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Have you ever spun a plane? For most pilots, the answer is "no". But that wasn't always the case.
Today, spin training is only required for flight instructor applicants. But before 1949, private pilot applicants had to demonstrate spins on their checkride. So why the change? And was it a good idea?
Pilots will argue on both sides until they're blue in the face. But the real question is, would spin training prevent spin accidents?
The Air Safety Foundation conducted a study of 450 stall/spin accidents from 1993 to 2001 to see where they happened, and how they compared to other types of accidents. To keep the focus on GA, they only looked at accidents where aircraft weighed less than 12,500 pounds.
So where did the accidents happen? At least 80% of them started from an altitude of less than 1000' AGL. What's the significance of 1000' AGL? It's the traffic pattern altitude at most airports.
That brings up the major problem with stall/spin accidents down low. In the 1970s, NASA studied altitude loss in spins of several aircraft, one of which was the Piper Arrow. What they found was eye opening. The Arrow had an average loss of 1,160' in spin entry through recovery. Keep in mind, that's in an aircraft flown by a test pilot.
It doesn't take a math genius to figure out the problem here. If you're flying a 1,000' AGL traffic pattern and you get yourself into a spin, you're not going to have enough altitude to recover, no matter how quick your reaction, or your recovery technique.
The harsh reality for these accidents is the only way to prevent them, is to not get into a spin in the first place.
So what about the spin accidents that start above 1,000? While they're only 7% of total spin accidents, they're worth looking at.
To look at what happens at high altitude, we sampled 6 spin accidents that started above 1,000 feet. Keep in mind, this is an unscientific way of looking at the data, but it's what we could do in the time allotment we had.
Two of the spins happened in IMC. In the first accident (CEN13FA131), an instrument rated pilot entered convective weather, and exited in a spin. In the second IMC accident (WPR13FA076), a non-instrument pilot tried to climb through two cloud layers. His airspeed bled off, and he entered a spin. In both cases, while spin training might have helped, a heavy dose of judgement would have done much better.
In another accident (ERA12FA561), a high-time private pilot entered a spin while practicing aerobatics. While it's not clear why this accident happened, if the pilot was practicing aerobatics, it's likely that they knew the procedure for spin recovery as well. It's not clear if spin training would have helped here.
In the last three accidents, spin training could have helped, but simple stall recovery proficiency would have prevented the spins in the first place. One occurred when a pilot was getting current (WPR13FA288), one occurred when a CFI was getting checked out in a new plane (WPR13FA269), and 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.
Looking at the data, is it worth requiring all pilots to do spin training? The FAA doesn't think so.
But the real answer is, if you want to get the experience, do it. Going up with a qualified instructor and spinning an aircraft is a good experience. When you do it right, it's safe too.
When it comes to preventing spin accidents where they happen the most, you're probably better off practicing the more mundane maneuvers: power-off and power-on stalls, steep turns, and traffic patterns. Those are the things that are going to prevent a spin in the first place.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.