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What's The Difference Between A Spin And A Graveyard Spiral?


Neither one sounds good, and both can end in disaster. But, both of them can be recovered, if you follow the right steps.

First Off, What's The Difference?

There's one major difference between a graveyard spiral and a spin, and that's airspeed.

It comes down to this: a spin is a stalled condition, and a graveyard spiral is not. That means that if you're spinning, your airspeed is relatively low, and if you're in a graveyard spiral, your airspeed is fast, and probably increasing.

The Graveyard Spiral

First off, graveyard spirals almost always happen in IMC, or at night, when you mistakenly think your wings are level, when in reality they're not.


Here's how it happens: you get distracted, and your plane starts banking. Since it's night or IMC, you don't have the visual cues to tell you that you're banking, and you think you're still wings-level.

Without an increase in back pressure on your yoke, your plane starts descending as your bank continues to increase. And this descending turn can get out of hand in a hurry.

As your plane descends faster and faster, you look at your instruments and realize what you *think* is happening, which is a wings-level descent. You correct by pulling back on the yoke, but you don't level your wings, which makes things worse.

As you pull back on the yoke without leveling your wings, you tighten the spiral, and (in many cases) actually increase your rate of descent. As your descent rate increases, you pull back harder, only tightening the spiral more, until your aircraft's structure fails, or you impact the ground.

Proper Recovery From A Graveyard Spiral

When you recover from a graveyard spiral, you need to be in the mindset for an unusual attitude recovery. In a nose-low situation like this, it comes down to 4 simple steps:

  • Reduce your power to idle
  • Level your wings
  • Slowly pull back to a nose-level attitude
  • Add power once you've recovered and your airspeed returns to normal

The Spin

Now that we've got the graveyard spiral down, let's take a look at a spin. Like we said earlier, a spin is a stalled, low-airspeed condition where your wings are stalled.

But since your low wing is in a deeper stall than the high wing, your airplane rotates around its vertical axis, making it 'look and feel' similar to a spiral dive. And, at the same time, your low wing generates more drag, because it's at a higher angle-of-attack. The drag yaws your aircraft into the spin, creating an even more aggressive rotation.

Proper Recovery From A Spin

So if this happens, what should you do? (hint: don't start screaming, that doesn't help you recover) Spin recovery, like graveyard spiral recovery, is pretty straight forward. There's just one big difference: instead of leveling your wings and pitching your nose up in a spiral, you need to unstall your wings in a spin. Here's how you do it with the acronym PARE:

  • P - power to idle
  • A - Ailerons to neutral
  • R - rudder opposite the spin
  • E - elevator forward

Once you complete the PARE steps and break the stall, you relax your rudder to neutral, and slowly bring your nose up to a level attitude.

Putting It All Together

Almost all GA airplanes can recover from a graveyard spiral or spin, as long as your follow the right steps and don't over-react.

Just remember, it all comes down to airspeed. If you have high airspeed and you're turning, chances are you're in a spiral. If you have low airspeed and you're turning, chances are you're spinning.

Follow the right recovery steps, and chances are you'll come out of your flight just fine, learning a lesson on what not to do ever again.

Colin Cutler

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

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