them from the skies – more silent casualties of the stall/spin. Perhaps a study could be devised to look into the cost to general aviation of the fear factor associated with stalls and spins.

Research such as Pat Veillettes May article, A Spinning Yarn can influence how those of us committed to flight instruction as a profession develop, massage and revise the training methodologies we offer to fellow pilots. But the pilots have to accept – and practice – the techniques involved.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Skidding Turn: Base-To-Final.”
Click here to view “Climbing Turn: Steep Pull-up After Buzzing.”
Click here to view “Slipping: Botched Slip on Short Final.”

-by Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell is a Master CFI-Aerobatic and developed the Emergency Maneuver Training course. He has logged more than 1,000 vertical miles traveled while in spins.


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