I have a confession to make: I have been flying for 17 years and until this year I had never been in a spin.
I began my pilot training well after the requirement for spin training had been eliminated from the FAA private pilot curriculum, and none of the planes I flew were certified for intentional spins — I learned in a Piper Archer, did most of my commercial training in a Piper Arrow, and have almost exclusively flown a Cirrus since 2006.
In the Spring of 2014, I purchased an American Champion 7GCBC Citabria and part of the reason the Citabria became my airplane of choice was the fact that it was certified for aerobatics. It is no Edge 540, but it is certified for a variety of basic aerobatic maneuvers as its name implies: CITABRIA is “AIRBATIC” spelled backwards.
I wasn’t planning to quit my day job to become the next Melissa Pemberton, but I was keen to acquire an aircraft that was capable of both backcountry adventure and some inverted fun.
A few weeks prior to my aircraft purchase, I met Rich Stowell — AKA: The Spin Doctor — at an aviation tradeshow in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Rich owns a Super Decathlon and specializes in emergency maneuver training, which includes — you guessed it — spins.
Rich has not only executed more than 33,000 spin recoveries and logged about 9,000 hours of flight instruction, he is also a super nice guy! One brief phone call was all it took to schedule a weekend of training.
Upon greeting Rich for our first lesson, my anxiety about spins became embarrassingly apparent. He suggested we start with basic air work, followed by some patterns, and then we would tackle spins during the second flight. That sounded like a great plan, as the aircraft still felt pretty new to me — 30 hours in the Citabria vs. 3,000 in the Cirrus. It was like being a lifelong downhill skier, then strapping on a pair of telemark skis. Same basic concepts, but every maneuver required more focus and balance.
We started with very straight-forward flight training: Power-off stalls, steep turns, power-on stalls.
“Relax,” Rich kept saying as he reached forward to touch one of my shoulders trying to ease the tension in my entire body.
Once I started getting into a groove, Rich suggested we do rudder stalls. “Let go of the stick and grab the crossbars. Now reduce the power and keep the wings level and nose on heading with your feet.”
That sounds like a terrible idea, I thought.
Being a dutiful student, I complied with Rich’s instructions and when one wing would start to drop, I would recover using quick jabs of opposite rudder. “Higher frequency, lower amplitude.”
In preparation for the afternoon flight, Rich walked me through the anatomy of a spin, the spin entry technique, and the recovery process. Once I felt confident I could execute the sequence with some verbal assistance from the back seat, we fired up the plane and taxied towards the runway.
We flew along a straight road that followed the valley North to South, lined one tire up with the road, and simultaneously pulled the power back and the nose up. Rich calmly coached me through the spin entry. I took a deep breath and applied full right rudder.
Before I could exhale the nose dropped and snapped to the right. All I could see through the windscreen was the ground swirling around the airplane. I put the control inputs in as instructed and, just as quickly as the plane departed controlled flight, it was back to straight and level.
I said nothing, prompting Rich to ask if I was OK. Again, silence was the only response from the front seat.
“How was that, Ivy?” After another moment of silence I finally was able to respond: “That. Was. AWESOME!!!!!”
Rich asked if I wanted to try another one. My response: “Heck Yeah!!” Five spins later, I reluctantly turned the plane back towards the airport.
I had spent my entire existence as a pilot avoiding spins, but after training with Rich all I wanted to do was spin the Citabria! It was not long before I booked another session with him. Since our first lesson, I have flown with Rich in the Cirrus and the Decathlon, each offering different degrees of upset and recovery.
They say that getting your tailwheel endorsement makes you a better pilot. Becoming a tailwheel pilot has definitely made me more aware of certain aspects of flying, but I’m not sure that it has made me a better pilot.
I would argue that upset recovery and spin training has made me a better pilot. I have always been an advocate for additional flight training, but this type of training in particular has made me feel more connected to the airplane — and I find that the concepts translate across aircraft types.
Though you may regularly fly an aircraft that you would never spin intentionally, should you find yourself presented with an opportunity to do spin training with a capable and experienced instructor, I would highly suggest you go for it.
I suspect it will not only make you a better pilot, but you might find that you want to take the next step and try keeping the shiny side down instead of up.