The Spin Debate
If spins can kill, why aren't pilots trained to handle them?
- By Joseph Bourque
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
NASA Langley Research Center
(Page 3 of 5)
When the online publication AvWeb (www.avweb.com) informally surveyed its readers two years ago, however, it found that of 1,186 responding to the question of whether spin training should be required for a private pilot’s license, 57 percent said yes and another 36 percent said it should be encouraged but not required. Only seven percent of respondents said spin training should not be required.
Aerobatic pilot Tom Alison, a retired U.S. Air Force SR-71 pilot and head of the National Air and Space Museum’s artifact restoration division, is an advocate of spin training for private pilots. “I believe that a pilot should understand and not fear the spin,” he says. Alison, who has witnessed even experienced pilots employ incorrect methods to get out of a spin, says: “Exposure to the spin maneuver and experience in all its aspects—entry, recognition of various spin modes, and appropriate recovery procedures—is the only way a pilot can really master this aspect of aviation.”
“A spin is a very dangerous situation to find oneself in,” says private pilot Bob Curran, who flies a Bellanca Citabria. “To the untrained pilot, what may seem the logical method of exiting a spin will instead result in perpetuating the condition, perhaps making it worse. There are few things in flying that can result in a more rapid loss of altitude or overwhelm the thought process of an unskilled pilot than entry into an inadvertent spin.”
When Curran went through spin training, his flight instructor had thoroughly briefed him on what to expect and had rehearsed the recovery procedure with him. Still, Curran’s first spin was a “shocking experience even though it was fully intentional,” he says. “To this day, I still practice spin recovery on a regular basis.”
In 1976, the FAA published the results of a study (FAA-RD-77-26: “General Aviation Pilot Stall Awareness Training Study”) that were the justification for its policy that teaching people to avoid spins in the first place is a better means of saving lives than teaching people to get out of them. That policy was further refined in 1991 (Advisory Circular 61-67B) and in 2000 (61-67C), but not fundamentally changed. Statistics seem to support the FAA’s judgment. The 1976 report states: “More fatal and serious injuries have occurred from stall/spin accidents involving general aviation aircraft than from any other single type of accident.”
In 1980, U.S. Congressman Jim Lloyd of California held three days of hearings before the House committee on science and technology, subcommittee on investigations and oversight. The topic was whether spin recovery training should be a requirement for a private pilot’s license. The FAA representative at the hearings, Bernard A. Geier, restated his agency’s case for teaching pilots spin avoidance, and emphasized the importance of altitude data. “As a matter of fact,” he testified, “analysis of stall/spin accident data indicates that only seven percent of stall/spin accidents occur at altitudes where a spin-proficient pilot could effect complete recovery.” William Stanberry, senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, agreed with the FAA, as did J. Lynn Helms, chairman of Piper Aircraft Corporation and chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. The hearing’s other 13 witnesses all testified in favor of spin training, including Elwood Driver, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Verne Jobst, director of both the International Aerobatic Club and the Experimental Aircraft Association; James M. Patton, chief of flight operations at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia; and former X-15 test pilot Scott Crossfield, serving as a technical consultant for the House. The committee recommended that spin training be required. The FAA refused.
As a result of those hearings, retired test pilot Tony LeVier, with Crossfield’s help, started S.A.F.E. (Safe Action in Flight Emergencies), a program to promote spin and emergency maneuvers training. Today Crossfield recalls: “Tony and [former U.S. senator and military pilot] Barry Goldwater and I, and Sammy Mason and Bob Finch started an organization called S.A.F.E. We gave scholarships from donations given by other aviators.” Mason did the flight instruction while LeVier and Crossfield raised the money.
Rich Stowell and CP Aviation restructured Mason’s program into their emergency maneuvers training program, giving instruction out of Santa Paula Airport in California, where, over the years, Mason had taught about 800 S.A.F.E. students. Stowell was the first person that the National Association of Flight Instructors ever designated a Master Certified Flight Instructor—Aerobatic, and in his career he has performed more than 23,000 spins. He is a firm believer in the benefits of spin recovery training. However, he warns that student pilots shouldn’t overestimate the training that CFIs normally get: two or three entries in each direction. Not enough for proficiency, he says.