In Preparation for the Spin Cycle

November 9, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Every few years I go through an unusual attitude refresher just to remember that airplanes are controllable even outside of normal flight parameters.  International Aerobatic Club instructor and director Bill Finagin did the honors.  He runs Dent-air Ltd., an aerobatic school in Annapolis, MD. (He’s also a dentist, which explains the name, not the condition of the aircraft.)

To do this with the requisite degree of safety, in my opinion, a special aircraft, instructor and adequate airspace are needed.

The Pitts S-2C is an excellent platform in which to explore those areas that we really should be avoiding in transportation or basic training aircraft.  It’s stressed to manage the loads and while a normal upright spin is a one G maneuver, the recovery is somewhere around 3-3.5 Gs.  Utility category aircraft are stressed to 4.4 positive Gs which is sufficient but not as good as the 6 Gs required for acrobatic machines. By the way, 4.4 Gs assumes that they haven’t been abused-some of the old warhorses in our training fleet have really high mileage.

We spent considerable time briefing each maneuver-demonstrated with a Pitts model and a laptop video of exactly what I would see. Brilliant and very effective! It is my observation that one of the weakest areas in today’s flight education system is the pre and post flight briefing. Rushing the brief shortchanges the student terribly and fails to provide the necessary knowledge to take full advantage of the flight.

Around the DC – Baltimore area the airspace is highly congested so Bill made arrangements for an aerobatic area over the Frederick Airport from 7,500-1,500. We called the Potomac TRACON before launching, who provided an assigned squawk and a time window. They would keep IFR traffic clear of the spin zone and a notam was published for VFR pilots. Additionally, a ground spotter with a hand held radio could call us in the event an itinerant pilot happened to overlook the notam. In low density airspace all this probably wouldn’t be needed but let’s just say it the training proposition would be devalued if a midair collision became part of he scenario.

The cabin announcement for airliners that were arriving into Dulles and BWI may have been something like: “Tray tables and seat backs should be in their upright and locked position.  On the right side of the aircraft you may notice a small red, white and blue biplane that is spinning earthward at something like 8,000 feet per minute-not to worry, while they appear to be momentarily out of control and with luck, they should recover.” Despite the extreme attitudes, we were never out of control and that’s the point . The beauty of the Pitts, in the hands of a competent pilot, is that it does exactly what you tell it to do-right now.

A full Safety Pilot column on the ride is upcoming and I’ll answer an all-important question.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Henry Dunn

    While practicing power-on stalls about 25 years ago when I was in flight training, I accidentally entered a spin. My instructor had never discussed spins and I had no idea how to recover. Thankfully he was on-board and got me out of the “problem” or I would not be here today (Thanks Denny) When I asked what happened he told me and how to recover. So I did it again.
    The next week I told him I wanted to get comfortable with spins so we spent almost the entire hour spinning and that is when I fell in love with aerobatics.

  • Jan Zysko

    A few years back, I had purchased a Piper Cherokee 140. After a few days of local familiarization flights, I decided to take explore the stall characteristics of my proud acquisition. After climbing to 3,000 ft (AGL), I first did a couple of stalls to full break with no flaps, then working up to full flaps. That’s when I saw the ground suddenly spinning madly below and for a few seconds (seemed like minutes), nothing seemed to stop it. Then calmy and firmly, I invoked opposite rudder and a quick forward pressure on the yoke. The rotation stopped and I recovered from the dive at 1500 ft. Quite taken by the event, I was dumstruck to think that I went cross controlled during the stall or tried to lift a wing during the break. I climbed back up and tried it 2 more times, each paying close attention to keeping the ball centered at the break.

    Suffice it to say, the same thing happened in all the subsequent stalls at full flaps. Later I found the aiplane badly mis-rigged due to some hangar rash on the right aileron and flap – just where a rigging tool would be placed.

    The point here is that I obviously feel quite strongly about only teaching students “spin avoidance”. If I hadn’t had old school instructors that taught me spin recognition and recovery (circa mid 60’s), I’m sure I’d be in quite a different place right now.

    Thank you for the great article and the opportunity to offer my opinion.

  • Eleven

    I learned spins during my glider rating training. It’s FUN!!

  • Doug Martin

    I agree with spin training I also feel that it should be brought back as a requirement for the private license. However it should be taught in Standard category aircraft that are capable of that type of training. I think that training in an aerobatic aircraft looses some of its value. in the thrill of flying open cockpit and biplane. Along with totally different type of controls, such a wheel as opposed to the stick.

  • Steve Smith ‘Smitty’

    I am a strong proponet of spin training for all pilots. I also agree it should be brought back as a requirement for all pilots. Nothing can prepare a pilot for the visual picture of a spin. But once you have seen it for yourself, and been shown how to recover from it; spins no longer pose a danger for a pilot so trained. I would not be here today if I had not had spin training. I accidentally entered a spin during solo stall training for my commercial license. I still remember looking out the windshield and saying to myself,’ Oh I am in a spin’ then almost without thinking I recovered. Back in the 80’s NASA did research into spins, and as a result the FAA decertified the spin ratings on most if not all training aircraft. I think its time to revaulate the capability of training aircraft for spins. If a training aircraft is capable (controlable) in a spin it should be certified for spins. If the FAA is worried put a 3 turn limit on intential spins. Let’s get back to training pilots on how to handle spins, and save some lives while we are at it.

  • Jack Couch

    The most important part of spin training is understanding the CG envelope of the aircraft you are flying. If you attempt spin training in a aircraft with aft CG the end results can be fatal regardless of your flying skills. The Christen Eagle I fly with two large pilots has a serious aft CG, which gets worse as the fuel burns off. Spin training without reviewing the CG is a bad idea in any aircraft.

  • Dan freeman

    Regardless of what you think you know about spins every pilot should take instruction from an instructor who is competent in all aspects of spin training and unusual attitude recovery

  • Mike Troici

    Spin training was removed from the private pilot qualifications due to safety concerns and subsequent accidents that resulted from what would speculate is some over zelous spin sessions.
    We as instructors can talk about spins to a student, but until a person has acutally paticipated in the maneuver I believe it would be difficult to recognize and recover after a first time spin. I believe spin training should be taught and can be accomplished safely (in a properly certified utilitycatagory aircraft) with perhaps two turns and a recovery performed several times. This would demonstrate the entry and a proper recovery without going all “Bob Hoover” on the student.

  • Gary Stegall

    All pilots should read (or re-read) Chapter 4 in FAA-H-8083-3A “Airplane Flying Handbook” on the subject of stalls and spins. It is very well written and easy to understand. CFI’s should make this chapter mandatory reading for their PPL and CPL applicant’s. Not a bad idea as a refresher for BFR’s either.

  • Schtig Litz

    How does a Pits spin at 8000 FPM ?Is this an embellishment ? Also ,why would you do spins close enough to the arrival corridor of airliners to the point where they could actually see you ?Just wondering .

  • Bruce Landsberg


    The 8000 fpm was an estimate based on spin duration of about 30 seconds to lose roughly 4,000 feet – probably not too far off.

    As regards the arrival corridor – “Bill made arrangements for an aerobatic area over the Frederick Airport from 7,500-1,500.” This was all done with complete ATC coordination. If an airliner has to divert a few miles out of its way or maintain an extra 1,000 feet over the normal arriva,l that doesn’t seem like too great an inconvenience. I believe the skies should be reasonably open to all – not just to commercial or governmental entities.

    Obviously, the spin debate has rekindled – so stand by for the AOPA Pilot February column – it should be entertaining.