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The Pilot's Lounge #131: Spin Training

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The Pilot's Lounge

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 even worse. 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.

Checkride Requirements

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 sewer cover.

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 done before. 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.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

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