The ‘Spin Doctor’ and the Art of the Spin

Spins are not as scary or dangerous as some pilots make them out to be.

The lack of instructional knowledge when it comes to spins is common, says Rich Stowell, aka “The Spin Doctor.” [Shutterstock]

As of this writing, the only pilot certificate in the U.S. that requires spin training is the initial CFI certificate. For private pilots, spin training consists of theory—what causes a spin, what to expect from the aircraft in a spin, and how to get out of the spin, per the instructions in the pilot's operating handbook. The POHs of most light training aircraft reference the NASA-approved PARE technique. The acronym stands for:

  • Power off
  • Ailerons neutral
  • Rudder in the opposite direction of rotation
  • Elevator to neutral

Spin recovery is not universal—in the Cirrus for example, the recovery is activation of the ballistic parachute—and in certain high-performance aerobatic airplanes, such as the Pitts Special, spin recovery is accomplished using the Beggs/Mueller technique.

The Beggs/Mueller technique was developed by Gene Beggs and Eric Mueller specifically developed for those high-performance aerobatic airplanes. The initial steps in the Beggs/Mueller approach consist of: 

  • Engine power to idle
  • Letting go of the control stick
  • Pushing the rudder the opposite direction of the spin

When the rotation ceases, the pilot needs to pull out of a dive. The elevator is the primary control surface for this.

This method does not work with all aircraft. The late William K. Kershner, aviation author and legendary flight instructor who specialized in aerobatics and spin training, noted that the Cessna 150 Aerobat, when in a fully developed spin to the left, did not respond to the Beggs/Mueller method for recovery. You cannot recover from a dive with the elevator only. 

Sadly this information did not reach a flight instructor and learner in Australia, who on June 23, 2021, were flying a Cessna A150 Aerobat with the intent of practicing two methods of spin recovery. The airplane crashed, killing both occupants. The accident was investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). According to the report, "While experienced in other aerobatic aircraft, the instructor likely had no experience conducting spinning and/or spin instruction in the accident aircraft type or similar variants. ATSB has issued a Safety Advisory Notice alerting aerobatic pilots and instructors of the limitations of the Meuller/Beggs spin recovery method for some aircraft types.”

‘The Spin Doctor’

The lack of instructional knowledge when it comes to spins is common, notes Rich Stowell, an experienced aerobatics instructor pilot who has literally made a name for himself as "the Spin Doctor" for logging more than 35,000 spins in 250 spin-approved aircraft. As an author, speaker, and active instructor, Stowell is often called upon to educate pilots about spins. Part of the issue, he notes, is the way spin training for CFIs is done in the U.S. The minimal training required for the endorsement consists of a total of four spins—two to the left and two to the right—and the recovery from them.

"Unfortunately, the CFI spin endorsement ends up being a participation trophy in the majority of cases," Stowell says."Studies have found the depth and breadth of spin knowledge and experience among our corps of instructors to be marginal to poor," he says, adding that is owing in part to the fact that spin training is no longer taught at the private pilot level. "Until 1949, spins were part of private pilot training. They were just another maneuver."

The Purpose of Spins

In the early days of general aviation, the 1920s and 1930s, spins were a maneuver required of private pilots. In an intentional spin, the power is reduced to idle, a power off stall is entered, and the pilot adds rudder input in the direction they wish to rotate. In a spin, one wing of the aircraft is stalled and the rotation takes place around the wing that is less stalled. The aircraft rotates in a confined space. This maneuver was used to descend through holes in the clouds—both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart reference it in their written accounts of their flights.

According to Stowell, in the late 1940s as general aviation was enjoying a post-war boom, the  Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), the precursor of the FAA, determined that stalls, which are the precursor to spins, were the troublesome issue.

"In 1949, spins were removed from the private pilot requirements," Stowell says."There is a common misconception that stalls were removed from the private pilot requirements because spins are dangerous and people were spinning the aircraft and crashing and dying—this is not true," he says. "The CAA chose to remove spins from the requirements for everyone except for flight instructors. Instead they said stalls were the problem—because an airplane cannot be spun unless it is stalled. Around the same time, aircraft manufacturers started designing training aircraft that were more spin resistant. The emphasis from the CAA became avoiding spins by avoiding stalls."

"The apprehension over stalls and spins evolved into a mythology that stalls and spins are dangerous," says Stowell, "and as such, generations of instructors were taught to fear them and this fear was passed on to their learners—this continued into 1991, when the FAA came out with an advisory circular 61-67C Stall Awareness."

The result, says Stowell, was that generations of flight instructors were trained to avoid stalls, and without a stall, spin cannot happen so in effect, they were taught to avoid and by extension, fear spins.

"We have a generational loss in spin expertise," Stowell says. "Flight students who have never done spins become instructors who have never done spins, and they teach more students—it is like making a copy of a Xerox copy—eventually, you end up with a piece of white paper. We have a loss of institutional knowledge and experience because a lot of these instructors go right from being students into instructing, and they have not had much time to be pilots. What these instructors fear is transferred to their students."

Can Your Aircraft Be Intentionally and Legally Spun?

Some aircraft are not meant to be spun for the very reason they cannot be recovered, says Stowell. Look for the placards in the cockpit that state something to the effect of “THIS AIRCRAFT NOT CERTIFIED FOR SPINS,” and then cross reference the placard with the section in the POH on spins. In some aircraft, such as the Cessna 100 series, intentional spins can be done using specific techniques such as slow deceleration, and in some cases when operating the aircraft in the utility category, with a limited weight-and-balance range.

These aircraft, by design, are spin resistant, Stowell says."The Cessna 172 is a good example. It can enter a spin, and with the power to idle, by one and a half turns it's out of the spin."

Many flight schools do not allow their aircraft to be intentionally spun, as it puts a lot of wear on mechanical gyros, if installed. Sometimes the flight school’s insurance carrier will be the force behind the banning of spins. For this reason, it can be a challenge for first-time CFI applicants to find an aircraft for spin training. Often the spin trainer is a Cessna 150 or 172 that is flown in the utility category. 

I Have No Fear of Barf

My spin training was completed in a Cessna 150 Aerobat. I was apprehensive, as another instructor applicant had made a big production out of how queasy and wrecked she'd been after her spin training—she spent the next three days on the couch, she said.

I was mostly worried about barfing on my CFI. I have no fear of barf. I played field hockey in high school with coaches who had been on the U.S. Olympic team—barfing was part of practice. But I didn't want to do it in an airplane, so I put one of those barf bags—the ones that come in the blue paper envelopes and have that weird cartoon of an elf on it (you know the one I am talking about: it looks all anxious as it runs with an empty sack, and then all happy when it has a bag of puke)—down the front of my polo shirt just in case.

My instructor, a professional CFI with thousands of hours, was eating a burrito out of the vending machine while I preflighted the aircraft. He instructed me to “pack light” for this flight and remove anything we didn't need for the mission. I went in with the booster cushion (yes, I am that short), headset, kneeboard, ID, and pilot and medical certificates. I took special care to remove the aircraft towbar, the extra bottle of oil the aircraft usually carried, as well as the control lock and the fuel strainer from the aircraft as these could become projectiles during the spin. I secured the paper sectional to my kneeboard and double checked the security of the Velcro strap. 

We took off from the airpark and headed over to the practice area where the Class Bravo airspace above us began at 6,000 feet. The Cessna 150 had the Sparrowhawk engine conversion, which was supposed to give it extra horsepower, and we certainly needed it as we shuttled back and forth to gain altitude on that August morning. 

It took us about a half an hour to reach the altitude of 5,900 feet. We did the clearing turns, identified an emergency runway, then announced our intentions on the practice area frequency. I had bats in my stomach. My CFI would demonstrate the first one.

It had to be done, but I was nervous. I took a big breath, made sure my feet were flat on the floor and folded my arms on my chest as I said, "Do it!"

The CFI kept the nose of the aircraft on Mount Rainier to the southwest as he pulled the throttle to idle. He carefully lifted the nose, talking the whole time, commenting on the loss of airspeed, the need for my right rudder as he increased the angle of attack. Then came the stall warning horn. As the stall happened, he applied full right rudder and kept the yoke in his chest. The windscreen filled with dirt as we rotated to the right. 

"One turn! Two turns!" he said in a dramatic voice, just this side of The Count–aka Count von Count from TV’s “Sesame Street.” He kept the yoke back in his chest. The airspeed was at the very bottom of the white arc—we were as slow as the airspeed indicator could register. "And recover!" he said, releasing the back pressure and applying the opposite rudder. When the rotation stopped, he carefully lifted the nose to the horizon. 

"That was it?" I asked incredulously. "I've had sneezes that were more dramatic? That's all there is to it?" I was positively indignant at the scope of the SPINS ARE SCARY conspiracy.

"That's all there is to it," he said with a shrug. "It's not that big of a deal."

Now it was my turn. I configured the aircraft and executed the maneuver. I did my FAA-required spins—two to the right, then two to the left—then we climbed back up to altitude and did a few more each, just for fun.

We were in the air for about an hour and a half. Because we had taken off in the utility category, we were light on fuel and had to return to the airport. He called my attention to the fact that the attitude indicator was completely sideways and the heading indicator was drifting in a circle like a drunken monkey as we headed back.

"That's the real challenge of spin training," he remarked. "Even the airplane gets dizzy!"

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter