Flipped over and spinning: For most pilots, it’s their worst nightmare. Not so for Spencer Suderman, who takes his lightweight Sunbird S-1x acrobatic biplane as high as he can go just to see how many inverted flat spins he can do on the way down. On March 20 over Yuma, Arizona, Suderman found out just how many. He spent 40 minutes climbing to 24,500 feet, but only two minutes, 57 seconds to careen down to 2,000 feet, completing a spin every 1.5 seconds for a record-breaking 98.5 spins.
Feeling sick yet?
Suderman, with inner ears of steel, says the motion doesn’t affect him. “I don’t feel like I’m spinning in the plane since the pilot’s seat is very close to the center of gravity.” And the spinning gets easier with practice: “I have been doing this for so long that I’m accustomed to hanging upside down at –1.7 G for minutes at a time.”
When Suderman started flying in the late 1990s, he wanted to be as safe as possible, so he took an emergency maneuvers course that included spin training. “I heard it was a good thing to do,” he says. “The moment [the trainer] rolled the airplane inverted, my brain goes, ‘Dude, you’ve got to do more of that.’ ” In 2006, in addition to his full-time job in data services for Disney in Los Angeles, he became a part-time airshow performer.
After a few years of performing aerobatics, Suderman set his sights on the inverted flat spin record, which Wayne Handley had set in 1999 with 78 spins. On his first try, in 2011, Suderman descended from 21,000 feet in the Pitts S-2B he used for airshows, but fell short of the record by 10 spins. He made some alterations to the Pitt’s six-cylinder Lycoming engine that enabled him to climb higher. In 2014, he climbed to 23,000 feet and beat Handley’s record by three spins.
“I was pretty proud of myself for about three minutes and then I thought, ‘You know what, that’s not good enough,’ ” says Suderman. This time, he would need an airplane that could spin faster. The Sunbird S-1x is three feet shorter and 230 pounds lighter than the Pitts, and Suderman’s crew replaced its propeller with a lighter aluminum version. He was ready to roll—and spin—but two record attempts had to be aborted after the aircraft’s seat and harness design caused Suderman to nearly pass out during the spins. Both were replaced, but his latest record-breaking flight was delayed by four months.
On the night of March 19, Suderman’s crew set off to the Target store to get the final requirement, a box of Lucky Charms cereal, his traditional breakfast before a big airshow performance.
Suderman is already working toward besting his record. “I think if I get up to 30,000 feet I can do 120 turns.” And he won’t even need a barf bag.