Those who know me know that I scare easily. I’m pretty much a straight-and-level kind of guy, and I am not comfortable when tilted more than 30 degrees in any direction. Those who really know me know how traumatized I was after I got into an unintentional spin while practicing for my private pilot check ride. But along with my phobias (of which there are many), I have a strong desire to overcome my fears, which sometimes requires revisiting them. (As an aside, try bungee jumping as a treatment for acrophobia—it works)!
Enter Ron Dillard, of Advanced Tailwheel Training. Ron is a retired corporate pilot, with a total of 17,000 hours flying everything from ag planes to Falcon Jets. His current love is a Bellanca Citabria, which fulfills the requirements for both tailwheel training and aerobatics. I initially told him my goal was to add a tailwheel endorsement to my license, which kept me busy for a few Saturdays.
One fine day, without so much as an introduction, he signed off on the tailwheel endorsement, and added, “I thought today we would begin unusual attitude recoveries, and transition into spins and spin recovery.” I was torn between saying, “No thanks, I only came here for the tailwheel endorsement,” and saying, “That’s exactly what I need to work on!” So I said nothing, climbed in, and fastened my seatbelt, perhaps just a little tighter than usual.
Anyone familiar with the Citabria knows what a beautiful airplane it is to fly! I love centerline flying with a stick: basic, light, direct, but with some heft needed on the control inputs, especially the rudder pedals. It’s also a beautiful airplane to look at, with lines that can be described as “timeless.” I was lost in my thoughts as we made our way to the practice area, and got some altitude underneath us. Ron called out “4000 feet!” and I snapped to attention. “I’ll do the first one,” he said.
By keeping my focus outside the airplane and maintaining my bearings, I was able to stay oriented and avoid vertigo (which is good, as I didn’t bring my gauntlet length gloves “for emergency use”). Nose low, eyes on the horizon. Nose high, look out the side window. Concentrate on where you want the airplane to be in 10 seconds. Take in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and do a Valsalva maneuver for the 2-1/2 G pullout at the bottom. (The airplane has a resettable G-meter so you can keep track of your exertion.) Not bad! As Ron likes to say, “We are resetting your primitive Lizard Brain and dulling down your startle response.”
A few more Saturdays went by, and then Ron calmly announced, “I think you are ready for a spin.” No daydreaming this time on my way to 4000 feet. My mouth was dry, and my heartrate was uncomfortably high as I tried to remain calm. Oh, the things we do for fun! Again I heard, “I’ll do the first one!” By picking out a reference point such as a road, I was able to maintain my sense of orientation, which helped hugely.
Before long, it was almost enjoyable. Throttle to idle, apply back pressure on the stick… now stick all the way back, ready, set, push hard on the rudder pedal, and over we go! Rather than feeling like I had been punished for making a mistake, it became like finding the “keyhole” to enter another dimension. Imagine a Tolkien novel where you discover the entry to another world behind a wardrobe. Only in this case, it’s the world of spins! The keyhole is at either 11 o’clock high or 1 o’clock high. You aim the airplane for the keyhole and try to reach it nose high with just the right amount of energy (almost none). When you get it right, it turns into a game! We started out with 90 degrees of rotation, progressed to 180 degrees, and ended the day with a full 360 degree turn.
I alternated left and right, so I wouldn’t develop a “bad side.” Each time the procedure was the same. Hold the stick back while spinning, apply full opposite rudder to stop the spin, ease forward on the stick, then get the wings level with the horizon. Now pull up forcefully to restore level flight, add power when you need power to maintain airspeed, and resume a normal climb. The only time I looked at the instrument panel was when adding power. I would watch the airspeed indicator slow from 120 mph to 80 mph before pushing the throttle forward.
The spin rate increases the longer you stay in it, and so there is value in practicing a full two-turn, 720 degree spin. After that I’m told it becomes a “fully developed” spin, and it doesn’t really change.
We practiced 720 degree spins both right and left until I could enter and exit the spin with confidence, and lose only 500 feet per revolution. Then I was officially “signed off” on my spin training, which will come in handy if I ever try to become a certified flight instructor.
When I told my friend Craig about my training, he asked me if I planned on going back up in the Cessna to reproduce my spin, to which I said, “No way. I’m not that crazy!”