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 4 of 5)
In an article published in the May 2002 issue of Aviation Safety, Pat Veillette wrote: “Almost one fifth of the spin accidents [in Veillette’s 2002 study] involved a flight instructor. More than a decade ago, I did a study of stall/spin accidents that was published by the National Research Council. Among its findings were the lack of standardization and quality control of flight instructor candidate preparation, particularly in regard to stall/spin knowledge and preparation.”
Veillette’s study also shows that many of the stall/spin accidents in his sample were due to errors by highly experienced fliers. Of the pilots involved in accidents, 13 percent were certified aerobatic competition pilots, 27 percent had previous spin training, and nearly a fifth were CFIs. Clearly, extensive experience far from guarantees success in the confusion of an unexpected spin, but a significant number of spin accidents still befall less experienced pilots.
When are spins likely to occur? Many happen around airports—when aircraft are accelerating or slowing. On February 14, 1997, a pilot carrying four passengers in a single-engine Piper PA-24-250 Comanche took off from the airport in Farmington, New Mexico, at night. During the initial climb, observers saw the Piper stall, enter a spin, and hit the ground in a nose-down attitude; all aboard were killed. And on May 31, 2000, a recently certificated flight instructor and his passenger/student were turning to final approach at Palm Springs, California, in a Cessna 152. The air traffic control tower requested that the Cessna make a series of S-turns to maintain proper spacing between it and an aircraft waiting to start its takeoff roll. Witnesses observed the Cessna’s wings rock right and left before the craft stalled and spun to the ground from 250 feet; both pilot and student were killed. The NTSB determined probable cause to be the failure of the pilot/flight instructor to maintain sufficient airspeed.
Some pilots disagree with the FAA’s contention that the altitudes typical of takeoff and landing are too low to allow for spin recoveries. Says Scott Crossfield: “When I was an instructor in the Navy, I had a student in an SNV who put me on my back on final approach. I was half asleep back there, but because I’d had good spin training, I managed to roll that thing all the way around just before it landed and
didn’t even hurt it.” Though few of us can aspire to Crossfield’s skill, many of us believe that a properly spin-trained pilot could recognize the problem quickly enough to recover in a quarter-turn or half-turn, perhaps making the difference between death and survival. Says Crossfield: “It should become almost instinctive that you pump in rudder against the spin, and most of the time that will catch that wing.”
Verne Jobst is still a director at the Experimental Aircraft Association and was inducted into the Flight Instructors Hall of Fame in 1999. He is also a pilot examiner. He has not changed his mind a bit since he testified before Congress in 1980. Jobst believes that many certified flight instructors are not qualified to teach spins. “Instructors mostly get their three entries to the left and three entries to the right, and that’s it,” he says. “There are many instructors who—though I doubt they would admit it—don’t even get the minimum required. Their instructors just sign them off.” Jobst says that in his career as an examiner, he has encountered several.
Jobst tells a story about one of his students: “He was sort of manhandling the airplane and slowing it up and slowing it up. And sure enough it let go. He threw his right hand up past my head. Luckily I ducked or I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. His hand flung out and he yelled, ‘You got it!’ So when I recovered he said, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘It’s a spin.’ That convinced him to get spin training. Had he been alone with that first spin, he would likely be dead.”
Jim Patton is unequivocal, as he was in his 1980 testimony. “Certainly pilots should know how to recover from a spin,” he says. “Like buying an insurance policy. If the first time you go into a spin is inadvertent, especially if you’re at pattern altitude, then it’s too damned bad because you’re not going to do the right thing. The problem is that instructors are given only a once-in-a-lifetime exposure to spins. They should have to remain current in spin recovery.” Patton has a unique perspective on spins: He was chief pilot for a stall/spin research program conducted at NASA’s Langley Research Center from 1977 to 1987. Before that he had been an FAA test pilot, testing, among others, two aircraft known to have unrecoverable spin modes. The original intent of the FAA study was to examine the aerodynamics of a spin. By the time the study ended, Patton and his investigators had progressed to developing efficient methods of building spin resistance into general aviation aircraft.