An intro ride becomes a thrill ride

I met Sandi shortly after taking a job as a commuter pilot based in rural Missouri. Her daughter, Becki, got good grades, so Sandi asked me if I could reward her with a ride in my small airplane. Sandi knew it was going to turn into a thrill ride for her thrill-seeking daughter, so she spent the morning hunting for yard sales with Lori’s mom. Since Sandi’s absence left room for one more, Becki invited Lori to come along. Becki and Lori are typical children of the 1980s. Becki was a quick, fun loving, pre-teen, who finishes all my sentences for me. Her blond hair was in a “Flash Dance Style” of big fluffy curls that bounce off her shoulders. Lori had long, straight red hair and freckles. Both girls can make flowers bloom with their smiles.

PA-12 back seat
Better be friendly to sit together in a Super Cruiser.

My airplane, the PA-12, was built in 1947. It’s called the Super Cruiser. It is fabric covered, with a steel tube frame, a tailwheel, and one seat in the front, with a small bench seat in the back. It was wide enough for one and a half normal-sized adults. They had to be very friendly, because there was only one lap belt that went over both occupants of the seat. That made it about the right size for two pre-teens with of small stature.

When I bought the airplane in West Virginia, it had no navigation radios and an antique com radio that only had 360 frequencies. The com had gone obsolete about the mid-70s. I had to replace it with something newer. The Cruiser had no gyros except an old turn needle used to perform standard rate turns. I bought it because long hours of commercial flying left me sometimes questioning my career choice. My passion for flying was more for the adventure side of it, not the business side of it.

With nearly calm winds and clear skies, I taxied out and transmitted my departure intentions in the blind. From midfield I lined up on what was left of a 5000-foot runway. With the passengers’ weight, the tail wasn’t as quick to volunteer to fly first. It ended up being a three-point takeoff. This didn’t surprise me. Later in the flight was a time for surprises.

After a climb to 3000 feet above ground level, I decided to see how brave these two little thrill seekers were. With a short briefing on what the plane was going to do, I whipped it into a steep, 360-degree turn to the left and roll directly into one to the right. After rolling wings level, I turn around and they were both looking at each other and giggling. We took a break from maneuvers to do a little sightseeing around town. On the way back to the airport, when we were about ten miles from any navaids or airports, I asked them if they were ready to do a spin. They both nodded and giggled some more.

My experience with practicing spins, while flying solo in this airplane, taught me that it drops about 400 feet per revolution. By simply counting the revolutions of my spin, I can estimate my current altitude (my altimeter is unreliable in a spin). So I planned how many revolutions would give me the desired recovery altitude: from my altitude of 3000 feet AGL, I decided that I could do three revolutions before recovering at 1800 feet AGL.

I pulled the Super Cruiser into a stall and pushed in left rudder while moving the stick to the right. The left wing dropped and the windshield filled with a spinning mixture of fields and structures. It was weirdly quiet with just the sound of the wind buffeting the sides of the fabric fuselage. I picked a dirt road for a reference point and waited to count off the first revolution.

Spin from cockpit
Round and round we go – are the passengers having fun?

Still holding the throttle back to idle, left leg straight to the rudder stop, and right stick, I notice that the nose had oscillated couple of times, from 75 degrees down to as high as 45 degrees. There went the road: first revolution complete.

Something was different. The buffeting of the fuselage was giving way to an ever-increasing wind noise. The spin was getting tighter. Already, the road came into view. The second revolution was complete.

I wanted to recover early and I didn’t even know why. As the nose rose to its highest pitch in its series of oscillations, I centered the stick and put in moderate right rudder. We snapped out of the spin and now the nose was in a moderately steep dive. My pull-up was measured so as not to pull too many Gs. A glance at the altimeter showed we were only 1200 AGL. My heart skipped a beat and I swallowed hard. Now in level flight, I glanced back at my passengers. They were all smiles. I would have preferred to level off at 1500 feet AGL like I planned, but didn’t bother explaining my miscalculation. The added weight was something I didn’t consider.

Fast forward three decades. Becki texted a picture of her daughter seated in a small airplane. The caption said that her daughter had just joined the Young Eagles, an EAA program that gives small airplane rides to young people as a way to plant a seed for a possible hobby or career. She said she still remembers when I took her and a friend for their first ride when she was 11 or 12-years-old.

33 Comments

  • Okay… Don’t get me wrong for asking this….
    But why do some pilots feel a need to demonstrate: Stall, spins, aerobatics etc, to people on their first flight in a light GA plane? It seems almost a little selfish, cuz it’s like they want to impress them with this “cool” stuff they can do, without thinking about the passenger?

    I am pretty just getting up there the first time is cool enough. And those that don’t like the stalls, spins, rolls, etc…. Well you just scared them into never flying again.

    • They just want to show new people the best of flying, is all.

      I’m sure these girls were left nice and dazzled after this flight!

      • Eh…. They’d have been dazzeled without that display.

        I’ve known people who completely turned thier backs to aviation after a pilot decided they need to be dazzled by stall, spins, etc… on a first flight. It just a bad practice…. The first flight should be all about how stable & controllable an airplane.

        • You are right.
          From the article, it is obvious they were not turned away, but you have a good reminder.
          I suppose it’s important to know the passengers you’re bringing, not to mention taking their saftey in mind…

    • Ginny, I am in total agreement with you. I still remember my first into ride when I was 10. It was in a high-wing Cessna. The pilot was giving us a nice, smooth ride; yet, when the plane banked and the side window filled with terrain, my eyes got very big.

      The sole purpose of my plane was to do the kind of flying that I invested large sums of money to do. My decision to perform these manuvers was based on my knowledge my passenger’s tolerance to carnival rides and their prior request for the manuvers. In this situation it worked great.

      • I understand that… And it is a case of knowing the passenger(s), however let’s not let our desire to impress people override primary logic when comes to intro flights.

        The desire to impress probably also overrode the logic to say… “Hey, the tail didn’t raise as it should; maybe I’m over weight on this flight”; “maybe I shouldn’t spin it in this condition.”

  • I personally do not do any unusual maneuvers when taking someone for a ride. I brief the passenger and we fly exactly what is briefed. I would worry about any pilot that felt the need to “show off” in his airplane, and I certainly wouldn’t send my kids up with one.

    That being said, there are exceptions. If the pilot is experienced and proficient in the maneuvers, familiar with the airplane, familiar with the local area, and plans and briefs the maneuvers, then go for it. It sounds like the pilot here is in this category, with the exception that he should have considered the added weight during planning.

  • Pardon me, but what an idiotic thing to do. In 50 years of reading flying magazines and articles, I have never had this reaction – but putting new visitors into a spin? Are you nuts?

    Have a good life.

  • Having read this article with great alarm, I kept looking for the remorse of “I was a stupid young daredevil pilot” and the lessons learned at the near expense of two young lives. The remorse never came. Gee (sarcasm intended), who would have thought that adding 200 lbs in the rear of this 950 lb aircraft would alter the spin characteristics? Trying to impress two first-time flyers with a spin… recovered at pattern altitude… not smart in anyone’s book, regardless how experienced the pilot.

    And a question to Air Facts: WTF; doesn’t anyone on your editorial staff read this stuff!?

  • One thing that I love about flying is the lessons that it teaches me. To address all the concerns of my fellow airmen. Do I think it it is idiotic or daredelish to perform manuvers that the airplane is certified for. No I don’t. The airplane met all the weight and balance parameters of the utility category. I detected that the manuver wasn’t going as briefed and immediately terminated it. Finally, my step daughter has wanted to be a pilot ever since that flight. Today she is a US Air Force Reserve pilot. I call her Major Mom.

  • Chuck, the aviation community is full of people who think they know better, so u can expect some harsh responses to ur story. I personally would not do spins, but that is purely because I don’t have the experience to pull it off… When I take young people up flying it is clear that level flight just won’t cut it. Steep legal banks is where I drew the line, and it usually fulfill their excitement buckets for the rest of the trip. Will I send my own kids to spin with a spin master? Yes. Would my wife? Let me go ask…

    • Tim – the author clearly stated his aviation experience and qualifications and experience and comfort level as a pilot in performing the specific spin maneuver in the specific aircraft involved. If his passengers were aware of what he was going to do – the author said they were, and they specifically requested aerobatic maneuvers – and the aircraft is certified for the maneuver – which it is – then why not?

      You may not be personally comfortable or confident in demonstrating spins to passengers, doesn’t mean others aren’t or are somehow crazy or irresponsible for doing so.

      By the way, how do you think spins or other aerobatic maneuvers are taught or demonstrated in commercial demo flights to paying customers? That’s something that’s done all the time by qualified pilots in properly certificated aircraft to willing passengers. My first ever ride in a sailplane was, at my direction, an aerobatic flight involving wingovers and loops, a commercial ride with a properly qualified pilot and sailplane. Thrilling it was, stupid it was not.

  • To Mr. Liad Biton: “Discrimination” (in its good sense) is the ability to distinguish events (e.g.), to know which are within tolerances and which are not. The behavior exhibited by Mr. Stone is, to my personal eye, the most outrageous violation of safety in flying that I have read about in years, even decades. It’s all well and good to say “Don’t judge others, lest ye be judged,” but there are limits to that. Having pre-teen first-time flyers in a spinning aircraft clearly is beyond any safety guidance, as well as human consideration, that I know of. That his daughter now flies says little to me. But this event went beyond reason.

    • I agree with you in principal. However we don’t know the whole story, we were not in the airplane with them, so everything is pure speculation on our part. If we shoot people down for telling bad flying stories we will never learn anything new.

      Spin or don’t, legal or not, the past is dead and I think the point was that he scared himself by doing that spin (good!), so I doubt he would do it again. He scared me with his story as well, again, GOOD!, I learned something from a fellow pilot. Everyone wins.

    • Richard, you’re clearly out of line in your extreme comments here. The author is/was fully qualified to perform the legal maneuver in his legally-certificated utility category aircraft, and he was fully experienced in performing this specific maneuver in his specific aircraft, and at the specific request of his willing passengers.

      There is nothing at all that is illegal, unsafe, or stupid. This is just maneuvering flight in a light aircraft. You are in no position to judge or condemn a perfectly legal and safe maneuver.

      • I used to own a PA–12 and let me assure you that spins were neither approved nor prohibited in the airplane. Spins (and loops) were routinely done in airplanes like that in the 1940s and 1950s and we thought nothing of it. The author might have been surprised by the amount of altitude loss but the airplane surely was not. It was just doing what comes naturally. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would be comfortable spinning a 70-year old airplane (or 83-year old pilot) today.

        • Richard,

          I just looked up the type certificate (no. A-780 rev. 12) issued by the FAA for the PA-12, which originally issued by the CAA in March 1947. The type certificate specifically authorizes spins as well as several other limited aerobatics in the utility category (max gross weight 1,500 pounds). The required placard states the approved maneuvers and entry airspeeds.

          This type certificate may not have read the same at the time you owned your PA-12, as it was originally issued by the CAA.

          • Duane, Richard is correct in that spins are “neither approved nor prohibited” by the Aircraft Specification (there is no Type Certificate Data Sheet for the PA-12). Yes, it is listed on the Spec Sheet as a required placard, but that is not “approval” as such. Also, only one occupant is allowed in the rear seat for Utility Category operation, so this gentleman was actually operating illegally, per the same Aircraft Spec Sheet.

      • Duane: I was never commenting on his qualifications to fly. My unstated reason for condemning his action is the effect of the frightening effect this would have on anyone – adult or child – if not familiar and comfortable with flying. A spin, from the passenger’s viewpoint, is an extreme maneuver. I’ve been in them, and will be in them again. But for an inexperienced sub-teenager, seeing the ground spinning below them like in a B-movie, it is not a comfortable feeling. Panic and fright are likely reactions. This is not how anyone should be introduced to aviation. Even if these girls thought they would be fine, there is no comparable experience they could have had.

        That, my friend, is not smart flying. His qualifications to fly the spin recovery, the utility category of the aircraft – all these say is that he was likely to be successful. It says nothing about his likelihood to scare the pants off the girls. Yes, one of them is now an Air Force Reserve officer, so apparently it had no lasting effects. I don’t know about the other one. Even if, in this particular case, both turned out fine, I remain highly disapproving of any pilot – including an air show expert – taking children into a spin. A loop, in comparison, is far less frightening.

        But I wouldn’t put them in a loop, either. That was just an example, to highlight the scariness of a spin.

  • My first flying lesson, in my Dad’s PA-12, in WV, was conducted by a North American test pilot, friend of Dad’s. I was 13 yrs old (early 1950’s). Dad, the cool wisea** he was, apparently had told Angelo to give me “thrill”. A power-on stall, with the recovery intentionally delayed and “enhanced” (extended nose-down) scared the pi** out of me! It took me many years to overcome my fear of stalls and unusual attitudes.

    As a CFII, A&P, and active EAA member, I have owned many airplanes in my life, given many introductory and sight-seeing rides, and, currently like to “exercise” my RV-6A, solo. However, being mindful of my early experience, I would never perform any maneuver designed to “entertain” my passengers and demonstrate my “hero” skills.

  • for Chuck Stone…
    It says you spent some time in TN as a flight instructor… were you by chance based at 0A4 in the late 80’s early 90’s??
    Thanks, Greg
    Your name rang a bell, curious if it might be the same person.

  • To Liad Biton:

    As hard as you may try, someday you will find (e.g., today) that you can’t maintain the peace by agreeing with everyone. This is basically a black-and-white issue, and I reject the greys you continually try to insert in the conversation. Read the other responses: you are alone in your approach that “we will always learn” from mistakes. This was avoidable, stupid, illegal and many other words. It should not have been done. Period.

  • I fly an RV, stressed and tested for aerobatic maneuvers —- I do know, that by the regs, I cannot perform aerobatic maneuvers, other than solo, without everyone wearing a parachute.

    So, I question the “legal” aspect of the pilot’s performance.

    • Ron – The requirement for a parachute with passengers exempts CFIs performing spins and other required flight maneuvers. The author was/is CFI.

      • Duane, only when training for a rating. The pre-teens were not training for a rating or certificate.

        Starting a spin at 3000 AGL by a “CFI” on a stunt ride without parachutes or the good sense to account for the kids’ weight in the back is highly foolish in my opinion.

        Just do some steep banks, and do the aerobatics properly when they are a bit older.

        • Jose,

          The FAR does not require that the passenger in an aircraft piloted by a CFI must be a certificated student pilot. You may not think it is appropriate to do so, but legally speaking the author was legal, met the letter of the regulation.

          And by the way, the author did write above that he did his weight and balance and that the aircraft was within its limits, so he did “consider the weight” of the occupants, and he noted that his aircraft was type certified in the utility category, which means spins are approved per the FAA type certificate for the PA-12.

  • I’m still hoping for a response from Air Facts to my question: WTF; doesn’t anyone on your editorial staff read this stuff!?

    • Wayne, we do indeed read this stuff. All of it. One of the defining characteristics of Air Facts is that we encourage discussion among pilots. As you can see here, there are differences of opinion about this article and there has been a healthy discussion – including from the author of the article. While we would not run an article that was patently false or vulgar, we trust our readers to be mature enough to read a wide variety of perspectives and make up their own mind.

      • John, good clear explanation. I’m pleased that the articles are reviewed, and I agree with your editorial strategy. Thanks for the reply.

        I continue to feel however that the remorse-free article and likeminded replies by the author are unhelpful for the future of GA.

  • My recollection is that, when entering a spin, the ailerons are already stalled out and absolutely ineffective. Banging them left and right while in the spin will usually produce no effect at all. That being the case, why would a CFI apply opposite aileron as the spin is entered, since both the elevator(s) and ailerons are stalled out and without affect. When approaching a stall (when entering a spin, or when landing), the ailerons are the first to stall. On landing, for instance, remember that lowering a wing is accomplished through use of the rudder.

    The same is true when stopping the spin. Neither the ailerons nor the elevator will have any positive affect upon the spin until it has been stopped by the rudder, after the pilot has introduced rudder displacement in the direction opposite of the spin. The elevator then is used to stop the ensuing dive.

    Mr. Stone alerts us to the fact that the spin was flattening, perhaps gaining on an opportunity to enter a flat spin, in which case his story might have had a different ending. And while he may have done a partial weight-and-balance calculation, he may well have passed on verifying the plane’s CG was not moved too far aft with a total passenger load of three souls aboard. It seems that it may have been, since the spin tended to flatten out . . .

    Finally, a spin to the left is slower to stop than a spin to the right (in most cases). I’m surprised that his PA-12 “snapped out of the spin”.

  • Mort,

    I’ve been keeping slient..
    *** But
    You need to review with a quailified CFI. So much of what you just said is wrong. It would take to long to explain it all here.

    Ginny

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