Spin Training

Author’s Note: This was originally written back in 2011 when I was working on my Light Sport CFI. For another way to get some spin training than the old fashioned “strap your tail into an airplane and then hurl it at the ground”, see the blog “Flying For Flyquest (Part 2 of 3)” dated Nov 27, 2016.)

The requirements for it were not really clear. Both me and my CFI, Dave, had looked at the regulations and they seemed to be saying that even for a Light Sport Flight Instructor, a spin training endorsement was necessary. Regardless, it had been a while since I had an excuse for any kind of flying that turned the world on end, so I agreed to it. On a Monday morning with a cloud-filled sky, Dave rented a Citabria and we launched in it to do some spins.

The cloud deck was a bit of surprise as it hadn’t been in any of the weather forecasts I had looked at. It started moving in from the south, the direction of the Gulf of Mexico, as we were preflighting the Citabria together. We decided to launch because we could see some breaks in the clouds to the east over Galveston Bay, and that was where we were going to do our training. Dave slid into the fabric airplane’s back seat as I tried to remember how to get into the front. Pulling myself up, twisting one leg in and around the stick, and sliding into the seat, I finally sandwiched in. I reached back and grabbed the shoulder harnesses, pulling them over to my waist to attach them to my waist buckle. Once in, I connected my headset to the intercom jacks and pulled the headset over my head, resting it on my shoulders until we got ready to start. My habit was (and is) not to put them on until after the engine is on and the intercom is on in case some reason comes up we need to exit quickly before we turn get there.

I’d gotten a little big in the past decade (I’ve gotten back to “fighting weight” since) and felt scrunched up against the instrument panel, though the control stick still was in a good place and I had plenty of room for my feet in between the rudder pedals when I didn’t need to be on them. The metal stick began moving around on its own; Dave was checking out his control throw. He couldn’t get the stick all the way back up against my seat because it was hitting me, and he felt that we would need to do a wheel landing because of it. While I felt I had enough stick throw to do a three-point landing from the front, I had not flown any taildragger in several years and Dave flew a Pitts as well as this airplane fairly frequently, so I deferred to him and said he needed to do the takeoff and landing instead of me as we had briefed. He acknowledged the call and we started through the prestart checklist, with me controlling the engine start since I was in the front. The engine started on the first try, and I told him he had the airplane. He acknowledged and taxied us forward.

We crossed La Porte’s runway 12/30, heading for 12, though the windsock was showing a little bit of life out of the west. I informed him that the terminal forecasts had shown by ten a.m. that the winds would be two-two-zero at ten gusting to sixteen. That was a little less than two hours away, and he was confident we would be down by then. Still, we talked about the proper control inputs for a crosswind to the right, i.e. , full right stick at the beginning of the takeoff declining toward the center as we gained speed but enough to keep the wind from picking up a wing. We performed our pre-takeoff checklist at the hold-short for 12 and Dave then made a radio call announcing our departure. We rolled onto the runway, aligned with white stripe centerline, the control stick “magically” full right. Dave slid the throttle forward, the engine roared, and we advanced down the runway. The stick came back fairly quickly and we were airborne. The airspeed seemed kinda slow to me, i.e., 45 mph, and I said something to Dave and he thought it was, too, even though the nose attitude looked correct. I looked to my right to make sure the little metal bug cover over the pitot tube was retracted and it was and then looked back at the airspeed indicator and it was showing 60. We both felt the airplane was performing okay and Dave asked me to take the airplane and I did. I continued a shallow climb straight ahead toward an oil tanker sailing into the Houston ship channel while I looked for holes to get us on top of the cloud deck, being also mindful that the floors of the Class B airspace were at 2000 and 4000 feet MSL over the bay, depending on where we were.

Dave asked me to turn to the south to align with some islands he wanted us to use as visual landmarks during the spins. The cloud base was at about 2000 feet and looked to be only a couple of hundred feet thick, but we both discussed our location and concurred we had crossed into the shelf where the Class B floor was at four thousand. I climbed us up through a couple of breaks in the deck, flying east and then south, and as we got glimpses of the shoreline to our east we could tell where we were. Dave asked me to climb to thirty-five hundred to give us some room above our imaginary three thousand foot recommended recovery height. So, I did as we continued cruising south toward what I thought might be a break in the clouds. We found a clearing in the clouds above one of the small islands Dave wanted to use.

“Hey let’s do them here,” he said. “Let me know when you’re ready and give me the airplane.”

“I’m ready,” I said. “You’ve got the airplane.”

He acknowledged he had control and immediately brought the throttle back and the carb heat on.

“I’m going to demo a spin to the right,” he said, as he held the nose where it was and let our airspeed bled off. The airplane didn’t have a stall warning horn; but as we slowed down and I started feeling like we were close to the stall, Dave said he was pulling the stick full back, ailerons neutral, and kicking in full right rudder. He did and the nose rotated right and down; I was suddenly looking straight down at the island below as it whipped around in a blur! As we rotated into the heading we gad started on, the rotation stopped, leaving us diving straight-nose down! As Dave pulled us out, the G-meter needle rolled to 3 g’s; the power came up and we moved back into a climb and I heard: “Your airplane!”.

“I’ve got the airplane,” I said, taking the stick back and continuing the climb. I had noticed as we were spinning down that there was more of a hole to the north than to the south, and that hole gave me more ground reference to work with. So, as we climbed, I turned us back to the north and steadied up in the direction.

“Your turn,” Dave said. “I want you to demo a one turn spin and recovery.”

“Ok,” I said, just as we hit our altitude. I immediately throttled back and brought the carb heat on while slowly bringing the stick back to hold the nose in a level flight attitude, telling Dave what I was doing as as I did it. We slid slower, slower, and NOW! Stick full back, I kicked full right rudder and held it in; the airplane rolled over like a dying hippo and spun, heading straight down! About a quarter turn before I hit my entry heading, I kicked full opposite rudder, quickly kicking it back to neutral as the rotation stopped while I simultaneously came forward on the stick, a bit too aggressively. We kicked into a very slight zero-g dive, which I quickly negated by beginning the pullout, shoving the throttle to full as the nose came up through the horizon.

“Nice job!” Dave said.

“Except for the part of floating you a little bit,” I laughed.

“I’d rather see you recover aggressively than not aggressive enough,” he countered.

Well, it was, as flying often is, a matter of “how much”. It had been just a small float, and I had essentially just “unloaded” the airplane which amounted to giving Dave a free, one-to-two second weightless ride he probably hadn’t anticipated. But a harder negative g recovery in another airplane, like the Pitts Dave often flew, could flip the airplane into an inverted spin. Ok, so it would take a LOT to get there; but still, it was a matter of degree.

We climbed back up and Dave took the airplane to demo a spin to the left. The nose did the same familiar slice and roll, and again tucked into a fast, rotating, near-vertical dive. Propeller driven airplanes often spin faster to the left than to the right because the engine torque adds to the rotational force with a leftward spin, but I didn’t really notice any difference. All I knew was that once it broke loose, the nose attitude down ad the rotational rate was steeper and faster than I remembered it. Despite my anxiety at not having done anything like this for quite a while, I was enjoying the hell out of it!

Dave gave the airplane back to me and as I set up, he emphasized that in this airplane the rudder force to get full left rudder was much higher than it was to go right. I acknowledged that as I immediately throttled back (initially forgetting the carb heat until reminded) and slowed us down and down, until we hit the stall and I kicked full left rudder. Again, the airplane rolled over and spun down; and again, as I neutralized the controls and stopped the spin, I floated us for a second before beginning the pullout and bringing us back up into a climb. During both his set of spins and mine, we were averaging five to six hundred feet altitude losses. We climbed back up toward thirty-five hundred feet as Dave talked to me about doing “incipient spins” next.

“I’m going to pretend I’m a student doing stalls and then do something wrong that starts us into a spin,” he said. “I want you to take the airplane and recover it.”

I acknowledged I was ready and watched as he leveled us back at thirty-five and began slowing the airplane down. Everything was going fine as we slowed into a stall but at the break, the airplane began rolling right, the nose slicing into the now ever-familiar signature of an upcoming spin. I called “My airplane!” as the bank hit about forty or fifty degrees, taking the stick and pulling the power back, rolling wings level, and then executing a pullout, adding power to get us back into a climb. Dave complimented me on the recovery and then took it and did it again, this time getting the airplane to break left. I took control of the airplane and got us righted again, losing only a couple of hundred feet…if that. Again, Dave complimented me on the recovery.

“Well, that’s all the training we have to do,” he said. “Is there anything else you want to do?”

“Yeah!” I answered. “Let’s go do another spin!!”

I started climbing for our altitude, looking forward to doing a spin for fun!

Dave asked me how much gas had in my left wing. I leveled the wings and the gauge needle was bouncing around close to a quarter of a tank, but the right wing gas gauge was bouncing between quarter and zero. While we didn’t think we really had a gas feed problem, we both agreed that the prudent thing was to knock it off and head back to the field where we could check it out on the ground. I dived us northward toward home field through a hole in the clouds; and once the airspeed and attitude was stable, the right wing showed about half a tank, closer to what we had been expecting. By that point, we were closer to home than not, so I decided to call it a day anyway. I felt good about what we had done.

I leveled us at a thousand feet about six or seven miles out from the airport and turned the airplane back over to Dave since he was performing the landing. We initially set up for a crosswind landing on 12 but then changed to runway 23 once we saw the windsock and that the winds had changed. Dave couldn’t see the airspeed indicator, so like I had done in my F-14 RIO days, I called airspeed for the pilot as he brought us down the approach. With just a slight “clunk”, Dave did a really nice wheel landing, brought the nose down once we had slowed, and taxied us back in.

I have to say that even though I had been an aerobatic pilot in my past, taking spin training for my Light Sport CFI was well worth it, required or not, and something I recommend to anyone going for their Light Sport rating, whether as a pilot or CFI. You probably will have to look elsewhere than where you are training in your Light Sport to find a spin certified airplane, though light sport aerobatic planes are hitting the market now, so who knows? No matter, have your favorite flight instructor or one he/she recommends to conduct this training and go with tim to spin around. It’s one or two hour of flight training that can save your life.

Eyeballs Out!

I saw the yellow J-3 Cub fly into the downwind and then, when abeam the threshold of runway 14, turn left and nose down onto base leg. The airplane was close aboard and arcing quickly over to intercept the final approach to the runway. It was approaching the threshold and only about one hundred feet in the air when a Cessna 152 sitting at the hold short pulled out onto the runway in front of it. I couldn’t hear the Cub’s engine, but its pilot reacted immediately; the Cub leveled off, flying over the top of the Cessna. The Cessna sat frozen, its pilots made aware by the Cub’s shadow and its presence overhead that they had almost caused a collision.

I didn’t have my handheld radio with me, so I was uncertain if the Cub had broadcast its position in the pattern. If it had a radio at all, that is. It was probably not equipped with one. Even if it had been, the fact that the pilot didn’t use it was irrelevant. No one is required to make any radio transmissions in the pattern at a non-towered field, something many pilots either aren’t aware of, forget, or ignore.

When you’re engaged in a dogfight, you quickly learn the only thing that’s going to keep you alive is your visual lookout, no matter what technology is onboard. I call that being “EYEBALLS OUT”! (Yes, the term is used more routinely to describe the direction of g-forces one is experiencing in the cockpit; but it’s appropriate to use it here to distinguish where one is looking.)

Yes, the Airman’s Information Manual and other aviation safety materials recommend radio protocols for pilots to use to stay informed of each other’s position in the traffic pattern. That communication is very helpful and certainly best practice. But I’ve often heard comments that make it clear we EXPECT other pilots to use the radio and often consider it poor form when they don’t. Well, it is, but that expectation is OURS and can be and often is unrealistic. Your best advice in this matter comes from the movie “The Princess Bride” where the Dread Pirate Roberts tells Montoya, “Get used to disappointment”. If you have become dependent on radio calls to keep you safe in the pattern, the problem is yours and you are likely to find out the hard way when your belief and your practice is badly placed.

The only thing that’s going to keep you safe in the pattern…or in flight…is your EYES! If you’re taxing around the airport or flying the pattern convinced that the radio is going to keep you safe, you have, as we also used to say in fighters: “your head up and locked”.

I was taught when checking traffic at a non-towered field to do a 360 on the taxiway before pulling forward toward the runway for takeoff. I teach this to my students. That said, my CTSW has a very wide turning radius and some taxiways at smaller airports don’t support it, so I’d be lying to say I always perform it. What I always do, however, is make sure I visually sweep the entire downwind and then turn my airplane enough to ensure I can see all the way down the final approach and about twenty to the thirty degrees to the side opposite the pattern before pulling forward toward the hold short. This ensures I not only see anyone coming down the final approach but anyone who has overshot final and is correcting back or is approaching the final from the other side. This is especially critical at airports where there is helicopter activity, where they may be flying downwinds on the opposite side of the pattern to the fixed-wings. (This is a strong reason to take the time to perform the 360 sweep, as long as you’re really paying attention to it and not just going through the motions assuming no one is there.) And anything you choose to do to assist your visual lookout MUST take into consideration the blind spots in your aircraft; it’s up to you to know where they are and do what you need to in order to work around them.

It’s no less critical to stay “eyeballs out” at towered fields. Most mid-air collisions happen within 5 miles of an airport; and whether the field is towered or non-towered seems to make no statistical difference. The radios can help you get or maintain situational awareness for things you can’t necessarily see; but, in the end, it’s your eyes and your reactions that are going to keep you safe. The regs require you to “see and avoid” even if you are flying IFR (as unfair as that might sometimes seem.). Additionally, today’s technology laden cockpits lure us all to be “eyeballs in”, a problem that’s going to be made worse by ADS-B. It’s great to see that target you can’t see on your iPad and maneuver early to avoid it, but if you smash into the airplane not displayed while doing so, you haven’t gained a thing.

Instructors have to work twice as hard at keeping a lookout; trying to keep tabs on what their students are doing pulls their eyeballs in; so, if you’re flying with one, keep your eyes moving and help make sure you both come back from the flight alive and unhurt. And, Instructors, all of us get engaged with something they are doing and keep our eyes too much inside; but we are also supposed to be setting an example and keeping things in perspective. During many flights, we are the Pilot in Command; so, if anything unfortunate happens, it can be ultimately on us.

There were two people in that Cessna 152.