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Friday, December 6, 2013

Why you don't have to learn spins

Ron Rapp had a post a couple of days ago on mandating spin training. That's not unusual; in fact, it's so common that every time I come across yet another call for mandatory spin training I immediately think, "Ugh... This again?" The only reason I'm picking on this one is because his post was picked up by AOPA's newsletter and the topic has been in my "Big List O' Posts to Write Someday" file for a while now. Today's as good a someday as any.

Don't get me wrong about Ron; his posts are usually pretty good, and I even linked to his account of ATP's training program in a previous post of mine. Although in this case, he claims that it might have prevented 20 accidents last year. That's based on an oversimplistic search of accident records with no real thought as to whether those spin incidents would have realistically recoverable. I'd be willing to bet an expensive steak dinner that 0 of those 20 would be. In fact, I'm almost 40 years old, and I'd be willing to bet that in my entire lifetime, there aren't 20 pilots who would have been saved by mandating spin training.

Want to see what the typical unintentional spin event looks like? Check out this video and tell me if you think bringing back mandatory spin training would have saved the day:

The answer is no.

There are tons of people who think that pilots who trained waaaaaay back in the days of mandatory spin training are better off than the young whippersnappers who didn't. (I put six "a"s in way because the FAA realized six decades ago that spin training is counterproductive.) These are reminiscent of the "back in my day, when a pitcher got hit by a ball that knocked all his teeth out, he'd go right on pitching both sides of the doubleheader" stories that make Grampa famous. That's very nice, but nowadays we teach pitchers to duck, and that works even better.

We don't teach spins to initial students for the same reason we don't teach Russian Roulette in gun safety classes. The reason most often given for requiring spin training is that pilots should know how to handle it just in case they accidentally end up in one. That is like requiring Russian Roulette lessons "just in case" someone ends up pointing a gun at their own temple. Wouldn't it be a lot more effective just to teach people not to aim guns at themselves in the first place?

No stall = no spin. No putting a gun to your head = no chance of accidentally making yourself four inches shorter.

Not being uncoordinated in a stall = still no spin. Not putting two bullets in the gun = still no chance of accidentally making yourself four inches shorter.

 I can count the number of times I have entered an unintentional spin on one hand. For that matter, I can count it on no hands, because it has never happened. Why? Because I've never unintentionally stalled an airplane, either. No stall, no spin. Have I mentioned that last bit before?

Even when intentionally stalling, I have never ended up in a spin. Why? Because I use the rudder pedals. No uncoordination, no spin.

No spin, no spin recovery.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? A pattern of "no spin"? With no spin to recover from, no spin recovery technique is necessary. Train pilots not to get into situations that may lead them in to possible spin situations in the first place instead of how to get out of one. A pilot that got that far behind the airplane isn't likely to suddenly become Superpilot and unbury himself or herself just because they went up years ago and did a few spins. Especially when they're 400-600 feet AGL making a base-to-final turn or a poorly-executed climbout.

The FAA had good reason to drop the spin requirement. It wasn't because they were getting "soft", it was because the numbers just didn't add up to support keeping it. If the FAA thought that spin training was effective, they wouldn't have been shy about keeping it in. They crunched the numbers, figured out how many people were dying in spin training accidents during initial training, figured out how many spin accidents could have been recovered from, and ended up figuring out that more people were dying from the training itself than would have been saved by it. That's why the FAA doesn't require it, not because pilots suddenly became a bunch of spin sissies.

That said, I had to do spin training to become a CFI. That's not a bad idea. First, all CFI applicants are at least commercial pilots. That means they're not brand new students who are overwhelmed just trying to keep the airplane straight and level and within a couple hundred feet of the right altitude, so there is some mental storage space available to learn something from the experience. Second, student pilots, who haven't yet developed good rudder skills (that's why they're students, after all), are likely to get themselves—and by extension the instructor—into some spin-like states.

To this day, I feel that the spin training I had was some of the most valuable time I've had in my logbook. That's because I agree with Ron that a large part of the value of spin training is not the spins themselves but getting over the fear of the unknown. It pushed me out of my complacency zone and forward into a new zone where I was more confident in both my own abilities and the aircraft's.

Would it have been as valuable to me at 26 hours as it was at 260? Not a chance. Spin training does teach you many extremely valuable lessons, but they are also subtle ones; ones subtle enough that you need a decent level of skill before they'll have any value.

Should you take spin training? Absolutely! Should you have to take spin training as part of initial training? Absolutely not! I highly, highly recommend that once you've started to get a good handle on flying and you're starting to feel comfortable as a real Pilot In Command, go out and do some spin work with a good instructor. It will make you a better pilot; on that Ron and I do agree.

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