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Airplane spins can be one of the most exciting parts of flying – and that’s saying something, given the thrill of landing. However, while many people enter into a spin for fun, they are dangerous if you don’t know how to pull out of them. In this guide, we’re going to look at what causes spins, how to best recover from them, and some of the limitations on recovery.
What, Exactly, Is A Spin?
Airplane spins are a special type of stall where a difference in lift generation sends the plane on a corkscrew or helical path. The actual range may be as short as the plane simply twirling around, or widen out to a longer, somewhat calmer path.
The spins usually occur when one wing generates too much drag and the other creates too much lift. Planes can compensate for some of this difference – it’d be pretty hard to turn at all otherwise! – but the added force on both sides can quickly push a plane into a full-on spin.
Fortunately, we know exactly what to do in this situation.
The Four Phases Of A Spin
Spins are broken down into four distinct phases.
In the entry phase, a plane goes through the elements required for a spin to occur (starting with the stall – without that, there’s no spin). This usually happens because of something the pilot did or didn’t do, and the problem can be accidental or on purpose. This phase is often the best time to recover, so it gets a lot of attention in the tailspin definition.
In the incipient phase, at least one wing of the aircraft has stalled. Contrary to some beliefs, the wings aren’t necessarily going to stall at the same time. This is when the rotation of the plane begins.
In the developed phase of the spin, the airspeed, vertical speed, and rotation of the plane have stabilized. At least one wing of the aircraft remains stalled in this phase, but it’s going to stay here until the next phase occurs. Note that it’s possible to recover in as little as one spin if you’re quick to react.
Finally, the recovery phase goes through the process detailed below, allowing you to regain control of the plane.
Recovering From A Spin
Recovering from airplane spins involves the PARE process, as explained below.
Step One: Power To Idle
The first step of recovering from a spin involves setting the throttle of your plane to idle. Some people are tempted to increase the throttle and try to push their way out of the spin, but that makes it harder to recover. The culprit behind this is your plane’s tail.
When you add power, the air hits the horizontal stabilizer and pushes the tail of your plane down. The obvious result of that is your plane’s noise going up, and it’ll go even further if your center of thrust is too low.
Climbing is hard enough – you don’t need to add spins to the equation.
Step Two: Ailerons To Neutral
Once you’ve cut the power, it’s time to set your ailerons to their neutral position. The goal here is to smooth out the wings and help them reach the same angle. Just like adding power in a spin, trying to regain control using the ailerons will make the problem worse instead of better.
Until things have stabilized, trying to use the ailerons that way may send you spinning in the opposite direction. That’s the last thing you need when you’re trying to regain control of your plane, so it’s better to take them completely out of the equation.
Step Three: Rudder To The Opposite Side
Now that your power and ailerons are neutral, it’s time to start regaining control. Using the rudder, add spin in the opposite direction that you’re currently moving. This will help to cancel out most of the movement and finish stabilizing your plane, allowing you to regain control of your flight path. However, you’re not done. You may have broken the spin, but you still have to deal with the stall.
Step Four: Elevator Forward
Finally, shift the yoke forward to get under the angle-of-attack you need. This will remove the stall from your wings and allow you to pull back to a level flight path. It’s the only way to recover quickly, and that’s critical if you go into a spin just above the ground.
When you finally have control again, put the rudder back to neutral and lift the front of your plane, slowly adding power until you’re back where you should be.
Do I Need To Practice Spin Recovery?
Yes. Spins aren’t that hard to break out of as long as you follow the PARE checklist, but it’s hard to read and follow a list if you’re not familiar with the process. Any plane can get launched into a spin, and if you don’t know how to recover, there’s a good chance you’re going to die.
Fortunately, there are many planes designed for spinning. When you’ve done it ten or twenty times in a practice plane, you’ll be far more familiar with breaking out of a spin if you enter one on accident. Depending on the type of plane you fly, you might even start entering spins on purpose so you can enjoy the ride.
Ron Rapp – a professional pilot and instructor – makes an argument for mandated spin training here. He makes several important points in this discussion, including an observation that you currently require no training whatsoever even if you plan to spin on purpose. If you think attempting a stunt with no prior knowledge or experience with it is crazy, you’re right.
Alas, that’s the situation we’re currently in. The FAA originally removed the requirement with the goal of encouraging manufacturers to make spin-resistant planes. That technology hasn’t panned out. Only a few models qualify as resistant to spins, and those don’t have much of a share in the market.
Even if they did, spin training helps to build confidence and teach pilots how to recognize and avoid oncoming problems. For that reason, we strongly recommend getting spin training. The aircrafts used for it are designed to recover quickly – and while you may be apprehensive at first, remember that you’ve also been worried about other parts of flying.
Are There Limits On Recovery?
Yes. If your plane spins too much, you may not be able to recover from it – at that point, ejection (hopefully with a parachute) becomes a more practical solution.
Normal airplanes are rated for a one turn recovery – by following the PARE process during the incipient phase, it’s possible to recover before the plane hits the point of no return.
Acrobatic planes are fundamentally safer in this regard and are tested as high as six turns. Many of them will enter airplane spins on purpose as part of a show, so the ability to recover later in the process is key to success.
There’s one other limit on recovery: the strength of the plane’s rudder. Once you’ve stopped adding power and set the ailerons to neutral, the rudder is the main tool used to break out of a spin. If it can’t apply enough control or power, chances are the spin is unrecoverable. This is one of the many reasons you should have a rudder that offers enough power to control the plane you’re flying, even in extreme situations like spins.
In a flat spin – where the plane is moving around like a frisbee and not going up or down – recovery is rarely possible.
Which Planes Are Most Likely To Spin?
The correct answer is “any plane where the pilot’s error starts the spin”. Spins are almost always a result of pilot error, not problems with air pressure or the plane itself. That said, given the technology used to make planes, many older planes are more vulnerable to spins.
In an in-depth discussion of the topic, Whitt’s Flying notes that about 40% of accidence involving airplanes certified before 1945 involve stalls and spins – and it’s believed that there are literally thousands of unreported incidents for every accident.
The biggest factor in lowering the number of spins that occur is improved aircraft design. When the planes are more stable to begin with, it’s much harder to enter a spin at all. Unfortunately, this very stability can also make it harder to break out of a spin, and manufacturers are continuing to look for ways to improve the safety of their craft.
Most safety features aren’t retroactive, though. If you want the safest plane, always get something as new as possible. If you’re particularly worried about airplane spins, fly an acrobatic aircraft. Otherwise, at a bare minimum, you should learn to recognize the behaviors that cause a spin and train to avoid them. Remember, human error causes as many as 95% of spins, so they’re almost completely avoidable.
Finally, do a lot of practice in simulators before you try to recover from a spin for real, even if you have an instructor ready to take over. There’s no substitute for experience when you do a spin.