The Case for Spin Training

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.

7 comments

  1. I don’t want to stir a hornet’s nest, but it’s important to note that the statistics show that pilots who undergo spin training are no less likely to experience a stall/spin accident than those who don’t. Having said that, spins can be fun and a real confidence booster for some pilots. Not all flight schools have dedicated aircraft for spin training: Spinning a 172 is legal, but even just a few spins are very hard on the expensive gyro-driven instruments.

    I make spin training an option for student pilots, yet I’ve had multi-engine students who had previously undergone spin training who were unconvinced that entering a spin in a multi-engine aircraft would be at all dangerous. Some of them seemed convinced that they could get any aircraft out of a spin. While I like your suggestion about finding the right instructor and the appropriate airplane. I just hope that those instructors who specialize in spin training are stressing that, depending on the aircraft, intentional spins can be deadly, or in the case of the Cirrus, very expensive.

  2. I can only think that spin training can only benefit the aspiring pilot. I definitely plan on getting some spin training during the course of my instruction. I feel that it will teach me a better understanding of aerodynamics and principles of lift and most importantly, being able to recover from a potentially fatal situation caused from, well, who knows. Anything can happen and the more prepared I’m able to handle the unknowns the more sanguine I’ll feel.

  3. I had basic spin training in the first few lessons of my initial PP-ASEL training, and I’m pleased that I did — it meant, if nothing else, that I actually had some idea what people were talking about and why spins were so dangerous. I’ve also had aerobatic training, which was a whole world away from that initial training, and probably much less useful: if anything, and rather unfortunately, it probably left me with less fear of spins than I should have. I really don’t know whether spin training in general is a good thing or not, but I can’t help thinking it’s given me at least a slightly better feel for when a plane’s about to spin. Whether that translates into “safer pilot”, I don’t know — I’m a pessimist at heart…

  4. John, you make an excellent point and I do stress that heavily. I make the point to my students during ground training that since any airfoil which provides lift can be stalled by exceeding the critical angle of attack, that means any airplane can be stalled (yes, even canards if you do it right). And any fixed wing airplane I’m aware of which can be stalled can also be spun. But not every airplane which can be spun or stalled can be recovered.

    I always teach them about the many factors which affect spin characteristics and recoverability. CG location, prop gyroscopics, control surface size and range, power, and so on. Even among aerobatic airplanes, spins can be unrecoverable if the CG is too far aft, power is left in, improper recovery technique is used, etc. Even an idle RPM stop which is too high can prevent spin recovery.

    I make the point that they’re only going to see normal, power off, upright spins. There are many spin modes. Inverted, flat, upright, crossover, accelerated, and so on. The basic spin training is not meant to be permission to spin airplanes on their own, even though spinning approved airplanes doesn’t legally require any further training.

    I wasn’t aware of the spin statistic showing that spin trained pilots don’t have a better safety record than non-trained pilots. I can only think of a couple of reasons for this. One might be that the spin training is poor. The other would be that spin trained pilots are doing intentional spins, whereas those without the training are not, so it’s natural that the spin trained pilots would have a higher accident rate since they’re the only ones doing them intentionally.

    Think of it this way: single engine pilots probably have a better multi-engine accident rate than multi-rated pilots. But that’s a statistical inaccuracy. Non-multi-rated pilots don’t fly multi-engine airplanes, so it only makes sense that their accident rate would be an impressive-looking zero.

  5. Hamish, the aerobatic training was probably more useful than you recognize. As an instructor, I see many pilots who are tentative about high angles of attack, steep angles of bank, and generally don’t have confidence (either their own or mine) in their ability to deal quickly and properly with an upset. Sometimes these pilots don’t even realize that they’re uncomfortable.

    Who do you think would react quickly and be less likely to panic in the even of a windshear, wake turbulence, or other unusual attitude encounter if they found themselves more inverted than upright? I think the aerobatic pilot — the guy who’s been there before — would respond properly. The pilot who’s never seen that attitude before would be less likely to respond properly.

    Keep in mind that in your G1000 Skyhawk, being inverted probably means charts, pens, flight bags, cups, Jepp books, jackets, dirt from the carpet, and other items are now flying around the cockpit, and the belts, which were not designed to hold you inverted, are allowing you to fall toward the ceiling more than you’d like. It’s a panic-prone scenario, especially when its advent is unexpected.

    In addition, your aerobatic flying experience has certainly engendered a greater understanding of aerodynamics and a better overall control feel for the aircraft. You’d be surprised how many pilots don’t have much of a feel for the airplane’s energy state.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that aerobatic and/or spin training makes a pilot some sort of superman. Far from it. As always, flight safety is mostly a matter of quality PIC decision making. But based on my own experiences an a pilot and instructor, I find a higher quality of aviating and understanding from those who’ve had acro experience.

  6. Amen!

    I also require my students to at least recover from the incipient stage of a spin before they solo. If the airplane allows though (usually gyro issues) we do fully developed spins so they get the experience. None have told me so far that they thought it was a wasted training excercise. Its one thing to watch videos and talk about it, and quite another to actually do it.

  7. Ron — I certainly agree that aerobatics training has probably made my flying generally quite a bit safer; my comments were really only intended to be about spins themselves. I had a conversation with John a few weeks ago about exactly this topic and I remarked that as a result of the aerobatics, the idea of spins didn’t really strike the sort of fear of god into me that they probably should — for me they’re just a rather fun way to end a sequence or an enjoyable kick-over in the stall. I was thinking I needed to be a little less complacent. But yes, I probably have a hell of a lot better reflexes as a result of the training once things go bad…

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