By MATTHEW J. KIENER
Our lessons leading up to the private pilot certificate are riddled with procedures preparing us to handle a myriad of emergencies that may arise in normal flight. We practice landing with a dead engine, what to do if our engine or avionics catch fire, the radio stops working, or our instruments fail us, yet we spend little time with upset training.
My story, it seems, is an all-too-common tale. I completed the training and check ride for my private pilot certificate never having stalled an airplane, not really. My instructors had me configure the plane for both power-on and power-off stalls, feel the buffet, listen for the horn, and then recover. I knew from reading and discussions with fellow aviators I had not brought the plane to a full stall. The buffet and horn are indicators that a stall is imminent, and I’d recovered before the wings lost lift. A couple of times I’d pressed the instructors to demonstrate a completed stall, but to no avail. It became apparent during these discussions that they were apprehensive and, perhaps, fearful. They’d speak of the dangers of entering a spin, and explained that it was more important that I know how to avoid, rather than recover. I scratched my head and wondered if this was sound advice. One thing for sure: I was not about to pressure an instructor into putting the plane in a state that made him uncomfortable.
My examiner for that check ride had me recover at the same point, a bit of a disservice perhaps, but he made up for it as he gave me some sound advice. After congratulating me, he informed me that the private pilot certificate is a “license to learn” and encouraged me to use it as such. He, of course, was right, and time would tell just how much there was to learn.
We’ve been taught some of the conditions dangerous to pilots, including the acronym I’M SAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotions.) I’d like to add another that, in my opinion, is equally dangerous, and perhaps easier to overlook: Complacency. The good news is that the cure for complacency can be a lot of fun.
With the knowledge that my instructors were fearful of stalls as they may lead to inadvertent spins, I decided it might be prudent to find someone who spins intentionally for help with stall training. What an eye-opening day this was. Richie Laitla and I spoke on the ground. I shared my concerns and goals as he listened and went over what to expect. We went up in his Cessna Aerobat, and before he’d demonstrate stalls, he put the plane in a spin. One, two, three rotations and we recovered. “There,” he said, “now you have nothing to worry about. If we drop a wing while recovering from a stall, we recover from the spin that easy.”
He was right. With the knowledge of altitude and the procedure to recover from a spin, I could relax and enjoy learning all about stalls. Then at a later date, we examined spins further. I learned much from Richie and had such a great time, I bought his plane when it came up for sale.
More than once the FAA has changed its position on spin training. If I were to speculate, it’s likely the result of qualified, but not necessarily competent, instruction that led to many unfortunate accidents. It’s imperative to find quality instruction in appropriate aircraft. I had one instructor offer to teach me spins; he was enthusiastic and well respected. However, he admitted that it had been more than two decades since he’d last spun a plane, yet felt confident with the maneuver. Things may have gone all right, however that was not what I was after. I sought an instructor who was excited and passionate about aerobatics who also possessed the knowledge and currency to match.
Two such instructors are found on opposing sides of the country. On the west coast is the well-known aerobatic instructor and writer, Rich Stowell. While I haven’t had the opportunity to fly with him, I have had the pleasure of a couple of phone calls, and have read many of his articles and books, and watched his DVDs. He has an impeccable reputation and is a real nice guy. On the east coast we’re fortunate to have a true treasure, Byron Hamby. With an extraordinary understanding and knowledge base, not to mention a contagious enthusiasm, he offers both an upset training as well as the tailwheel endorsement at Somerset Airport (SMQ) in Bedminster, N.J. I’ve flown with Byron both in my Aerobat and his new Citabria, and can attest to his superior skills as a pilot and instructor.
For me there was tremendous value in overcoming my fear of the unknown, while reaching a greater understanding and comfort in those configurations. It’s important to conquer complacency and seek further knowledge and a new skill set. It’ll make you a better pilot, may save your life, and it’s an awful lot of fun.
Matthew Kiener is an ATP, CFII, AGI, and owner of a Cessna Aerobat based at Sky Manor (N40) Airport in Pittstown, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.