Monday, October 27, 2008

What were they thinking?

I make spin training an option for private pilot and commercial candidates, but the regulations in the US require flight instructor candidates to receive ground and flight training in stall/spin awareness, spin entry and spin recovery. Instructor candidates must demonstrate instructional proficiency in these areas, too.

The other day I did spin training with a flight instructor candidate (one of the areas of flight instruction that I can do while I wait for my medical status to be resolved). The aircraft we chose was a trusty old Cessna 152. In theory we could have used a Cessna 172, assuming it was loaded in the utility category, but most 172 owners don't want their aircraft used for spin training. And for good reason: Spins wreak havoc on gyro instruments unless the instruments are designed to be caged. Many 172s are flown in instrument conditions, something you don't want to do if some of the flight instruments are questionable from being subjected to intentional spins.

My usual approach to teaching spin entry and recovery is to demonstrate two entries, first to the right and then to the left. Most Cessna aircraft designs enter a spin reluctantly, but predictably. Due to the inherent left-turning tendency at high pitch attitudes, the spin to the right is more docile so I start with that. After demonstrating two spin entries, I coach the pilot I'm instructing in doing the same. After a total of four spin entries and recoveries, assuming the pilot feels okay, we do some more. After the initial rush wears off, most pilots want to do at least a few more spins.

Some pilots want to see fully developed spins, where the rotation becomes faster and more stabilized. A 152 Aerobat Texas Taildragger conversion I once flew liked to really wind up in developed spins, probably due to the replacement of the nose gear with a tail wheel and the repositioning of the main gear. For instructor candidates, I like to do some scenario-based teaching where I pretend to be a student who inadvertently enters a spin during a stall demonstration and the instructor candidate takes control of the aircraft - the "I got it" maneuver. Another scenario is a cross-controlled stall during the infamous base-to-final turn.

A while ago I wrote about the dwindling number of complex single-engine airplanes for training (those with retractable landing gear, controllable pitch prop, and flaps). There's only one complex single-engine trainer airplane currently in production - the venerable Piper Arrow. There's a similar, but somewhat less serious problem in the decreasing number of training aircraft approved for intentional spins.

For spin training, there are numerous specialty aerobatic aircraft and some flight schools even specialize in "upset" and spin recovery training. Remember that the requirement for flight instructor candidates is to demonstrate instructional proficiency and I think that is best done in a training aircraft: An Extra 300 is a cool plane, but it's not representative of the types of aircraft used to train GA pilots.

This got me to thinking again about the soon-to-be-certificated Cessna SkyCatcher, which I wrote about a while back. As my instructor candidate and I squeezed ourselves into the vintage Cessna 152 we were going to use for his spin training, complete with older radios and a serviceable, but funky intercom, I found myself revisiting Cessna's decision to not design the SkyCatcher for intentional spins. Granted, the primary intent of this design seems to be sport aircraft market, but it is also the de facto replacement for the no-longer-manufactured C150 and C152. The fact that this plane cannot be spun intentionally is a huge oversight.

Most readers probably have read about the crash of a protoytpe SkyCatcher during spin testing. Reports say that the aircraft entered a flap spin and the test pilot bailed out after an unsuccessful attempt to recover from the spin and then an unsuccessful deployment of the aircraft's ballistic parachute. Just looking at the aircraft, it is not hard imagine it having an slightly aft center of gravity. The ballistic parachute, a laudable design goal, would also put additional weight aft of the center of gravity. If these observations are correct, perhaps a redistribution of weight in the aircraft would solve the spin recovery problem? Of course, additional weight might put the aircraft over the 1320 pound maximum takeoff weight limit for sport aircraft.

The GA pilot population is dwindling. We need instructors to train new pilots. Instructor candidates need to undergo spin training. Without an influx of new instructors, there will be fewer instructors available to train new pilots. Without an influx of new pilots and affordable (and versatile) aircraft for those pilots to use, the market for new aircraft can only shrink.

What were they thinking?

9 comments:

Ron said...

Oh man -- this is a sore subject for me. I have maintained for the past decade that practical spin training should be mandatory for any pilot certificate.

After performing a couple thousand spins (many with students in an instructional environment), I can say with certainty that it's just unrealistic to expect a pilot to recover from an inadvertent spin based solely on ground instruction given back when he or she was a student pilot.

The FAA's logic in this matter completely escapes me. I mean, it's akin to reading a book on how to ride a motorcycle, and then being granted a license solely on that basis. Reading about spins, being told about spins, thinking through the aerodynamics, memorizing the "PARE" checklist for spin recovery, these things cannot take the place of being in the airplane and experiencing the sensations and distractions first-hand.

As for the Skycatcher, i'm not sure it's that big of a loss. Cubs, Citabrias, Decathlons, and other such aircraft are inexpensive and provide a perfect platform for training pilots on spins, aerobatics, and REALISTIC unusual attitude recoveries.

John said...

Ron,

I agree that spin training can be useful, though I'm not as adamant as you that it should be required for all pilots. The SkyCatcher not being certified for intentional spins, to me, is a big deal.

Think of all the smaller flying clubs and flight schools out there that are trying to scrape by. They may not have a Cub, Citbria, or other aircraft suitable for spins.

In most cases, the very survival of these clubs and schools depends on getting as much utility as possible out of every aircraft in their flight line. Why would one of these clubs or flight schools invest in a SkyCatcher?

To my mind, Cessna got the SkyCatcher 95% of the way to being a modern replacement for the C150/152. They added a glass panel, a low-maintenance castering nose gear, and an economical fuel-injected engine. Then they blew it by deciding to not certify the aircraft for IFR or for intentional spins.

So close and yet ...

Owen said...

The Skycatcher's O-200-D is carburetted, not injected.

Dr.ATP said...

One of my current primary students is a real spinner; the need for CFI spin training is clear.

One solution to the problem of there being so few spinnable trainers is to change the regulations to allow CFI candidates to do their spin training either in gliders or in airplanes. Two seat gliders are, by definition, trainers; the small rudder makes spin recovery a little less immediate than in a 152; and the recovery techniques are identical, so there should be good transfer of skills. The big problem with this is that you cannot demonstrate the effect of power on the spin entry.

A secondary benefit would be showing the CFI candidate real adverse yaw, real ground effect, and real engine-out landings.

To be honest, though, the only student I've done this with is myself.

Brian said...

I'm a Flight Instructor candidate in Canada, and spin familiarization is a mandatory part of PPL training here - you MUST introduce your students to the spin, have them do entries & recoveries, etc.

Spins aren't on the PPL Flight Test, but they ARE on the CPL Flight Test, and a possibility on the CatIV Flight Instructor FT.

I've always been surprised at how many American pilots I meet (via the 'net or in real life) who have never actually spun a plane - when I was still just a PPL an American CFI I talked to said I had more spin experience than he did...

John said...

Good comments.

I've yet to see any evidence that spin training makes pilots any safer. Just the opposite is true, according to an AOPA/ASF study.

According to that study, 80% or more of spin accidents began altitudes below 1000' AGL, where having undergone spin training is not going to save you.

The statistics indicate that the pilots LEAST likely to be involved in a stall/spin accident are student pilots. I theorize that this is because they treat stalls with care and trepidation - not a bad thing.

Private and commercial pilots are the one most often involved in spin accidents. One explanation is that this group is more likely to be explore the aircraft flight envelope with inadequate knowledge or recurrent training and without supervision.

Performing steep turns (greater than 45 degrees) while maneuvering close to the ground is inherently risky. I was just pointing this out the other day to a pilot (who happens to like aerobatics) while getting set-up for 8's on pylons.

Ron said...

John,

I have to disagree with you on that one! Spin training will be invaluable for spins at or below 1000'.

I don't understand why people think a spin from pattern altitude is automatically fatal. It's not.

Any SE aircraft I've ever flown loses about 500' of altitude per 360 degrees of rotation. With spin training, a spin entry can be stopped within a quarter or half turn, and an altitude loss of maybe 300'. WITHOUT the spin training, you're unlikely to respond in a proper and timely enough fashion to save your hide.

Also, I disagree about steep turns being inherently dangerous at low altitudes. It's the lack of coordination which is dangerous. Pilots who lack this understanding are the ones who get into stall/spin accidents, because they skid the plane around rather than use greater bank angles to keep the aircraft coordinated.

I also believe the AOPA/ASF study is a non-sequitur, because it fails to take into account the other skills spin training provides to a pilot. Spin training is not just something for low altitude accident prevention. It has many other benefits. It introduces the pilot to full control deflection, familiarity with unusual attitudes, and many other things.

My theory is that many landing accidents occur because pilots fly too fast on final. Why do they do this? Because they are afraid of a stall. Why are they afraid of that? Because they're afraid of spins. And they're afraid of those because they've never experienced them.

The unknown is always scary, especially when it's attached to so many outlandish old wives and hangar flying tales.

The FBO I work at has trained thousands of pilots over the past 30 years, all the while operating high performance tailwheel airplanes like Pitts, Extras, and so on. We rent these aircraft SOLO. And to the best of my knowledge, none of our students has ever had an accident or damaged one of those HP aerobatic aircraft, even after decades of flying and landing in the high desert winds of the southwest.

Spin training, unusual attitude, and aerobatic training works.

John said...

Ron,

First, I respect your opinions and experience. I just have a different opinions based on my differing experience.

Remember that this whole discussion came out my desire to teach spin recovery in a reliable aircraft that is younger than me and has, say, less than 10,000 hours on the airframe. I'm dismayed that Cessna has, in my opinion, dropped the ball with the C162.

A pilot who flies regularly and practices for aerobatic competition stands a chance of recovering from a low altitude spin. The pilot who did spin training over a year ago (or maybe not at all) who is flying a heavily loaded Bonanza or Mooney ... not so much. Add other factors, like contaminated wings and bad weather and it's clear we need to look for broader, underlying issues.

To my mind, the important thing is for pilots to be trained to acknowledge the risks that are present in certain phases of flight and to realize that unexpected things beyond our control as pilots can and do happen.

My observation is that some (not all) pilots who become involved in aerobatics are inclined to think that their additional training makes them less vulnerable to accidents.

It's not aerobatics or spin training (or lack of it) that makes some pilots do risky things, it's their hazardous thinking and their failure to recognize/evaluate the risk.

I like spins and teaching spin recovery. I just don't think requiring it is the answer to reducing or preventing stall-spin accidents. And as long as the FAA is requiring spin training for CFIs, I think that Cessna should provide new aircraft that fit the bill.

Pete said...

I absolutely agree about the Cessna 152 (especially); she's a very forgiving craft, perfect for training. It almost felt like you had to really push her into a spin.

Great blog!
Pete
WWW.Glass-Cockpit.org