Student pilots don't have to prove they can recover from a spin, but AVweb's Rick Durden knows the training advantages that come from near-spins.
Click here to read Rick Durden's column.
It always fascinates me that general aviation airports somehow become ghost towns about 5:00 on Sunday afternoons, even if the weather is superb. This
particular Sunday was no exception: The Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport was rapidly emptying. The students had headed home, and the only folks around were some of the flight school instructors
who were finishing up paperwork as I was finishing up the post-flight review with Rex, my student. It was longer than usual because of an unplanned event during the lesson. By the time I had taken
care of documenting the lesson, Rex had paid the airplane rental and my fee and departed, I was the only one in the building.
I decided to stick around because the Lounge was quiet and I wanted to make some notes to myself about the lesson. Something good had happened and it caused me to look at what I taught and how, and
also to see if I could find a way to reproduce some part of the learning experience Rex had for other students and my flight-review clients.
Even Stall Recovery Was A Challenge
Rex's lesson was a post-solo review of maneuvers before we started the dual cross-country phase of the Private pilot rating. Prior to solo, students demonstrate that they can generally recognize and
recover from stalls, but there is no real attempt to put polish on the process. The student should realize when the airplane is about to stall and prevent it from happening. If the plane does stall,
it should be on purpose and recovery should take place without a major loss of altitude, although it may not be especially pretty. Following the first few solo flights, the stall series is repeated
with the goal of helping the student become more familiar and comfortable with flying the airplane at high angles of attack and not stalling it inadvertently. It is part of the process of moving the
student's level of performance up to what I feel is appropriate for someone who is soon to be carrying passengers.
Today things had been going about as I expected. Rex was much as I was at the post-solo stage: absolutely terrified of stalls. We'd joked about it because I remembered vividly just how awful it felt
when I was doing power-on stalls: I couldn't see anything ahead, and it felt as if the airplane's nose was pointed straight up. I thought that if I pulled back any more, we would flip over backwards,
go through some hideous, uncontrollable, monstrous gyrations and die gruesomely. That was if I were lucky. If I really messed up, I knew in my heart of hearts that the process of my demise would be
Because of my own remembered fear and later running across some sadistic flight instructors who intentionally scared students to "see if they had what it takes to be a pilot," my approach to teaching
stalls has been to work into things in a step-by-step fashion. It starts with showing that stalls are predictable things and that the airplane isn't lying in wait to snatch the student and dash him to
the ground into unrecognizable pieces. I also spend time discussing spins, what they are, how they come about, how to prevent them and how to recover if prevention doesn't work. When there is an
airplane available that is certificated for intentional spins, I offer spin training -- as much or as little as a student desires -- and recommend to each that they be able to enter and recover from a
fully developed spin, but I do not require it, nor does the FAA.
Thus far, Rex had declined to do any spins and I hadn't pressed him. It was enough at this point that he could grit his teeth and, with steely-eyed determination, do two or three power-on stalls in a
lesson. Today, he had done one, taking it to the break, lowering the nose of the Cessna 150 to the horizon and then -- once the speed started to build -- slowly raising the nose to normal climb
attitude, losing only about 150 feet, a pretty decent performance. I told him so. His only comment was, "Man, I hate these."
I asked him to take the next one only to where the stall warning was sounding steadily, taking a moment to work on being aware how the controls felt at the edge of a stall, to see if he could detect
any airframe buffet and to notice how far aft the control wheel was. Then, before the airplane stalled, he was to recover to a normal climb.
Sneaking Up Behind Them ...
All was going well: The stall warning horn had come to life, the tendons in Rex's neck were prominent, the ball was about a half-width right of centered and I was anticipating him lowering the nose in
another two or three seconds. Suddenly, something big, black and fast went under the left wing. I jerked forward and snapped my head to the left, looking around Rex, thinking that we had barely missed
smacking into a turkey buzzard. He also whipped his head to the left and flinched. Hard. The yoke came back to the stop. The 150 stalled, started to roll to the left and pitched down.
When he again looked ahead, Rex quickly figured out that all was not well. The horizon was not only tilting at an increasing rate, it was well above the nose and getting higher. He his initial
reaction was predictable, the next two weren't. First Rex pulled on the yoke for all he was worth, trying to bring the nose up where it belonged. Then he firewalled the left rudder pedal. What had
just been a significant left yaw suddenly was dramatic. Rex promptly applied body English to try and stop the left turn. He leaned to the right. He leaned all the way into my lap, pinning my arms.
I figured it would probably be a good time to see if I could talk him through recovery from a power-on spin.
It didn't even take much prompting. Rex is no dummy, plus we'd discussed and he'd read about spins. He knew, intellectually, what to do, although doing it the first time one experiences an airplane
whirling around as it feels as if it's pointed straight down isn't the easiest task in the world.
With a little prompting, Rex first centered the ailerons, then closed the throttle, applied full right rudder and, after he had it to the stop, he started moving the control wheel forward. Almost
immediately the rotation stopped, the awful twisting feeling ended and the weird, drumming, thwanging sounds stopped as the wings started flying again and the airspeed built in the dive. The moment
the rotation began to slow, Rex proceeded to sit upright. Once it stopped, he recognized that the airplane was in a common, garden-variety dive and started raising the nose.
As Rex stabilized the airplane in a climb, he looked at me and said, "Wow. We didn't die." A moment later, he went on: "I did that recovery, didn't I?"
I responded, "I will state categorically that I did not touch the controls."
After we landed, we talked about spins, spin entries, stalls and control inputs for a while. Rex said that as the airplane started to roll, he suddenly got the rudders confused and reacted as he had
as a kid on his sled, where he pushed on the left side of the steering bar to go right. After the discussion, Rex departed in a good mood. He had seen the tiger in its lair and spat back at it. As we
scheduled his next lesson, he said he wanted to do some more spins to try and see if he could recover before the rotation started. He said he was looking forward to it ... it would be fun.
Should Everyone Do This?
So, there I sat, in one of the beat-up, old recliners in the Lounge, having watched a student have a very good learning experience and figuring out how I could build on it for him and how to make use
of it with others. I made some notes and began to ask myself more important questions in the overall context of staying alive in little airplanes. With stall/spin accidents still killing so many
people each year, what is the best way of teaching my students and recurrent-training pilots how to handle the low-speed end of the flight envelope, right near the stall? How can I make sure that my
students protect themselves from stalling and spinning in? Do I insist that they learn how to do spins? Do I emphasize spins? Should we work most on stall avoidance? Is there a Star Trek rerun on
tonight? (I'm aging and my mind wanders.)
I used the computer in the Lounge to look up some material on stall/spin accidents and found that they were right up there in the litany of high-percentage fatal accidents. Most of them happen at
relatively low altitude, on takeoff, approach to landing or while "maneuvering" (which, on further checking, would probably be more accurately referred to as "buzzing").
We practice stalls up high, yet that is not where we face the risk of a stall/spin crash. So, why do we teach spins at all? After all, in the reports of stall/spin accidents, almost none of the
airplanes are high enough for a spin to fully develop prior to impact; almost no one gets beyond the incipient stage, also called the "It's gonna happen if you don't do something" stage of a spin.
After some thought, I reached some conclusions and formed some opinions.
At a basic level, I am of the opinion that the old Private pilot requirement to enter a spin and recover on a specified heading within a certain, arbitrary number of degrees is rightfully dead. It got
to where the concentration was on the recovery on heading, with the student learning how to use the ailerons in the latter part of the recovery to hit a heading, something that can be seriously
counterproductive if ailerons are used in the initial portion of the recovery. Spin recovery occurs most rapidly with the ailerons neutral and, depending on the airplane, the wrong aileron deflection
can prolong a spin or actually prevent recovery. I also learned that a huge percentage of the pilot examiners would have the applicant do the spin recovery portion of the checkride solo, while the
examiner watched from the ground. I figure they knew something.
Despite thinking the old spin requirement should not be revived, I am firmly of the opinion that every pilot who is going to be carrying passengers should have experienced a bare minimum of at least
one spin of at least two turns before recovery is started. We demonstrate and require unusual-attitude recovery because things that the pilot or outside forces induce can upset an airplane and the
pilot should have seen such a thing before and know how to recover. A spin is merely something the airplane will do if provoked. The first one a pilot sees should not, in my opinion, be without an
instructor at the other set of controls.
Yes, we may chase off some students if the spin experience is required. Then again, there is the approach that if we really make the spin-training requirement tough, we'll chase off all of the
students, we won't have any pilots and there will be no stall/spin accidents, thus accomplishing the goal. Silly comments aside, students quit for many reasons, some because they don't like stalls or
steep turns or landings. A good instructor should be able to create a climate of trust prior to demonstrating a spin so that the student doesn't run screaming to the exits.
Beyond observing a spin, I would like to see a student demonstrate spin recovery in each direction, and a logbook endorsement made to that effect, similar to what is required of flight instructor
applicants now. Part of the reason is for them to see how much altitude is lost in the first part of the spin and why it's most important to recognize what is happening very early and start the
recovery very early so the spin never gets going. I want the student to recognize that twisting, gut-churning roll and pitch-down that characterizes the very first stage of an incipient spin and have
developed an emotional response to it. They should have it ingrained in them that, when the airplane begins that roll off and pitch down, it's time for the ailerons to be centered, the rudder to go to
the stop and the yoke to go forward, so there is no "What in the world is happening?" reaction delay that erases the chance of a recovering before ground impact.
Down Low is Bad
All of this is tied in with discussion with the student that the serious risk is the stall at low altitude, so the student must demonstrate mastery of recovery from a cross-control stall the moment
after the break. It is my opinion that in addition to current training in stall recognition and avoidance (which I think is extremely important in itself), the student should be experiencing stalls
with the ball off center, in all airplane configurations we experience in real life (takeoff flaps and full flaps at full power, approach and landing flaps at partial power and power off, etc.) and
demonstrate recovery from that now-familiar pitch down and roll-off before the autorotation of the stall begins, with a minimum loss of altitude.
It also means showing and understanding that the minimum loss of altitude may very well be 500 feet or so, and the visceral knowledge that stalls at low altitude are killers; recognition of an
approach to a stall and avoidance of the stall itself is what is truly going to save their lives.
It means using the training technique of the delayed stall recovery and the falling leaf as confidence builders. First, simply have the student stall the airplane, hold the wheel all the way aft,
ailerons centered, and not recover from the stall or series of stalls that occur, while keeping the airplane going straight with the rudder. A glance at the VSI teaches how fast the airplane is
descending and the student learns that the rudder is still very effective. The next step is the falling leaf, where the yoke is held full aft in the stall, but the student applies rudder at the stall
break, initiating that roll-off and pitch-down of the incipient spin, but then puts the opposite rudder to the stop to cause the roll and yaw to stop and then start in the other direction, whereupon
the rudders are reversed and the action repeated through about 1,000 feet of altitude loss. It allows a student to learn that something can be done about that horrible roll and yaw and which control
is used for it, and that it is effective. It also means explaining and showing that holding the yoke aft during a recovery attempt means the airplane remains stalled and is descending like a dropped
The Myth of the Safe Shallow Turns
Which leads into the next phase of the training: Explain that the myth of making only shallow turns in the pattern or on landing approach is a killer. It's better to roll into a 45-degree bank when
turning final rather than trying to rudder the airplane around in a shallow bank. The stall speed does not go up all that much in a 45-degree bank; it's only the angles beyond that where it curves
upwards dramatically. Ruddering the airplane around means uncoordinated flight, which means seriously increased drag, which increases the risk of a stall. Then, when it does stall, it means recover,
may take more altitude than is available even if recovery started instantly. A coordinated turn, even of as much as 45-degrees of bank, does not increase the stall risk nearly as much as the
uncoordinated turn. And if the pilot does still screw up and stall, a successful recovery from a coordinated stall is much more likely and possible in as little as 100 feet.
It also means to serious discussions of buzzing, including how fast the speed goes away in a pull-up, how incredibly much there is to hit that cannot be seen when flying low and how the world looks
different from 200 feet agl than it does from 1000 feet, especially the apparent position of the horizon, which can fool a person. It also means pointing out that everyone has a cell-phone camera and,
if one is stupid enough to do a buzz job, it is going to be photographed and very possibly turned into the FAA. That photo is evidence that is extremely difficult to refute. Do I recommend teaching
buzzing to students by going down the runway at 200 feet? After a lot of thought, no. I teach it at 3000 feet agl. I have the student do a pull up and then look out the window at something and start a
turn to go back toward it. It startles the heck out of the student when the stall warning goes off, or the airplane stalls inadvertently.
Finally, for my students and flight-review pilots flying airplanes that are approved for spins, I am going to do something that Rich Stowell --
an aerobatic and upset-training instructor -- recommended: Create diversions when the pilot is flying the airplane very near the stall. When the pilot knows the stall is coming, recovery becomes
second nature. When it is a bit of a surprise recovery may be delayed. If the pilot can experience that surprise with an instructor handy, learning takes place. That way, when it happens later for
real, with no instructor present, the chance of successful recovery in the available altitude is better. Rich has pilots stall the airplane while looking out the window, or while reaching for
something in the back seat anything to match how it can sneak up on someone in the real world. I think his ideas are excellent. I'm also thinking that I may just try to duplicate what happened
with Rex by turning my head suddenly to the left and exclaiming, "What was that?!"
The risk of the stall/spin accident is when it is entered down low. Unfortunately, that's the one variable I do not feel I can put into the training equation. The margin is too fine. Remember back in
the 1960s when some FAA examiners were interpreting the multi-engine checkride guidelines to require Vmc demonstrations at 500 feet agl. Until things were straightened out, they were
licensing survivors and the countryside was littered with wrecked twins. I cannot recommend teaching stalls at 500 feet agl. That's where demonstration at altitude, noting altimeter readings and a lot
of discussion, come in; there is only so much practice bleeding we can have our students do.
The important thing, in my opinion, is that we have to spend a lot of time in slow flight, near the stall, with our students so that they internalize the feel of an airplane near the stall, keep the
ball centered and are likely to stall only when they desire it to take place. Yet, we have to realize that they will err and so we also have to have them experience a lot of stalls -- flaps up and
down, at different power settings, different bank angles and with different rates of onset, ball centered and off to the side -- because a hoary truth of aviation is that we only do well what we have
What's scary is that most pilots carrying passengers have spent less time doing slow flight and stalls than it took to read this column.
See you next month.
It's hard to imagine an instrument-rated pilot flying into a Midwestern winter without checking the destination weather.
Click here for the full story.
Every pilot wants to avoid tough winter weather, especially icing conditions, even if that means delaying a flight or canceling one altogether. But
some pilots are foolish enough to think that last-minute weather decisions will save them during a poorly-planned IFR approach. Poor IFR skills during a long day of flying in December 2004 took the
lives of three people when a Piper Saratoga crashed executing the GPS approach to the Glenwood Municipal Airport (GHW) at Glenwood, Minn., about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
The day started at 0615 (CST) when the pilot called the Miami Automated Flight Service Station and filed three IFR flight plans. The first was from Page Field at Fort Myers, Fla., (FMY) to Albany,
Ga., (ABY). The second was from ABY to Mount Vernon, Ill., (MVN), and the third from MVN to Glenwood.
The briefer provided weather information for the first two flights, but after the briefer described a tornado watch and convective SIGMET for the route of flight between ABY and MVN, the pilot
declined further information. Perhaps he planned to check the weather at Albany.
The leg between Fort Myers and Albany went as planned. At 0945 the pilot called the Macon AFSS and requested an abbreviated weather briefing for the second leg from ABY to MVN, but again did not ask
the briefer about the weather on the third leg. In fact, there is no record that the pilot ever checked the weather for the third leg to Glenwood.
Departing from Mount Vernon, the Saratoga pilot contacted Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center at 1342 (CST) and asked for his clearance to Glenwood and was cleared there at 10,000 feet. At
1550 the flight was handed off to Minneapolis Center.
At 1600 the controller queried the pilot about flight conditions. The pilot responded, "We're kinda in a little haze here. I think the tops may be only about two thousand or three thousand above us
and a lot of thin clouds below us." He added, "We haven't picked up any ice yet. The outside temperature shows minus seven Celsius."
The flight appeared to continue normally and at 2236 Minneapolis cleared the aircraft to descend from 10,000 feet to 6000 feet, and shortly thereafter at pilot's discretion to 4000 feet. A few minutes
later, while passing 6000 feet, the pilot asked for a climb back to 7000 feet because he was "picking up a fair amount of ice."
The controller asked for another pilot report on flight conditions. The pilot responded that he had rime on the windshield and "rime and mixed" icing on the wings. When prompted he categorized it as
"light," and said the outside air temperature was minus 2 degrees Celsius. He reported that he broke out of the tops of the clouds at 6400 feet on the way to 7000 feet.
Twenty minutes later, the pilot requested the GPS approach to Runway 33 at Glenwood and also asked to remain at 7000 feet as long as possible due to known icing.
The Approach Begins
At 1706 the controller cleared the aircraft for the full approach into Glenwood and told the pilot to remain at or above 3500 feet until established on a published portion of the approach. When the
pilot acknowledged being established, the controller cleared him to leave the frequency. There was no further communication with the aircraft.
A radar plot showed the Saratoga intercepting the approach course at 6800 feet and crossing KODMY, the final approach fix, at 6000 feet. The aircraft was only five miles from the runway. The FAF
crossing altitude at KODMY is listed as 3000 feet, and the straight-in MDA is 1760 feet MSL. With the Glenwood field elevation at 1393 feet MSL, this placed the aircraft 4607 feet above the ground.
The last radar hit showed the aircraft two miles from the end of the runway at 2607 feet above the ground.
Initial impact was with a barbed-wire fence and pasture about one mile northwest of the Glenwood Airport. The aircraft continued into a residential yard causing minor damage to the house.
Since it was dark, a witness in her backyard saw the aircraft's lights just before it crashed. The airplane approached her position from the north and appeared to "dive down and impact the ground."
Witnesses reported that the weather conditions as "misty and foggy."
At 1655 Glenwood AWOS reported a ceiling at 200 feet, visibility of 1-1-4 miles in mist, wind 050 degrees at 8 knots, and the temperature and dewpoint at 2 degrees Celsius. Investigators noted that
the weather reports for GHW from 0055 (CST) through the entire day included the 200-foot ceiling and less than two miles visibility.
The terminal forecast for Alexandria (AXN), Minn., located 14 miles north of Glenwood was issued at 1339 (CST). From 1400 to 1700 it called for a ceiling of 100-foot overcast and 1/4 mile in fog with
a temporary 300-foot overcast and 1/2 mile in light rain, snow, and fog. After 1700, a 300-foot overcast ceiling and 2 miles in light snow and mist was expected with a temporary 100-foot overcast and
An AIRMET for icing was issued at 1445 (CST) and called for occasional moderate rime and mixed icing from the freezing level to 16,000 feet. The freezing level was forecast to be between 4000 and 6000
The Pilot's Role
The private pilot had logged 710 hours of total flight time in the 3-1/2 years since receiving his license, and 684 hours in the same make and model as the accident aircraft. Nineteen hours of night
time had been logged, with the last being 14 months earlier. Investigators reported that the pilot had 84 hours of total instrument time with 2.9 hours flown in the 90 days prior to the accident.
Should the pilot have had any reasonable expectation of making a successful approach to Glenwood considering the weather? How did it end up north of the airport headed southbound?
The controller did not offer a weather report to the pilot, and the pilot did not tell the controller he had received the AWOS. If he'd checked the weather before leaving Mount Vernon he would have
known the weather was below landing minimums.
Was the pilot tired? He called Flight Service at 0615 and the accident occurred at 1710 at the end of what appears to be an 11-hour day of flying three legs from Fort Myers, Fla., to Glenwood, Minn.
While it appears that the pilot was on the proper inbound course, he was much too high to see the ground in time to make a safe landing. It appears he attempted to dive the airplane toward the surface
before reaching the missed approach point. If the witness accounts are accurate, it means that at some point the pilot realized he had flown beyond the airport. Instead of making a missed approach, he
turned around and was trying to locate the field while flying at a very low altitude.
FAR 91.175 prohibits flight below MDA unless the aircraft is in a position allowing a descent to a landing using normal maneuvers. If the aircraft arrived at the missed approach point at an altitude
that was well above MDA, the Saratoga pilot should have begun the missed approach immediately.
At a two-mile final, the pilot would have had to descend 2,240 feet to reach the MDA by the missed approach point. That equates to 1,140 feet per mile or a descent rate of nearly 1,800 feet per
minute. Needless to say, a steep descent rate that close to the ground is extremely dangerous, especially because the pilot would also need to look for the runway, which would mean taking his eyes
away from the instrument panel. That could lead to busting the MDA and flying the airplane into the ground at a high rate of descent.
The reported weather made it highly unlikely that, even if the airplane had been at MDA at or just before the missed approach point, the pilot would have been able to visually acquire the airport or
Another factor was ice, which we know the aircraft was picking up at 6000 feet. The AIRMET called for icing conditions starting from 4000 to 6000 feet and going up to 16,000 feet. The witness
description of the aircraft diving into the ground could have indicated a stall. Perhaps the aircraft got too slow and the pilot lost control with some ice still clinging to the wings.
The NTSB determined the accident was caused by the pilot's failure to execute a missed approach as well as his
failure to maintain sufficient altitude and clearance from terrain and obstructions. Contributing factors were the pilot's failure to obtain a preflight weather briefing, his decision to delay descent
for approach (icing concerns), cloud ceilings below the minimum descent altitude and in-flight icing conditions.
This accident is a good example of what not to do during an instrument approach. First, if there is a strong likelihood that the approach will be unsuccessful, why bother in the first place? Fly to an
alternate where a better approach, better weather, or both can be found.
Stay out of icing conditions if you are not experienced in flying in them and you do not have an aircraft with the proper de-ice and anti-ice equipment. Staying on top too long can lead to just as
deadly an outcome as can flying in ice without any protection.
When flying a non-precision instrument approach, be certain that you are established on the approach and at the proper altitude before passing the final approach fix. Set up a stabilized approach at a
reasonable and steady descent rate that will put you at MDA in a position to make a safe landing should you get a visual on the runway environment or airport.
If you reach the MDA on any approach and can't make a safe landing, make the missed approach. Don't ever fly over the airport at or below MDA with the hope you will find the runway or some landmark
you recognize. That practice is neither safe nor legal, yet accident reports tell us that pilots do it anyway.
The Saratoga pilot was determined to stay above the clouds until the last minute to avoid the ice. But his strategy was flawed, because he didn't plan on a stabilized approach. He waited much too long
and descended at a rate that was unsafe, perhaps because he did not want to climb back into the clouds and risk accumulating more ice at a dangerously low altitude.
Using good common sense and having a strong set of personal limitations go a long way toward preventing accidents such like this.
More accident analyses are available in AVweb's Probable Cause Index. And for monthly articles about IFR flying including accident reports like this
one, subscribe to AVweb's sister publication, IFR Refresher.
In the current economic gloom, oil prices are in retreat. That's a good thing, right?
No, it's not. And here's why: Higher gas prices may be the only way out of our distastrous dependence on imported oil.
Read more in our latest AVweb Insider blog.