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#56 Spins, Acro and White Knuckles

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Flight instruction has sure changed since the days when all primary trainers were biplanes.  It used to be that everyone learned about spins.  Now the average flight schools and the agencies that regulate them have become so candy-assed that spin training is rarely even offered anymore.  You’ll have trouble finding an instructor who is comfortable with spins, let alone anything approaching aerobatics unless you go to a school specializing in acro.

When I bought my first airplane, a nice little Taylorcraft BC 12D, that devil-may-care scoundrel, Jim Higgs, took me up in it and gave me a loop at about five hundred feet.

I believe that my first concentrated introduction to aerobatics came in the seventies when Bill Warren took me up in his DeHavilland Chipmunk.  We were shooting scenes for a television series I was working on.  I had previously soloed when in the Jax Navy Flying Club, but I was not current and hadn’t flown for a while.  I was also VERY apprehensive.  No, let me re-state that:  I was scared shitless.  Bill was pretty good at keeping a passenger comfortable, but he didn’t extend much of that care to me.  After all, I was there to do a job and I think he considered me more of a “crewman” than a passenger.  As he performed loops, rolls and hammerheads, I was clutching everything I could find in that cockpit.  I’ll bet my fingerprints are still embossed into the longerons of that airplane. Obviously, I didn’t trust the seatbelt and shoulder harness.   I took some comfort in the fact that, in the unlikely event that the belts should fail, I’d still be somewhat contained by the Plexiglas bubble over my head.

Bill inverted
Bill Warren in his Stearman (photo by a clammy-handed Brian Lansburgh)

That bubble wasn’t there when we later went up in his Stearman to get some stills.  When Bill went inverted in that open cockpit biplane, those belts were the only thing separating me from the hard ground a hundred feet below us.

“I want to get a really cool shot of myself inverted during a low pass”, Bill told me.  His idea was that he would fly low and inverted over a pasture while I would hold the Nikon SLR over my head and shoot backwards to capture a nice shot of him.  For some reason, I didn’t truly give it the thought it deserved until we went inverted and I was expected to hold that camera up (or down, depending on your point of reference) in order to get the shot.  Suddenly, I was faced with the big question:  How was I supposed to hold on to the sides of the fuselage with my white-knuckled hands and hold that camera at the same time?  I wasn’t.

As Bill thundered over the pasture upside down at about a hundred feet, I gulped and held the camera up (or down) to start shooting.  There was nothing holding me in but one military style seatbelt in which I was hanging.  I don’t think I’ve ever taken a picture more quickly.

Those early days of riding along in an aerobatic airplane and feeling a combination of fear and queasiness eventually and gradually gave way to my own learning and practice of acro.  As I first started practicing aerobatic maneuvers I was apprehensive.  Things seemed to happen very fast, too.  I couldn’t think about the heading and coordination, pitch attitude and roll rate while clumsily executing a roll in Terry’s Citabria (oh, crap; now he knows!).  But with practice, several things changed.  My fear gradually gave way to something more akin to exhilaration and fascination.  My head gradually began to deal with the apparent speed at which everything happened.  At first, everything was a blur, but then things slowed down and I could begin to analyze what was happening at each stage of an aerobatic maneuver.  And the fear was gone.  That’s how it happens.  It’s a gradual change for many who love to fly.

Spin 1
The 140 is a great little spinner (photo by Bert Garrison)

Speaking of fear, in any pilot’s training process there really ought to be some meaningful spin training.  Those who’ve flown with me know that I approach such training from two different angles.  There is spin training as a proficiency maneuver:  We learn to enter a spin and to recover from it on the same heading we had when we started.  That builds proficiency and competence.  It does not teach us to avoid inadvertent spins.  I learned that the hard way.   For the second  type of training, we analyze the causes of a spin and try to recreate those conditions that will result in the spin we didn’t want… and we do it at a much higher altitude than it usually occurs.  That helps keep us safe while we learn.  All the while, I’m performing BOTH of the roles of a flight instructor; teaching AND protecting.  Although I don’t pressure my students to undertake spin training, I try to make it clear how important I think it is and I encourage them to take advantage of their time with me to experience it.

For those who are especially apprehensive about spins, I’ve found that the Whoopee Stall is a great intro to the spin recovery (it’s described in “Brian’s Flying Book”, available at the Tailwheeler’s Mercantile).  The heading never changes, so you get to figure out much of the recovery technique of spins without the world whirling around.

Another maneuver that I find does wonders in the area of increasing proficiency and confidence is the simple little dead-stick landing.  We all become glider pilots when that propeller is stopped in front of us. It’s a fun experience with just the right amount of adrenalin production to make it memorable.

Taking all the above into consideration, I’ve been noodling about my policy regarding spin training

I’ve always allowed the student to decide if he wants to spin.  I’ve never required it.  I haven’t changed my policy, but I am thinking about it.  My “Goofys” are arguing about it as well.  You don’t know about my Goofys? They are imaginary cartoon-characters who help me make almost all difficult decisions.  The somewhat hardnosed, no-nonsense Goofy, who normally perches on my left shoulder says, “Hey, if they’re scared to do a spin while you’re sittin’ right there to protect them, tuh Hell with ‘em.  Let ‘em find another flight instructor; preferably a Pansy!”

“Left Shoulder Goofy” continues to splutter with his angry rant as I clap my hand over his muzzle and turn to my other shoulder.

The Goofy who perches on my right shoulder is far more sensitive and understanding.  “Gawrsh”, he observes,”people have to proceed at their own rate. If they feel uncomfortable undergoing spin training, they should be allowed to avoid it in the interest of continuing to improve their proficiency.  Maybe they’ll come back to it”.

Without realizing it, the Goofy on my right shoulder may have inadvertently nailed it with his use of the word “uncomfortable”.

Years ago, I became familiar with a philosophy that was essential to the outdoor training offered by “Outward Bound”.  That organization maintained that it was necessary to get out of your “comfort zone” in order to learn certain skills and, indeed, to learn more about yourself.  Time and again, I have seen that philosophy proven to be correct.  It certainly applies to spin training.

The practice of spins can lead to wooziness, regardless of your level of desire to learn about this maneuver.  That’s why it’s best to introduce the spins at the very tail end of a flight.  I normally do spins within a mile or so of the home airport.  I keep a close eye on the student and we swoop into a landing right after a couple of rotations.

If we were to follow this routine at the end of every lesson, we’d have a pretty well-trained pilot at the end of a six hour Tailwheel Endorsement course.

So I guess I have some deciding to do:  Should I listen to “Left Shoulder Goofy” and insist on spin training as a part of my course?  Or should I adopt the philosophy of “Right Shoulder Goofy” and opt to give all my students the benefit of what I believe is good training without withholding that opportunity from those who don’t want to spin?

As is often the case, simply writing about the subject has helped me to form opinions about it.  I’ll continue to offer spins as an option for some time.  But the fact that I’ve dithered about it on these pages should indicate how important I believe spin training to be.  I’ll allow “Left Shoulder Goofy” to have the last word on the subject.

“Get outta yore comfort zone!  Cowboy up and ask Brian to run you through a little spin training.  It might scare ya a little at first, but remember what ol’ Bill used to say:  ‘No guts, no air medal!’ “.

Happy Swooping (and spinning),