Airplane spins have always fascinated, and alarmed, most pilots. In the early days of aviation, they were considered as an unrecoverable and fatal maneuver and it wasn’t until the early part of this century that some brave aviators developed the theory of spin recovery, as we know it today. Of course, it wasn’t their theoretical hypothesis that made them brave- they actually went up in an airplane and tested their ideas.
Stop for a minute and let that sink in- pilots actually went up and deliberately put the airplane in a maneuver that conventional wisdom held was non-survivable, just to try out what seemed like a great idea on the ground when they were sitting in their hangar. When you’re sitting in the hangar, everything seems like a good idea. If they had failed, they would have been labeled as crazy and we would have forgotten their names. Instead, we have a person like F.A. Lindemann, a British mathematician, who in 1914 took a B.E.2 aircraft as high as he could (the service ceiling of the B.E 2 was 14,000 feet) and tried out his theory of spin recovery. Twice.
Many other pilots practiced and refined Lindemann’s methods, but they remain basically the same now, one-hundred years later. Power to idle, opposite rudder, and yoke briskly forward. Convert the spin into a descent and recover.
His research allowed British aerial fighters to use the little known spin-recovery maneuver during WWI. Pilots were taught to deliberately enter a spin if they felt they were on the losing end of a dogfight. German aviators, thinking the spinning pilots were doomed, would wait at altitude to watch, then blink in surprise as their quarry recovered and flew away, by then well out of range of the German fighters. Eventually, the Germans figured it out and started to follow the spinning pilots down, but it illustrates how little-understood spins were at the time.
There has been a lot of talk about the FAA mandating spin recovery training for Private Pilots. That’s not a new idea- at one time, spin training was mandatory for private pilots in this country, but the CAA (now the FAA) removed that requirement in 1949. Before we reinstate that requirement, it might be a good idea to take a look at why it was removed in the first place, and actually, the reasons were solid. Simply put, spin training was killing pilots, causing more fatal accidents than inadvertent spins.
At the time, many aviation trainers were predicting a sharp increase in spin accidents due to the FAA action, but those predictions proved to be false. In fact, the rate of spin/stall accidents has been decreasing ever since. One reason might be that since a spin actually starts with a stall, the FAA replaced spin training with stall recognition and recovery training, which means that pilots were less likely to get into a spin to begin with.
It’s interesting to note that Canada retained spin training for many years afterward and found that their rate of spin training accidents was roughly equivalent to inadvertent spin accidents here in the US. Certified Flight Instructors, of course, must still be trained in spin recovery, and most CFIs with any experience can recount at least one instance in which their student got them into a spin, but even then, it’s the stall recognition training that prevents most spins from developing in the first place.
This does not mean that spin training is not a good idea. Like any aerodynamics-based training, it just adds to the pilot’s knowledge base, and that’s always a good thing. It’s important to know, though, that the average pilot will probably not enter a spin at five thousand feet. The real danger is the cross-control stall, which normally happens while turning base to final, where the pilot is close to the ground, and the best way to recover is to avoid it in the first place. I am not suggesting that they are unrecoverable, but all evidence points to them having an extremely high fatality rate due to their proximity to Mother Earth.
If you are really interested in spinning an actual airplane, a quick search on the internet will provide you with plenty of schools and businesses that specialize in unusual attitudes and spin recovery. The sim here at Charleston Flight School does a very good job of modeling a spin and is a great way to get some basic spin entry and recovery training. The simulated Cessna 172 recovers fairly easily, but that is consistent with the real airplane- in fact, it’s why a lot of actual spin training is done in a Cessna 152 instead since the 152 is easier to put in a spin and tends to stay in a fully developed spin until recovery. So if you want to try your hand at spinning and recovering, come on in and see how it’s done!