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Should Every Pilot Practice Spins?

Have you ever spun a plane - and would you ever want to?

Spin training is only required for flight instructor applicants, as are the more complex secondary, cross controlled and accelerated stalls. Before 1949 though, private pilot applicants demonstrated spins on their checkride. When I learned to fly (in 1996), some instructors still brought that up - though you'll find few active instructors now who fell under those requirements.

Smudege 9000 / Flickr

With small aircraft becoming more automated and advanced, the topic of stick and rudder skills and stall/spin training keeps resurfacing.

So what do you think? Is spin training worthwhile for student pilots - or every pilot? How about the falling leaf stalls we talked about last week?

The question may be best answered by asking, "What would it prevent?" Slow flight and stall training helps you prevent a stall - the predecessor to a spin. Spin training teaches you to recover from a spin. But to recover from a real-life, unintentional spin, you'll need both the time (altitude) and skill to recover.

Where Do Spin Accidents Occur?

To answer that question, we analyzed NTSB accident investigations from January 1, 2012 through today. To be included in the dataset, the report needed a probable cause which mentioned a spin. We found 53 accidents in that dataset, and then broke them down by phase of flight.

By far, most of the spin accidents occurred at low altitude, below or near 1,000' AGL - during takeoff, landing, go-around or maneuvering. Only a few spins, 17%, clearly started above 1,000' AGL.

We haven't broken out fatal accidents, because almost all were fatal.

Determining the entry altitude for each accident was difficult - we're limited by the report's narrative, and the NTSB wasn't able to reliably determine entry altitude for many of the accidents. But, by considering the phase of flight, you can get a rough idea of altitude.

You'll find the NTSB identifiers in parentheses, and you can look up each incident in more detail via the NTSB Aviation Accident Database.

The High Altitude Accidents - Would Spin Training Have Helped?

Three Intentional Spins

In two accidents, spin training would have clearly helped - because the pilot was practicing intentional spins. In once case (ERA14FA256), the pilot had taken a spin lesson with a CFI. The instructor found that the pilot wasn't proficient and needed more training. However, the CFI wouldn't perform the training in the pilot's plane and the pilot wouldn't pay for the CFI's plane, so the pilot practiced on his own. That was a bad decision.

In the other accident (ERA13FA309), the pilot intentionally entered an inverted flat spin and completed 22 turns before striking the ground. He didn't have any formal training in aerobatics - so again, spin training would have helped here.

A third spin accident (WPR13FA380) occurred in a homebuilt aircraft with a modified engine. The engine was heavier than plans called for, and may have made the spin unrecoverable.

Six Unintentional Spins

Two of these spins occurred in IMC. In one accident (CEN13FA131), an instrument rated pilot entered convective weather and exited the thunderstorm in a spin. I'm not sure spin training would have helped here.

In another accident (WPR13FA076), a non-instrument rated pilot tried to climb through two cloud layers. His airspeed decayed, he entered a stall and then he spun. Spin training might have helped, but staying out of IMC would have prevented the entire situation.

In three more accidents, spin training could have helped, but simple stall proficiency would have prevented the spins. One occurred when a pilot went out get current (WPR13FA288), one occurred when a CFI was checking out in a new plane (WPR13FA269), one occurred on a flight review with a commercial pilot (WPR12FA295). In each of these cases, recent experience in the make and model was limited.

The last accident (ERA12FA561) involved a high-time private pilot who stalled and spun while practicing aerobatics in a Vans RV-7. The aircraft's avionics show the aircraft never exceeded 4,200' MSL, and the ground elevation in the area was 1,100 to 1,500 feet. In this case, spin proficiency probably wasn't an issue - it simply came down to a lack of altitude.

In five of these nine cases, spin training would have clearly helped. However, sound judgement and flight proficiency would made the difference in most of the others. Would an out-of-proficiency, spin-trained pilot safely recover from a spin?

The Low Altitude Stuff

We categorized low altitude accidents as anything that occurred at or below 1000' AGL, by our best estimate. This group includes 44 accidents and nearly all fall under the categories of "Takeoff," "Go-Around," "Landing," or "Low-Altitude Maneuvers."

Takeoff - Lots Of Engine Problems

Seventeen accidents occurred during takeoff - between liftoff and reaching 1000' AGL on upwind. In eight of those accidents, the aircraft encountered a full or partial engine failure. Some aircraft spun while trying to turn back, and others stalled and spun when the pilot never lowered pitch attitude to maintain airspeed. When's the last time you practiced an engine failure after takeoff? (WPR13FA298, CEN13LA055, ERA13LA024, ERA13LA015, CEN12FA616, ERA12FA458, WPR12FA089 & ERA12LA141)

Griffin-185 / Flickr

Probably Not Possible In A Cessna

In five additional accidents, the pilot simply over-pitched the aircraft during initial climb and didn't maintain airspeed. Nothing was wrong with the aircraft. Simple flight proficiency probably would have prevented these accidents. (ERA13LA320, ERA13LA270, CEN12LA636, CEN12LA407 & WPR12LA152)

Go-Around - Four Accidents

Go-arounds were a mixed bag. Three accidents occurred after the pilots pitched up excessively and failed to maintain airspeed (CEN13LA062, ERA12FA256 & ERA12FA319). One occurred when the pilot maneuvered to avoid traffic, causing an accelerated stall (ERA14LA024).

Landing - The Turns Will Get You

Eight spin accidents occurred on landing. Nearly all of those were in turns - two on downwind to base and five on base to final. Two of the base to final turns were overshot, which led to the classic accelerated stall scenario. One (ERA12FA196) occurred when the pilot abruptly maneuvered to avoid traffic. (WPR12FA432, CEN12FA570, CEN12FA271, ERA12FA196, ERA12FA175, CEN13FA416, WPR13FA236 & ERA13FA227)

null0 / Flickr

In most of these cases, spin training wouldn't have helped. Instead, proficiency with low-speed turns and understanding when to go-around may have saved the day. Most of these pilots probably knew accelerated stalls could occur - they just didn't realize how close to a stall they actually were.

Low Altitude Maneuvers

Distractions outside the airplane caused 5 of these 11 accidents. Searching was a common term here - searching for cattle (CEN14FA084), bears (ANC13FA095), moose (ANC13FA093) and a suspect (CEN13TA441) all ended up in a spin after the pilot failed to maintain airspeed. In another case, a pilot dropping streamers over a crowd lost track of his speed and spun (WPR12LA410).

Giant Ginkgo / Flickr

Each of these are legal, acceptable flights - even dropping streamers. However, they're best done with an observer performing the non-flying tasks, and the pilot focused on the plane. Even the Civil Air Patrol's highly experienced search and rescue pilots don't actually "search." They fly - observers find.

The other six accidents were a hodgepodge. One pilot became incapacitated (ERA12FA465), and two were suffering the affects of narcotics (CEN12LA466 & WPR13FA022). One was an Ag training flight, practicing crop-dusting turns with a CFI (CEN13FA420). One pilot hadn't flown in five months, and barely at all in the previous two years (CEN13FA060). The final incident involved a commercial air tour operator, who was flying low to avoid weather and stalled while maneuvering to avoid trees (ANC13FA054).

Should You Practice Spins? It's Up To You

If you're looking for an answer to the original question - "Should you take spin training?" - it's up to you. If done with a spin-proficient CFI in the right plane, it's safe and an absolute blast. But, it probably won't save you from the typical stall/spin accidents.

Most of those happen at low altitude, where you may simply not have enough altitude for spin recovery. Not entering a spin is the only solution here.

So, if you're searching for a New Year's resolution - here's an easy one. Resolve to train for those common spin scenarios - the pattern turns and overshot finals and the engine failures after takeoff. Practice maintaining airspeed and preventing a stall. And, if you're not proficient, take a CFI up for a flight. The regs say you can get current on your own, but a CFI can really help you get something out of those hours - and keep you safe.

Aleks Udris

Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at aleks@boldmethod.com.

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