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#56 Spins, Acro and White Knuckles


Flight instruction has sure changed since the days when all primary trainers were biplanes.  It used to be that everyone learned about spins.  Now the average flight schools and the agencies that regulate them have become so candy-assed that spin training is rarely even offered anymore.  You’ll have trouble finding an instructor who is comfortable with spins, let alone anything approaching aerobatics unless you go to a school specializing in acro.

When I bought my first airplane, a nice little Taylorcraft BC 12D, that devil-may-care scoundrel, Jim Higgs, took me up in it and gave me a loop at about five hundred feet.

I believe that my first concentrated introduction to aerobatics came in the seventies when Bill Warren took me up in his DeHavilland Chipmunk.  We were shooting scenes for a television series I was working on.  I had previously soloed when in the Jax Navy Flying Club, but I was not current and hadn’t flown for a while.  I was also VERY apprehensive.  No, let me re-state that:  I was scared shitless.  Bill was pretty good at keeping a passenger comfortable, but he didn’t extend much of that care to me.  After all, I was there to do a job and I think he considered me more of a “crewman” than a passenger.  As he performed loops, rolls and hammerheads, I was clutching everything I could find in that cockpit.  I’ll bet my fingerprints are still embossed into the longerons of that airplane. Obviously, I didn’t trust the seatbelt and shoulder harness.   I took some comfort in the fact that, in the unlikely event that the belts should fail, I’d still be somewhat contained by the Plexiglas bubble over my head.

Bill inverted

Bill Warren in his Stearman (photo by a clammy-handed Brian Lansburgh)

That bubble wasn’t there when we later went up in his Stearman to get some stills.  When Bill went inverted in that open cockpit biplane, those belts were the only thing separating me from the hard ground a hundred feet below us.

“I want to get a really cool shot of myself inverted during a low pass”, Bill told me.  His idea was that he would fly low and inverted over a pasture while I would hold the Nikon SLR over my head and shoot backwards to capture a nice shot of him.  For some reason, I didn’t truly give it the thought it deserved until we went inverted and I was expected to hold that camera up (or down, depending on your point of reference) in order to get the shot.  Suddenly, I was faced with the big question:  How was I supposed to hold on to the sides of the fuselage with my white-knuckled hands and hold that camera at the same time?  I wasn’t.

As Bill thundered over the pasture upside down at about a hundred feet, I gulped and held the camera up (or down) to start shooting.  There was nothing holding me in but one military style seatbelt in which I was hanging.  I don’t think I’ve ever taken a picture more quickly.

Those early days of riding along in an aerobatic airplane and feeling a combination of fear and queasiness eventually and gradually gave way to my own learning and practice of acro.  As I first started practicing aerobatic maneuvers I was apprehensive.  Things seemed to happen very fast, too.  I couldn’t think about the heading and coordination, pitch attitude and roll rate while clumsily executing a roll in Terry’s Citabria (oh, crap; now he knows!).  But with practice, several things changed.  My fear gradually gave way to something more akin to exhilaration and fascination.  My head gradually began to deal with the apparent speed at which everything happened.  At first, everything was a blur, but then things slowed down and I could begin to analyze what was happening at each stage of an aerobatic maneuver.  And the fear was gone.  That’s how it happens.  It’s a gradual change for many who love to fly.

Spin 1

The 140 is a great little spinner (photo by Bert Garrison)

Speaking of fear, in any pilot’s training process there really ought to be some meaningful spin training.  Those who’ve flown with me know that I approach such training from two different angles.  There is spin training as a proficiency maneuver:  We learn to enter a spin and to recover from it on the same heading we had when we started.  That builds proficiency and competence.  It does not teach us to avoid inadvertent spins.  I learned that the hard way.   For the second  type of training, we analyze the causes of a spin and try to recreate those conditions that will result in the spin we didn’t want… and we do it at a much higher altitude than it usually occurs.  That helps keep us safe while we learn.  All the while, I’m performing BOTH of the roles of a flight instructor; teaching AND protecting.  Although I don’t pressure my students to undertake spin training, I try to make it clear how important I think it is and I encourage them to take advantage of their time with me to experience it.

For those who are especially apprehensive about spins, I’ve found that the Whoopee Stall is a great intro to the spin recovery (it’s described in “Brian’s Flying Book”, available at the Tailwheeler’s Mercantile).  The heading never changes, so you get to figure out much of the recovery technique of spins without the world whirling around.

Another maneuver that I find does wonders in the area of increasing proficiency and confidence is the simple little dead-stick landing.  We all become glider pilots when that propeller is stopped in front of us. It’s a fun experience with just the right amount of adrenalin production to make it memorable.

Taking all the above into consideration, I’ve been noodling about my policy regarding spin training

I’ve always allowed the student to decide if he wants to spin.  I’ve never required it.  I haven’t changed my policy, but I am thinking about it.  My “Goofys” are arguing about it as well.  You don’t know about my Goofys? They are imaginary cartoon-characters who help me make almost all difficult decisions.  The somewhat hardnosed, no-nonsense Goofy, who normally perches on my left shoulder says, “Hey, if they’re scared to do a spin while you’re sittin’ right there to protect them, tuh Hell with ‘em.  Let ‘em find another flight instructor; preferably a Pansy!”

“Left Shoulder Goofy” continues to splutter with his angry rant as I clap my hand over his muzzle and turn to my other shoulder.

The Goofy who perches on my right shoulder is far more sensitive and understanding.  “Gawrsh”, he observes,”people have to proceed at their own rate. If they feel uncomfortable undergoing spin training, they should be allowed to avoid it in the interest of continuing to improve their proficiency.  Maybe they’ll come back to it”.

Without realizing it, the Goofy on my right shoulder may have inadvertently nailed it with his use of the word “uncomfortable”.

Years ago, I became familiar with a philosophy that was essential to the outdoor training offered by “Outward Bound”.  That organization maintained that it was necessary to get out of your “comfort zone” in order to learn certain skills and, indeed, to learn more about yourself.  Time and again, I have seen that philosophy proven to be correct.  It certainly applies to spin training.

The practice of spins can lead to wooziness, regardless of your level of desire to learn about this maneuver.  That’s why it’s best to introduce the spins at the very tail end of a flight.  I normally do spins within a mile or so of the home airport.  I keep a close eye on the student and we swoop into a landing right after a couple of rotations.

If we were to follow this routine at the end of every lesson, we’d have a pretty well-trained pilot at the end of a six hour Tailwheel Endorsement course.

So I guess I have some deciding to do:  Should I listen to “Left Shoulder Goofy” and insist on spin training as a part of my course?  Or should I adopt the philosophy of “Right Shoulder Goofy” and opt to give all my students the benefit of what I believe is good training without withholding that opportunity from those who don’t want to spin?

As is often the case, simply writing about the subject has helped me to form opinions about it.  I’ll continue to offer spins as an option for some time.  But the fact that I’ve dithered about it on these pages should indicate how important I believe spin training to be.  I’ll allow “Left Shoulder Goofy” to have the last word on the subject.

“Get outta yore comfort zone!  Cowboy up and ask Brian to run you through a little spin training.  It might scare ya a little at first, but remember what ol’ Bill used to say:  ‘No guts, no air medal!’ “.

Happy Swooping (and spinning),


6 comments to #56 Spins, Acro and White Knuckles

  • Martin Tanguay

    Totally agree with you Brian. Not sure if it is still required in private pilot rating in Canada, but it was back in 91 when I got mine and it is a good thing. In fact after I got solo, the instructor would send me practicing for an hour. He would say: practice your 45 degre turns, stalls and if you want spin it before coming back, you’ll loose some altitude ready for pattern.
    To be honest I was scared with no one aside. I had done it so often with him, that I decided to do it and even 2 times in a row. I was proud of myself.
    Today with my C140 I have never tried it, I’ll need an instructor refresh me on it. It just shows that practice is everything.
    Great article as always
    Montreal, Canada

    • brian

      Thanks for the kind words, Martin. The 140 is a wonderful little spinner. I totally appreciate your caution. Come on down to Sisters and we’ll do it together in the TJ Cessna 140. Thanks again!

  • Ron Parish

    Brian, I have always been afraid of spins, and flying with you didn’t change that, What is did though was to make me want to “slay the dragon”. I am pleased to hear you say that spinning is something of an aquired taste – I will try again and hope to like it one day. After all, it worked with scotch whiskey!

    Ron Parish,
    Victoria BC Canada

    • brian

      Ron voices a very interesting fact. Some flyers will come to enjoy the practice of spins. They will find tremendous satisfaction in mastering this maneuver. Others may never find any enjoyment in it. However, if the latter simply learn about the causes of the inadvertent spin so that they recognize it and can take the measures to prevent it they will be better airman for it. We change with practice. I’m beginning to prefer Irish Whiskey.

  • This message came in this morning from Morris Dagney:


    Below is a response to your latest article.

    For me I realize the training should be reoccurring.

    A few years ago I enrolled in a course for Recovery from Unusual Attitudes. This was taught by an aerobatic instructor in his Super Decathlon.
    One of our early maneuvers was an Accelerated Stall which was not well briefed on the ground before the flight so that I understood how we were going to execute it and what to expect. Airplanes make for a very poor classrooms, especially with tandem seating.
    At 6000′ my first attempt resulted in falling out of the maneuver and I was instructed to add more power and more aggressive inputs.
    This I did with gusto, the result was more like an explosion to me.
    The next thing I recall was a windscreen full of trees in an attitude I could not comprehend with full power. My brain could not wrap itself around the situation, my vision tunneled and I could not do anything about it. I was not scared; I basically had a mental shut down and became a passenger.
    Faintly I recall my instructor yelling “power, power”, meaning for me to pull the power, I could not. We were inverted, full power going down, had he not been there I would have left a smoking hole in the ground.
    This was the reason I was taking the course, though it made me seriously question if I should be flying. In my quest for answers I talked with Rich Stowell whose material we were following and he told me that my experience was not unusual.
    I had exceeded any previous training (and) had nothing to draw from.
    Later I went back and worked thru that maneuver and into spins.
    I think my experience explains some otherwise unexplainable accidents.
    A pilot can exceed their training, repeat my experience and drive their plane into the ground.

    Don’t bet your life on thinking you will know what to do when your AC is not straight and level.

    Brian Replies:

    A big “thank you” to Morris for sharing his experience and adding his conclusions.

    As a rule, I don’t criticize other instructors. I think the results of training speak for themselves. I do think that I should point out that there is a difference in the training I provide and that which is found in many aerobatic or “recovery from unusual attitude” training. I train in the types of aircraft that a non-aerobatic pilot will probably be flying. I teach intentional spins for confidence and proficiency. I also teach prevention of unintentional spins. All instruction is preceded by explanation. Sure, I find some students to be a bit apprehensive, but at no time is any student presented with the specter of a windscreen full of trees. In my opinion, every instructor must TEACH and PROTECT. The student must have confidence in the instructor’s ability to do BOTH.


  • Brian, your story about Bill and the Stearman reminds me of a time when I went up for a ride in a Steen Skybolt.

    This was an open cockpit Skybolt and I was given the ride because I went to the “factory” in Marion North Carolina to buy plans. It was over Shiflet field that I got my white knuckled ride!

    There about 2000 feet above the then home of Steen Aero Labs I was treated to a mild aerobatic ride in a brand new Skybolt. Being a veteran of high-speed aerobatic flight and intense spin training, I was not at all apprehensive about going up and getting upside down. That was until I looked down at the military style lap belt and saw that the whole time I had been hanging from the straps and flung around sans parachute, the over center catch was…well not caught! All that was keeping the belt from coming undone was the tension placed on the release hook by the shoulder straps and my weight.

    Rolling wings level I calmly keyed the intercom and asked the demo pilot to take the aircraft. “I got it” came the reply from the rear cockpit. “Let me show you how she spins inverted”. Not wanting to spoil his fun and admit the fear I had of falling out, I held the latch closed and off we went. Even as I type this my hands are sweating. The thought of falling out of a perfectly good airplane was unsettling to say the least.

    It was when he offered the stick and said “Now you try” that I finally admitted the seat belt would not stay fastened.

    It was brand new and the spring in the detent ball was missing! All this was discovered on the ground with a cup of coffee in my white knuckled hand!

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