I Learned About Flying From That: Hands-Off Spin Recovery

A pilot recovers from a spin only to practice one more.

JUNE 2010 — THE SKY WAS CLOUDLESS and the air crisp as I drove to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, airport on a glorious spring morning. I’d flown almost 30 hours as a student pilot and had no idea I was about to experience my first spin while flying alone in my flight school’s aged Cessna 150 trainer.

I never enjoyed practicing slow flight and stalls, but I knew I had to understand how an airplane flew at the edge of its performance envelope. So today I was going to practice departure and approach stalls on my own.

My preflight went smoothly, and the school’s old 150 climbed well in the cool spring air.

I always was a cautious pilot and wasn’t comfortable practicing stalls at 3,000 feet msl, so I climbed to 5,000 feet, where I reduced the power, put out 20 degrees of flaps and did a series of clearing turns to confirm I didn’t have any company in the practice area. Then I applied full power and started pitching up the nose until the Cessna’s windshield was filled with bright blue sky.

I kept the ball centered as the airplane slowed and the stall horn wailed its complaint about our slow airspeed and high angle of attack. Then the Cessna suddenly flipped over and pointed almost straight down — the earth almost a mile below was spinning in my face. Was my Cessna really in a spin?

I quickly pulled back the power — I knew I didn’t need full throttle with the nose pointing down to the spinning earth below. The airplane got quiet, but I had no idea what to do next.

It’s strange what goes through your mind when you’re on the verge of panic, but I remembered my instructor’s claim that the 150 was a stable airplane — that you could take your hands and feet off the controls and the airplane would recover from the error of your ways. So, not having any idea what to do, I decided to trust my instructor’s advice, and I did exactly as he said. I took my hands off the yoke and my feet off the rudder pedals. To make certain I wouldn’t falter in my resolve to give the airplane its will, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. And I hoped for the best.

The two or three seconds it took for the airplane to stop spinning felt interminable, but stop it did. Suddenly the wings seemed to “grab” the air as the airplane came out of the stall — I was pushed down in my seat as the nose quickly rose past the horizon and the windshield filled with blue sky.

I remember thinking that the pressure on my bottom couldn’t be good for me and certainly wasn’t good for this old airplane. It was time to become pilot instead of passenger, so I pushed the yoke forward to restore the normal brown-is-down and blue-is-up view out my windscreen.

You’d think I’d have the sense to return to the airport and talk this over with my instructor, but I was surprisingly calm and exhilarated. Wow — he was right! The airplane really did recover from its spin. But why did it spin in the first place? What did I do to cause that abrupt flip when I stalled the airplane?

I don’t know what possessed me — maybe my new confidence in this aged airplane, but I immediately added full power, climbed back to 5,000 feet and once again pointed up the nose to stall the wings. Sure enough, the Cessna immediately flipped on its back and started another attempt to bury me in the brown earth below. Once again, I reduced the power, took my hands and feet off the controls and let the 150 recover from its spin.

After two attempts, I decided to not push my luck and returned to the airport to learn why this trusty airplane was misbehaving. I can’t report in this family magazine what my instructor said about my idiotic repetition of the process, but I can tell you what I learned from this episode: When you practice full-power departure stalls, you have to configure the aircraft to simulate a standard departure — and in a Cessna 150, that means the flaps should be retracted.

I also learned to appreciate how stable and forgiving a Cessna aircraft can be when a student pilot mishandles it so badly.

Most importantly, I learned that altitude is your friend. I’ll still fly down low for short hops, for aerial sightseeing or to squeeze under some Class B airspace. But I do my air work at higher and safer altitudes so I have time to think and react when things go wrong.

To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.


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