Hold on Tight

There are two kinds of people: those who find spins exhilarating, and those who find them terrifying.

I found them exhilarating when my instructor, Betty Faux, first demonstrated them to me in a Cessna 150 during the course of my post-private-ticket training. I promptly invited friends to share this great thrill. We would fly out over the ocean, climb to 6,000 feet or so, and do spin after spin. It's amazing they didn't all barf. At the time I had no understanding whatever of the fact that to some people the sensations of a spin are quite frightening. You might replace "some people" in that sentence with "all rational people," because it is really quite natural to experience some anxiety when you are thousands of feet up in the air, the little crate to which you have entrusted your life suddenly keels over into a rapidly gyrating vertical descent and a quick mental calculation reveals that you have about 15 seconds to live. But I was young and in love with flying, and the fact that you could get an airplane to do something so remote from straight-and-level flight, and that it would instantly, almost magically, recover on your command -- why, this was absolutely intoxicating.

I later took a two-day spin course in a Pitts from Gene Beggs. The gist of Beggs's doctrine was that an airplane would recover from a spin on its own if you just released the controls. This is not universally true, and I think Beggs knew it, but it was true of enough airplanes -- and the ones of which it isn't true you would not be likely to spin -- that the hands-off recovery would certainly be worth knowing about when all else fails. I cannot say that I found inverted flat spins in the Pitts quite as amusing as upright nose-down spins in the 150, but with the aid of a patch of transdermal scopolamine I took them in stride.

Many spins follow inadvertent stalls, often during botched turns from base to final or during ill-advised attempts to turn back to a runway after an engine failure. But in June 2006 a deliberate spin, during a session of flight school spin training, went terribly wrong, killing both student and instructor. While it is impossible to know exactly what happened to bring this routine flying lesson to a fatal conclusion, I am inclined to guess that an important element was the fact that the student did not see spins as benign and entertaining maneuvers, but rather as close encounters with eternity.

Investigators analyzing the accident interviewed several instructors and students at the student's flight academy, seeking anything that might shed light on the failure of the Cessna 152 -- an airplane that does recover by itself if you release the controls -- to pull out of its final spin.

Two students recalled doing spin training with the instructor and reported nothing out of the ordinary. Both had completed the sequence without difficulty and both had discovered that the 152 would recover from a spin of its own accord. Instructors who had flown with the student pilot, who was taking the multiengine CFI course, had more light to shed.

One instructor described the student's piloting skills as "lacking" in situations that required piloting "outside the box." The "box" was none too capacious; "stressful" situations that caused the student to act "impulsively" included failing an engine or stalling the airplane. This instructor recalled two separate occasions on which the student had "stiffened on the controls, seizing the yoke, as if petrified." On one occasion he had to jab the student in the leg to get him to relax his grip. He reported that the student had asked a great many questions during ground training on spins and had seemed "very nervous" about the future spin flight; but on the morning of the accident he appeared calm and to be "looking forward to the flight."

Another instructor who had worked with the student on his multiengine commercial certificate recalled "numerous occasions" on which the student acted "impulsively" in reaction to a simulated "stressful situation." In one instance, a stopped engine failed to restart. The student appeared "panicked" and the instructor had to take over the controls. To get the engine windmilling, the instructor pushed the nose over to gain speed. At this, the terrified student grabbed the control yoke and held it "firmly aft." He would not relax his grip until the instructor jabbed him in the leg (leg-jabbing must be a standard technique in certain types of flight instruction).

A pattern emerges. This is a student who does not really believe in airplanes. His anxieties about flying are not far below the surface, and burst out whenever something happens that is not routine and expected. "Below the surface" is a merely metaphorical expression, of course, and does not illuminate anything about the actual mechanisms of barely suppressed anxiety. Rationally, we ask why someone whose confidence in airplanes is so easily shaken wants to become a flight instructor in the first place. The reasons may be complex, but we would not be surprised to see a fearful person enlist in the army. The paradoxical vocation offers, at once, a veneer of bravery for public show and the hope that, through practice and perhaps contagion, real courage will be acquired.

A sudden onset of inflight anxiety can manifest itself in various ways. The one most of us would consider reasonable is for the student to relinquish control of the airplane to the instructor. "Your airplane" is a magic phrase that solves all problems. But this student had a different, and a more ominous, reaction: He seized the controls and held on for dear life. The annals of flight instruction contain many instances of this death grip. Fear is a great multiplier of strength, and an instructor may be hard pressed to pry a panicked student loose from the controls.

Radar returns recorded by ATC and by a nearby Air Force base sketched out the course of the 40-minute flight. The 152 had climbed to about 6,000 msl on the way to the practice area. It had then performed what appeared to be seven one-turn spins to the left in quick succession. At 1527:24 it was at 5,600 msl, doing 70 knots groundspeed on a 045 heading. It then turned to the east while losing altitude and speed. At 1527:34 it was at 4,600 feet -- descending 6,000 fpm -- with a groundspeed of 60 knots. Ten seconds later it had made a sharp turn to the right and was northbound at 50 knots, descending through 4,100 feet. Five seconds later it had lost another 900 feet and slowed to 40 knots. The last radar return came five seconds after that: 2,800 feet, 30 knots. The 152 had given up 2,800 feet in 30 seconds. It was then only 650 feet, and seven seconds, from the ground.

Some time after the accident, an FAA operations inspector performed a series of one-, two- and three-turn spins. He found that a three-turn spin produced an altitude loss of 2,900 feet in 15 seconds; a two-turn spin lost 1,700 feet in 12 seconds; and a one-turn spin consumed 700 to 800 feet in eight seconds.

The descent chronicled by radar is most consistent with a series of spins interrupted by momentary recoveries. Why this happened only after seven spins had been performed is unclear, but perhaps they were all demonstrations by the instructor. In any case, something was different about the eighth. One imagines the 230-pound student, paralyzed by the sight of the onrushing earth, pulling the yoke back with all his might while the instructor, a 100-pound woman who would certainly not have been able to overpower him, tried frantically with the rudder pedals to gain control of the airplane.

The National Transportation Safety Board's findings of probable cause are often silly, tautological ("the pilot's failure to remain clear of terrain") or obtuse, but this one is positively perverse. Choosing to ignore all the evidence presented in its own accident report -- including evidence that it is practically impossible not to recover from a spin in a 152 -- the Board blames the accident on "the failure of both the flight instructor and student pilot to regain control of the airplane in a timely manner during an intentional spin maneuver ... . A factor ... was the instructor's inadequate supervision of the flight." Do the people who write these things know something we don't know, or are they just idiots?

This article is based on the National Transportation Safety Board's report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.