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The Spin Debate

If spins can kill, why aren't pilots trained to handle them?

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.

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.

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