My first (intentional) spin

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)!

Graf Hilgenhurst by Citabria
Tailwheel checkout complete – now for spin training.

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.

Spin in Citabria
Round and round we go.

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!”


  • Good article to read. I suppose never having spun an airplane or done any other type of aerobatic maneuver is sort of like never having driven a car above 80 mph. Probably will never need to, but it’s awfully nice to know what it feels like if you ever do.

  • Great article. Quick question, how did you end up spinning training for your checkride? Spins are always in the back of my mind and I would like to avoid them, and I cannot find anyone that does tailwheel spin training near me . . .

    Just curious.

  • Well, of course, no spin training is needed for the private pilot checkride. I got into an unintentional spin while practicing for it (I was doing a power off stall at the time). I wrote a prior Air Facts article about it. Spin training is required to become a CFI. You don’t have to spin during the checkride, but you have to have an endorsement that you have completed training. You might look up “aerobatic training” and see what comes up near you.

  • Boy, flight training has come a long ways since I learned to fly, 1965. When my instructor went out on his own, he purchased a new 115 hp Citabria, started doing aerobatic instruction. He was a former WW2 instructor. He taught how to fly the airplane from the beginning. There was no 1/4, 1/, 2then full turn spin. The first spins were two turns, both left and right. Then we spun the clubs new Cessna 150. Those were the good old days in my opinion. I will never forget during a checkout ride n a 152, some fifteen years later, having to show the instructor how to spin the 152.

    • Gary – it’s easy to imagine a “good old days” in lots of contexts. In most cases, that’s nothing more than sentimentalism not supported by reality. Few people today, and probably even fewer in the 1960s, ever thought the 60s were “the good old days”.

      When it comes to flying, it’s helpful to note that the general aviation fatal accident rate in 1965 was 3.22 (per 100,000 hours flown).

      In 2013, the fatal accident rate was down to 1.05.

      Today we’re in the good new days of safe flight.

      Not only are we much safer, statistically speaking … but the equipment is much better today than it was in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. There’s probably a connection in there somewhere.

        • You seem to prefer the high fatality days of old … I most definitely prefer the low fatality days of today.

          If you think that’s annoying, then you should probably reconsider your own attitudes towards flying.

  • My first pilot flight log shows my spin training began when I had only 4.5 hours of dual instruction under my belt. It was January 9, 1956, and at Anchorage, Alaska. By my seventh hour, I was required to perform a two-turn spin in either direction, and come out within five degrees of a predetermined heading. Later, it wasn’t unusual to spin down to reach lower altitudes. We even used spins to descend through an overcast without picking up airspeed or putting strains on the airframe. When the requirement for full stalls disappeared from the student pilot’s flight training, I thought that was a mistake. A full stall would tell us if we had a “heavy wing”, which could quickly lead to an inadvertent spin and the necessary recovery. It’s still my belief that lack of spin training, and the ability to recognize an incipient spin’s warnings, has contributed heavily to stall-spin accidents, especially on approaches and the final turn onto final.

  • Your statement, ‘apply full opposite rudder to stop the spin’, continues to perpetuate the myth that the application of full opposite rudder will stop the spin. I have never spun an airplane which stopped spinning at this point. It usually doesn’t even slow the spin noticeably. You must reduce the angle of attack below the critical angle of attack to stop the spin.

    • I disagree in part Chuck.

      It depends on the aircraft you are flying but I have done many spin endorsements for CFI candidates using Cessna 172’s. Full opposite rudder will stop spin rotation; not instantly but it will stop. If nothing else is done what is left is a stalled airplane. Complete spin recovery requires both rotation and stall recovery. Rudder first then angle of attack; both probably done so closely together as to seem as one movement.

      From the Pilot’s Flying Handbook” FAA-h-8083a chapter 4 page 15.

      “Step 3—APPLY FULL OPPOSITE RUDDER AGAINST THE ROTATION. Make sure that full (against the stop) opposite rudder has been applied.
      Step 4—APPLY A POSITIVE AND BRISK, STRAIGHT FORWARD MOVEMENT OF THE ELEVATOR CONTROL FORWARD OF THE NEUTRAL TO BREAK THE STALL. This should be done immediately after full rudder application. The forceful movement of the elevator will decrease the excessive angle of attack and break the stall. The controls should be held firmly in this position. When the stall is “broken,” the spinning will stop.”

    • The control surfaces stall independently: the ailerons, the rudder, and the elevator. The rudder, usually full opposite rudder, is used to stop the spin, and the elevator is used to stop the stall, which is followed by the ensuing dive. The rudder must stop its own stall by returning it to its neutral position, and then misplaced again (with nose up application) to stop the dive. The spin will stop before the stall is stopped, and that is done with full opposite rudder application.

    • Mr. Moore, your recollection of reducing the angle of attack while in a spin surely means that you think to rely upon the elevator for that maneuver. It is truly a mistaken application of the elevator, since it is still stalled and is thus ineffective .

      There are precious few control applications that will safely change the angle of attack while in a spin. Would you select more power? Would you select the ailerons, which are still stalled and still quite ineffective? Would you simply pull back on the yoke or stick? Since the elevators are still stalled, what’s your recommended corrective action? I’d be very interested in your preferred method . . .

  • I’ve just noticed a gross error in my last statement: “The rudder must stop its own stall” should have read, “The ELEVATOR must stop its own stall.” A glaring error, for which I’m most red-faced.

    As to the comment from “E”, whether or not it was intended for me, I’d like to give you my personal thanks for your considered, though rude and unnecessary, comment. After all, this is a discussion. No one is required to agree with, nor approve of, any comment found here.

    • It was directed toward Duane not towards you Mr. Mason. I thoroughly enjoy all of the articles and comments contributed to Airfacts. It just seems to me that Duane has a “buzz kill” way of giving his input. But you are right everyone can comment and to keep this from straying from the subject of flying we all enjoy I will digress.

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