Spins are, depending on whom you ask, a deadly event which can occur on landing, or a fun and fairly tame aerobatic maneuver. They are not required to become a private pilot, but training is generally recommended. So, I decided, to better myself as a pilot and take the training. To those who do not know what a spin is, it is a maneuver where you stall both wings of the airplane, one of them more so than the other. That sets the airplane spiraling (non-aviation definition) towards the ground — much like a falling maple seed. Except in the airplane, you recover before hitting the ground.
My primary airplane, a Cherokee, is not certified for aerobatic flight, so we borrowed one of the other airplanes on the field, a Citabria. That airplane is a tail dragger so it was also an excuse to get me current again with a tail wheel. It turns out, the airplane is just plain fun too which might have been part of my instructor’s reasoning for choosing that plane.
After reviewing everything with my instructor, I did the takeoff unaided. I was pleasantly impressed with how much I remembered of how to fly a tail wheel. It was not perfect, but not as bad as I feared.
For spins, we wanted to start respectably high. On the climb up, I familiarized myself with the airplane — aileron and rudder coordination, power on stalls and recovery, etc. Then we got up to altitude. My instructor again reviewed the sequence of events for the spin, and then said “here let me demonstrate one.”
And I promptly freaked out.
I had thought by reading extensively on spins beforehand that I had prepared myself for controlling the airplane through, what was described as, a reasonably predictable sequence of events. Now I was faced with someone else sending the airplane I was sitting in spinning and tumbling out of the sky, and it was too much for my little monkey brain to handle. From past experience flying with Tyson I knew that if we did the demonstration spin right then, I would just freak out worse and not be willing to do any more aerobatic flight that day, and quite possibly make it even harder the next time I tried to take a spins class. I have also noticed that some days I am more paranoid about aerobatics than others. So I was thinking that maybe today was not the day to learn spins. We could still do a few landings and takeoffs before heading home. Spins might have to wait for another day.
Before I decided to totally give up, I figured I would make an attempt to calm down. Just sitting there was not helping. The one thing I could think of that might rebuild my confidence was for me to fly the airplane in some unusual attitudes and see if that would convince my monkey brain we weren’t going to die. So, I did a couple wing-overs. They weren’t pretty, but I was in control of the airplane and pointing it in various directions distinctly different from straight and level flight. Throughout, the airplane behaved just fine. I felt a little better after the wing-overs, but I was not sure if I was enough calmer that trying a spin would not be a permanently scaring event. This put me in the situation where not only was I anxious about the spin, but now I was also worried that I might still be too nervous to do the spin.
My instructor came up with a little encouragement and said we should just do it. So he pitched the nose up, kicked left rudder, the nose fell over to the left, and then we started spinning. That was the scary part. Luckily, it did not last too long before he recovered. While the spin had been scary, I was relieved to find afterwards that I was less nervous than before. I was headed in the right direction, towards a frame of mind where I might be able to learn something.
Then it was my turn. I pulled the nose up to a stall, pushed the left rudder and around we went. I was ok while the nose was still generally up, but as we started rotating and headed down, I was terrified. I shoved full might on the right rudder, pushed the stick forward, and squeezed my eyes shut to make it go away. The correct recovery technique in that airplane is just a little bit of right rudder and release back pressure on the stick. I heard later that my instructor had to help the recovery a little. Once we were out of the spin and I just had to pull out of the dive, I was back in the realm of flying I know. So I was able to fly the airplane out and finish the recovery.
We regained our altitude and reviewed what I needed to improve for the second try. This time my legs were shaking, but I was still game. Pitch the nose up, kick left rudder, nose drops off to the left, shriek in terror, world spins around, instructor’s count makes it to one full turn, push the right rudder a little more gently, shove the stick forward, pull out, and relax. It came out a little better, and needed less help. My instructor did note that I pitched the airplane forward too fast and probably got to zero g’s. I never even noticed what with the rest of the whirling and diving.
The next spin was similar. My recovery sequence was a little better, but my terror level was about the same. After that spin, I remembered a suggestion from a book to look at reference points farther out, not just at the ground directly under the airplane. That helped. The first half turn, basically as long as I could see the horizon plus a second, was no longer very scary. The second half, was still too much for me. I noticed when my instructor demonstrated another spin that his had a smoother entry and stayed slower, and thus less scary, throughout.
From talking with Tyson later, I realized the last quarter to half turn, I was really going into tunnel vision from being scared. This ment I did not see the airplane’s responses to my control inputs. For example, I never actually saw the airplane stop rotating. Instead, on the climb between spins, I took the feedback from my instructor and improved my rote recovery sequence.
We did a bunch more spins. Each one I recovered a little better. That also ment we stayed in the terrifying nose down, twirling around state a little less long. I got to the point where pretty much as soon as the spin was broken, it was no bigger deal than a stall recovery. I ended the session with “just one more” spin which turned out really nicely. The spins themselves I still find scary, but the sense of accomplishment of learning to do a nice recovery made me happy. My instructor wanted to do one more demonstration. I said no. I had my sense of accomplishment, but I had no desire to sit through another bout of fear just for him to have fun.
Since we had the Citabria, we went on to do some landings at a local airport. The first landing we had a little issue with me thinking the airplane was lined up with the runway when my instructor was sure it needed to point farther left. This actually matters quite a bit in a tail wheel since it can lead to ground looping. Once we got that sorted out, the landing itself was so-so, but it worked out. On takeoff I did some high speed wheel taxiing to get the feel for how the airplane should look and handle on takeoff. We repeated more landings and takeoffs with wheel taxis. Flying around the airport was where I discovered that airplane was fun. After a few increasingly better landings, we started pushing sunset and had to head home.