Spin from cockpit
3 min read

What Scared Me Learning to Fly

Just before I took my Private Pilot flight check, the 150 I’d been flying was grounded for an overhaul. I told my instructor that I wanted to fly the one I’d be flying for the test beforehand so I could get a feeling for its idiosyncrasies. His reaction was “Heck, they all fly the same.” Having flown at least five C-150s at that point, I politely disagreed with him and scheduled the airplane for a solo flight.

Spin from cockpit

A leisurely solo flight until…

After arriving in the practice area, I did a power-off stall. I noticed the left wing dropped a bit, but nothing much. I then set up to do a power-on stall: slowed it down, pitched it up a bit, and poured on the coal. Nose up, starting to feel the buffet and then…

WHAM it broke. The left wing dropped and in a blink of an eye it had spun out and I was headed down.

It’s important to note that I had never spun an airplane. Not only that, I had never been in an airplane while it was spinning, ever. But there I was, looking at the desert floor below me getting closer by the moment and going around in circles.

To say I was petrified would be putting it mildly. I knew that if I didn’t do something quickly I was going to die. That day FLYING magazine saved my life.

As I recall it, before Dick Collins became the senior CFI at FLYING, the guy who wrote most about flight instruction was a fellow named Robert (Bob) Blodgett. I had just read an article by him about spin recovery and as I was watching the ground getting closer, his little checklist literally appeared before my eyes. While not in the exact PARE order taught these days, the way I remembered it was:

1 – Relieve the back pressure.

I suddenly realized that I was still holding the yoke up against my chest. I let go and the airplane instantly came out of the spin.  The wind noise started to build and I looked over at the ASI. It was already in the yellow arc and building fast. I started to pull back on the yoke, and as I did so I felt the airplane start to load up. I knew that if I kept pulling the wings would come off. I again released the back pressure, saying to myself “What am I forgetting?” when it came to me:

2 – Reduce the power.

Power! I was still at full throttle. I reached out and yanked the throttle so hard that I’m still amazed to this day that it didn’t come out of the panel. The airplane gave a sigh of relief, started slowing down, and I pitched up to level flight.

After getting it level, I flew around for 15-20 minutes just to get my composure back. After that, I headed back to the airport and landed high, wide and awful but we were both back in one piece.

A friend of mine who worked at the FSS on the field lived on the airport. I went over to his place and begged a beer off him, being well below legal age at the time. I recounted my tale and he was properly concerned and sympathetic. When I next saw my CFI, I told him what had happened. His response? “Yeah, that plane does tend to drop a wing in a stall.” Nice to know that, Joe.

I ended up taking and passing my Private flight test in another 150.  The same friend who gave me the beer after my hair-raising flight showed me spins in his 172 another day. I’ve never been comfortable with anything like unusual attitudes since. I can do it, but I don’t like it.

Editor’s Note: This is another article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

David Reinhart
Latest posts by David Reinhart (see all)
24 replies
  1. Nick Howard
    Nick Howard says:

    You clearly have the cool head required to be a pilot but I would question the quality of your flying school. As a student you should not be carrying out stalls with out an instructor and although spin training is no longer part of the syllabus you should at this point have had a full briefing on spin recovery before your practical stalling ex with an instructor.

    The knowledge you had came back to you when you needed it, like I say a cool head when needed.

    • Terence Lambert
      Terence Lambert says:

      In South Africa incipient and full spins are part of the ppl syllabus. A
      very important part of training.

      • Izak Fick
        Izak Fick says:

        In South Africa sthe insipient spin (threatening spin) is a part of the PPL syllabus but there are two important facts – with an instructor and with an aircraft that is rated for spinning. Very sensible and yet at the time when I did my PPL training, it scared the living daylights out of me. I can do it but never iiked it.

    • Rodney Hoover
      Rodney Hoover says:

      “As a student you should not be carrying out stalls with out an instructor” Um, really? Every flight school I’ve worked with had in their syllabi to do stalls while solo. Every student I’ve worked with has done them on their own in the later portion of their solo time. If someone can’t do them on their own, they have no business flying as PIC.

    • David Phillips
      David Phillips says:

      The flight school is remiss in training up a new PPL candidate.

      And, the FAA as well in not requiring spin entry and recovery demonstration at flight testing.

      All this reticence on spin testing, doing spins…. the danger of spinning a plane is overblown.

      To be very high when entering a spin and recovery maneuver is the key.

      I would say, 4K feet AGL is bare minimum to practice and execute a spin.

      It’s a very basic flight aerodynamic that when demonstrated, reveals the quality of airmanship acquired to that point.

      Spins kill. Not knowing how to execute spin recovery, kills.

      Training to proficiency, spin recovery must be a demonstrated FAA maneuver on flight qualification licensing, and on any flight check.

      Altitude. Execution. Confidence. The goal.

  2. John caldwell
    John caldwell says:

    I got my private (in a 150) in 1969. By the day of my check ride I had, at my instructor’s insistence, recovered, under the hood, from every attitude known to man or bird. I had also taken, again on teacher’s orders, two hours of aerobatic training at a nearby airport.
    I once read that there are, or were then, ATR pilots who had never been inverted in any aircraft.
    I firmly believe that all pilots should be able to recover from spins and every other thing a plane can get into. I hope that now that is required.

    • David Reinhart
      David Reinhart says:

      If you’re talking about the U.S., the answer is no. Spin training is only required for CFIs. The emphasis for the PPL is on stall awareness and spin avoidance.

    • David Reinhart
      David Reinhart says:

      Problem is, most spins happen too close to the ground to recover. That’s why the emphasis in the U.S. is spin avoidance. I do think that a spin demonstration is a good idea.

      • Don W.
        Don W. says:


        I totally agree. The first time I experienced a spin it was with an instructor in a 160hp Citabria. He briefed the spin and then started into what felt like a normal power on stall. At the shudder, he kicked the rudder, and we went over so fast I totally lost spatial awareness, even though I had spun the simulator hundreds of times, and knew what was coming. Like you, all I could see was a windscreen full of turning terrain, and by the time I was starting to become aware of what was happening, we had completed a turn and a half, and he had recovered. I was totally shaken. Then he said, okay now you do it… ;-)

  3. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    You were right to believe that there is some inconsistencies between same model airplanes. There’s not supposed to be, but there is. In a school I used to teach at, there was a 150 that was wicked in stalls (and it was a new airplane). One day I got a new (to me; he had already soloed) student, and it was obvious from engine start on, that he was overconfident for his experience level. So when it came time to perform a power on stall I just touched in a little top rudder, and wham, over it went. The student’s reaction was to pull hard back on the wheel and roll the ailerons left and right. After a couple of turns, he looked over at me and said ” well what are you going to do to save us now”? So we spent the remainder of the lesson doing spins.

    He later spun that airplane in, immediately after getting yet another progress check from another instructor. So does spin training help? Yes, but not always. Better just not to do them unless you are intentionally performing aerobatics with a parachute.

  4. Mitch
    Mitch says:

    I wish my instructors would have done spins with me when I was in flight training. It took me months to be able to have the confidence to do a stall by my self because I was afraid of spinning.

    • David Reinhart
      David Reinhart says:

      Sorry, I don’t understand your comments. As another poster pointed out, if you can’t do stalls solo, you’ve got no business flying as a PIC with pax on board.

      Another name for “full power stall” is a departure stall, and it’s certainly something that can happen in normal operations. One example is an obstacle departure, climbing at Vx (best angle) and reaching an altitude where there’s a sudden reduction in headwind. Bingo: full power stall.

      The 172 is certified for spins and lots of people I know use them for spin demonstrations since they are very forgiving. A spin is actually a low-stress, stable manuver and it’s harder on the gyros than anything else.

      When instrument flying was in its infancy, pilots teaching themselves to fly “needle and ball” would intentionally spin the plane when they got disoriented. Of course, their planes were much easier to spin.

      • Stephen Phoenix
        Stephen Phoenix says:

        One little caveat on spinning 172s. The airplane is approved for spins in the UTILITY category. That category limits the aft CG about 7 inches forward of where you can load the airplane normally and at a gross weight of about 300 lbs less. You would find that the low stress, stable spin you practiced in the 172 is quite different than the inadvertant spin entered with aft passengers and baggage; especially at low altitude.

  5. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    Very true. The same restriction applies to the Cardinal I fly now. Make sure your CG is in the right place and take all the loose stuff out of the plane before you go out spinning.

  6. Adrian Ryan
    Adrian Ryan says:

    Here in Cyprus stalls and spin recovery are mandatory. I did startle my instructor though. After obtaining my PPL, my flight school sold the Cessna and bought a couple of Aquila A-210s. During my conversion training I was demonstrating recovery from a fully developed stall, and afterwards my CFI said, “OK, now show me a recovery from a stall with full flaps.” I shrugged my shoulders, I’d done this before, and so I eased the power off, airspeed in the white, first stage of flaps, wait, second stage, ease the stick back, airspeed coming off rapidly, stall warning, when suddenly, a vicious left-wing drop! I’d had plenty of practice during my flight training, so I smoothly initiated a recovery, and levelled out. My startled CFI said, “What the hell was that?” “Well, you said, demonstrate a recovery from a stall with full flaps, so, that’s what I did.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Yeah, right, but what I meant was an incipient stall with full flaps, sorry. Excellent recovery though! But, you didn’t do that in the Cessna did you?” I told him that my instructor could see that I was afraid of stalls, so he put me through several intensive lessons of power on, power off, stalls in turns, stalls with flaps, as well as spin recovery, so that now I’m quite ‘happy’ with stalls, and I don’t hold them in any sort of dread as before.

  7. Brian Knoblauch
    Brian Knoblauch says:

    The C172 I started my training in surprised myself and my CFI that way once. It always would drop one wing slightly in a stall, but it broke HARD and we did a spin entry. Never saw my CFI move so fast before in my life! :-) It was a pretty bumpy day and I’m guessing that was a contributing factor.

  8. Wayne Cochrane
    Wayne Cochrane says:

    I took my PPL in Canada in the 1970’s. Spin training was, and remains, a requirement in Canada – more than sixty years after the FAA dropped the requirement. I did spins in Cessna 150s, 172s, and, most especially, Cherokee 140s. I expected to find spins frightening, but discovered I loved doing them (weather, on the other hand, which I’d never worried about, managed to frighten me thoroughly more than once, as it has in the years since). Like the 172, the Cherokee is only to be spun when loaded to the utility category, compliance with which includes a slightly more forward c of g than normal, and a lighter load, including fuel at less than 18 gallons US in each wing tank. There have been instances of flat spins in Cherokees where these requirements have been ignored.
    While the Cessnas always seemed to me to be eager spinners, the Cherokees were generally much less inclined to want to enter a spin, and sometimes would flatly refuse. The general characteristics of particular types, as well as rigging, can, obviously, be factors in this. However, there’s another possibility as well which I’ve never seen referred to in flight manuals. It was pointed out to me by a high-time instructor with a lot of aerobatics time: the differences in spin behaviour within a specific type, including the greater reluctance of one example to spin than another, can sometimes be related to differences in the lateral load balance. Most obviously, this can arise in airplanes with wing tanks (like the Cherokee) when they have sharply differing amounts of fuel. Unlike the 172, the Cherokee does not have a “both” setting on the fuel selector, and significant differences in fuel between the two tanks can occur, whether deliberately or by chance. Apart from the weight difference, extra pounds of fuel in a wing tank, well off to one side or another of the c of g, can have a lot of leverage as well. According to my instructor, this can mean an airplane will more readily spin toward a heavier wing, or not spin at all toward the lighter one. I found this to be the case myself. While this phenomenon may appear to be of direct interest only to pilots who are deliberately trying to spin airplanes, it may also be something to remember in risk management for flying generally.

  9. Tim Fountain
    Tim Fountain says:

    I’d recommend that every post-PPL pilot do an unusual attitude/upset recover course. I did 15 hours in a Decathalon shortly after my PPL and conducted a lot of the maneuvers that had scared me as a student (by name only!) such as spins, mild aero’s, accelerated stalls, recovery from very unusual attitudes such as inverted and so on. I got a lot of very valuable experience and confidence building and a tailwheel endorsement as a bonus….
    All of this was under the tutelage of a very experienced CFI who had 1000’s of hours of aero’s in all sorts of planes.

    – Tim

  10. ginny wilken
    ginny wilken says:

    My best and last primary instructor learned to spin the hard way, too – putting a 150 into a spin with no training whatsoever. So I had my share, in a 150/150 Texas taildragger, and a 152 Texas Aerobat, too. My own 172 is one of those that was very reluctant to spin, and now, with VGs, you can just beg all you want and it won’t do it. Took me a long time to get up the nerve to do a solo spin, though, in my Champ. I definitely encourage every pilot to go spin something – it changes you:)

  11. Gary
    Gary says:

    When that happened to me MANY YEARS ago, I had maybe a grand total of 5 or 6 hours in the plane, all dual. Fortunately the instructor was on board and recovered from the spin. The worst part? I was so stupid I didn’t have a clue what had happened and the instructor never did go over my error. It was long after, when I realized on my own. The error?
    No rudder against the “torque.” Maybe not the best instructor (or student) but without him that day I’d have gone all the way in pulling with all my might.

  12. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    I liked to show student pilots a scenario based spin demo.
    At a good safe altitude, 4K AGL or so, have them set up for landing and use section lines or land marks below for a reference to establish a base and final approach leg. Imagine the airport a few hundred feet below. In the scenario, the student is low on a base to final turn. Using only elevator to hold the plane up, no additional power, let speed bleed off. Now show that you are a bit late for the base turn- past the extended runway centerline. A lot of students are uncomfortable banking at low altitude and will rudder the plane around to turn, unconsciously holding up the inside wing. That’s the killer situation. The insidious thing is that as they hold altitude with the elevator alone and hold up the inside wing, while ruddering around the turn, it doesn’t feel bad at all. Folks are used to side force while turning in cars.

    Explain as you hold altitude at reduced power, the inside wing has the higher angle of attack and will stall first, often precipitating a nasty incipient spin entry. One second they are nice and level albeit slow, the next they are looking at the ground.
    Not sure what all trainers will do and it does depend on rigging but it worked in Cessna 150s and Citabrias.

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