Mandated Spin Training

Posted by in Safety

Unless you’re an instructor, practical spin training is not required by the FAA for any pilot. I’ve always been amazed by that. Even if you plan on performing spins intentionally, no training of any kind would be legally needed. Does that make sense to you?

But it gets worse. Flying a massive airliner with hundreds of people on board? No spin training required; these days, the computers will take care of everything. Stall shakers, stick pushers, and AOA probes are infallible!

Even if you are an instructor, your spin training could have been as simple as a single flight, perhaps a spin entry, a half turn of rotation, and a recovery. Call me crazy, but that seems… inadequate. My flight training experience was rather old school, consisting of tailwheels, spins, and aerobatics in stone-simple aircraft which bear little resemblance to today’s glass-infested airplanes. With all due respect to those who think I sound eerily like an 80-year old complaining about how “things ain’t how they used to be”, let me say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so stick with me for a moment and see if you don’t agree.

There was a time when practical spin training was required for even the most basic pilot certification. Unfortunately those were the early, wild west days of flying, and I can only imagine spins weren’t approached by barnstormers with the level of forethought and consideration we typically give to those things today. As I’ve previously noted, they had a appreciable tolerance for risk back then. By the late 1940’s, conventional wisdom was that the training itself was leading to more accidents than inadvertent spins occurring in the wild.

Mandated spin training was discontinued by the Feds in 1949.

So how has this policy been working out for us? Not well, in my opinion. I’m often asked where my zeal for spin training comes from. The answer is simple: decades of accident reports. A search of the NTSB database for the word “spin” reveals 4,019 accidents — most of them fatal. That’s approximately 4,019 too many. It’s also worth noting that the database only goes back to 1962, so we can’t compare the statistics to what came before. According to the Air Safety Foundation:

Stall and spin-related accidents are among the most deadly types of GA accidents, with a fatality rate of about 28 percent, and accounting for about 10 percent of all GA accidents.

To be fair, some of the 4,019 NTSB reports referencing spins were helicopter accidents and others did not involved an aerodynamic spin. For example, a recent RV-6A accident report involved a loss of directional control on landing, leading the aircraft to “spin” off the runway. Even so, I still count nearly 20 spin-related crashes in the past twelve months. That doesn’t sound too bad when compared to the 50 year average, but keep in mind GA flying activity is down sharply (22 million fixed-wing GA hours in 2000 vs only 12 million a decade later).

Empirical evidence suggests that spin training might help avoid some of these tragedies. Unfortunately the average GA pilot doesn’t necessarily look at spins very favorably. 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, and so on. This requires delicate handling by those who do provide such training. Unfortunately, some still approach this using blunt force. “Just do it”. That works about as well as exposing a GA neophyte to advanced aerobatics. They run away and never return, while the bad experience only grows with each retelling over the years.

Teaching spins is not rocket science, but it must be done methodically. It’s very tempting to skip items that a more experienced pilot “ought to know”, but 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time flying straight-and-level. As a result, 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. If you’re always wings-level at 1-G, that might seem like gospel after decades of uneventful flying. If only the laws of physics would abide such misconceptions!

That’s why my spin training always begins with a thorough review of basic aerodynamics: how lift is developed, stalls, coordination, wing drops, and finally the mechanics of the spin itself. When teaching spins, the best advice for a CFI is: assume nothing.

In the air, it’s vital that the spins are worked up to slowly, beginning with stalls of various types. Remember this is not only a new activity for most trainees, but the aircraft is unfamiliar and the instructor is an unknown quantity as well. Earning the student’s trust early on allows them to focus on the spins later rather than questioning whether they’ll survive the experience. I’ve found falling leaf stalls are particularly valuable because the student must be comfortable with high angles of attack. If they gain nothing permanent from the training beyond this, it is a success, because we all must fly at high angles of attack during landing.

A quality spin training syllabus will include many things that even those who’ve got spin experience might not be familiar with: demonstrations of the difference between spins and spiral dives, drills to build confidence, techniques for assisting apprehensive students, advanced spin modes for those who take to it with greater ease, and so on.

One of the most common misconceptions about spin training is that its primary purpose is to help you recover from a spin. The truth is you aren’t terribly likely to encountering one inadvertently. If proper coordination is maintained (and it’s often not — that is why we have these stall-spin accidents), few pilots will encounter one in the heat of battle. No, the best reason for teaching spins is to eliminate fear of the unknown. Such fears can be debilitating at a moment when the pilot can least afford to be indecisive. The same can be said of upset recovery courses.

I’ll take it a step further and state that many landing accidents are caused by a lack of spin training. What does one have to do with the other? 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.

With all that in mind, it astounds me that the FAA proclaims spin training as unnecessary. I see people every day who have had no spin training and their flying is often marked by poor rudder skills, limited understanding of the related aerodynamics, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of coordination.

That’s the benefit of spins, and the reason I feel strongly it should be mandated as a central part of primary training. The stick-and-rudder skill deficiencies in today’s pilots didn’t start today. It began years ago when they were learning how to fly. Fixing it will require a journey into the past. It’s time to get back to basics, and you won’t cover all the bases unless spin training is a central part of the mix.