The Case for Spin Training

Posted by in Aerobatics, Aviation

Bob Miller at Over the Airwaves frequently touts the fact that ‘nobody’ provides spin training anymore. Perhaps my perspective is not typical, but I don’t find this to be the case.

At Sunrise Aviation (KSNA), we have the largest aerobatic program on the west coast. Not only that, but our private pilot students are all required to experience spins in a Decathlon before they solo. We’ve taught thousands of people to fly over the past quarter century using this philosophy. I was trained this way myself.

I can think of several other large operations which provide quality spin training just here in California. CP Aviation in Santa Paula, Attitude Aviation in Livermore, and Tutima Academy in King City.

I rarely have any problem getting pre-solo students to do multi-turn spins on their own (and recover on a specified heading). It’s simply a matter of proper technique when teaching this to students. Easier said than done. Most CFIs learn from instructors who have never done spins. There is no way they will effectively be able to teach it without proper spin training of their own.

Many pilots and instructors who do expose students (and perhaps even more egregiously, non-pilots) to spins introduce them by simply doing one unannounced. That is the worst possible idea. It guarantees the maneuver will simply blur by for the student, resulting in spatial disorientation and motion sickness. It also ensures they won’t learn anything other than to be afraid of flying.

More than any other maneuver, spins come with a long litany of baggage. Horror stories from other pilots. Tall tales of spins that swallow the aircraft whole like Moby Dick. Apprehensiveness about motion sickness. This requires delicate handling by the CFI, but instead it’s often approached with blunt force. “Just do it”.

Wrong approach.

Teaching spins must begin with a thorough understanding of the aerodynamics involved. That means ground training. I start with a review of how lift is developed. Then progress to a discussion of stalls, coordination, wing drops, and finally the aerodynamics of the spin itself. When teaching spins, the best advice for a CFI is: assume nothing. I’ve seen some really weird explanations from spin students about basic aerodynamics. One of the most common errors is a belief that aircraft stall at a specific speed rather than a specific angle of attack. The ground training is the place to get all that stuff taken care of.

In the air, it’s vital that the spins are worked up to slowly, beginning with stalls of various types. Falling leaf stalls are particularly valuable. The student must be comfortable with high angles of attack. Then, spin “drills” are introduced were the spin is started, then stopped within a quarter turn. Once the student’s technique and comfort have reached the requisite levels, a one turn spin can be introduced with appropriate ground reference. From that point it’s simply a matter of allowing the spin to develop through two and three turns while ensuring the student maintains situational awareness.

For the really apprehensive students, I begin the actual spins by having them work only one control, usually the rudder. Once they’re comfortable with that, I switch them to the stick. Then I have them do both, and eventually give them the throttle as well.

I also teach students the difference between a spin and a spiral dive. They are easy to confuse with one another if you don’t know what to look for. For students who take to the spins with more alacrity, I will sometimes introduce aggravated spin modes. Keep in mind these are all pre-solo students with maybe 20 hours of total flight time.

I’ve taught spins to countless students using this method. I’ve never had one get sick. I’ve never had one who didn’t feel more comfortable and confident with spins, stalls, high deck angles, high AOAs, and unusual attitudes afterward.

The importance of practical spin training doesn’t stem from the likelihood of encountering one inadvertently. If proper coordination is maintained (and it’s often not — that is why we have these stall-spin accidents), pilots are not likely to ever encounter one in the heat of battle. No, the best reason for teaching spins is to eliminate the “fear of the unknown”. Once they’ve completed the spin training, students uniformly feel that spins are “not nearly as scary as I thought”.

Personally, I think a lot of landing accidents are caused by a lack of spin training. Students who are afraid of spins will be afraid of deep stalls. It’s only natural to fear the unknown. Those wing drops can be scary if you don’t understand what’s causing them, what will happen if you don’t correct properly, and how the resulting spin entry should be handled. A fear of stalls means they’ll be apprehensive about high angles of attack and low airspeeds. So they approach the runway with too much energy just to be on the safe side, with predictable results.

There are many excellent reasons for practical spin training, but it’s hard to make any headway with those arguments when the FAA proclaims said training as unnecessary. To me, the proof is in the pudding. I see people every day who have had no spin training. It’s usually accompanied by poor rudder skills, limited understanding of the related aerodynamics, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of coordination. The low quality of basic airmanship skills can be quite dramatic.

And besides, just think about all the fun they’re missing out on!

Have you had spin training? If not, find a good aerobatic instructor and get the lead out. You won’t regret it.