VIDEO: Spin training with Catherine Cavagnaro of Ace Aerobatic School

By Travis K. Kircher

So this past weekend, I got my spin certification.

Let me start this by saying I was the last person on earth who would want to actually spin an airplane. Certainly not on purpose. Not accidentally. Not at all.

Suffice it to say that I am NOT what you would call an aggressive, daredevil pilot. When I hear, “Negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full,” (not that I’ve EVER heard that), I stay the heck away from the tower. When dark cumulonimbus clouds are looming, I stay home — or keep to the pattern. Despite my Instrument rating, I don’t go into IMC without another IFR-rated safety pilot in the right seat.

Don’t get me wrong: I love takeoffs and landings. Going on long cross-countries. Talking on the radio. Navigating through Class airspace. Flying above the clouds. Cruising at night. I’m even a fan of steep turns (I LOVE steep turns), ground reference maneuvers and eights-on-pylons.

But stalls?

Suffice it to say the “I LOVE Stalls!” fan club was never gonna send me a free t-shirt.

Oh, I can do them. I obviously had to demonstrate them for the private and commercial checkrides. But all the while when the stall horn was blaring — and the nose was pointed up and my butt was pointed down — inwardly I was nervously ticking off the seconds until the nose would drop and we could move on to the next thing.

Especially with power on stalls.

The Sewanee – Franklin County Airport

I saw power on stalls like walking a tightrope. While the nose was skyward and the throttle was full, you had to keep it “coordinated” — using just the right left and right rudder pedal inputs to keep the nose from yawing too far to the right or to the left, and slipping off the edge of the tightrope into a spin.

Granted it was a fairly thick tightrope, mind you. But still a tightrope.

And it didn’t help that I had no clue what an actual, developed spin was like. I’d watched videos of them, of course. And like every good pilot is supposed to, I memorized the PARE recovery procedure (Power all the way out, Ailerons neutral, Full Rudder opposite the direction of the spin, and pitch down on the Elevator). But I had my own, FALSE idea of what a spin was like.

It went something like this: I could see the nose pitching over and dropping. At that point, I imagined everything would go weightless, I would float out of my seat and my head would violently smack against the ceiling. As the aircraft dropped out of the sky, spinning faster and faster like a child’s top, I would fight to stay conscious as I reached through floating Lay’s Original potato chips and spherical globules of unsweetened iced tea to find the throttle knob — to start the ‘P’ of PARE. Then my vision would blur and I would black out.

Okay, I’m being melodramatic.

But you can see why I wasn’t too excited about spin training. Spin certification is not required for a private certificate. It’s not required for an Instrument rating or a Commercial certificate. But anyone who wishes to get that CFI certificate needs to check off that box — and the reason is obvious. In a rare instance that a student pilot puts the airplane in a spin, you, the instructor, have to be able to get him or her out of it. And it does happen.

So, when the time came for spin training, I sought advice from Natalie Bingham Hoover, a designated pilot examiner and columnist for AOPA Pilot. She referred me to Catherine Cavagnaro, a fellow columnist for AOPA Pilot, professor of mathematics for Sewanee: The University of the South, and aerobatics instructor for Ace Aerobatic School.

As it happened, Cavagnaro was based in Sewanee, Tennessee, just four-hour drive south of where I’m at, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Orville’ and ‘Wilbur’

I showed up at Franklin County Airport KUOS (i.e., Sewanee International) Saturday morning, a bit early for my 8:30 a.m. appointment. It’s a pleasant, secluded airport, with a single runway, 6-24, about 3,700 feet long, and 50 feet wide, surrounded by trees. The elevation is at 1,953 feet MSL.

The airport has a couple of hangars, and a small terminal building, which has a restroom, a small lobby with a fireplace, and a classroom. A guestbook on the shelf in the lobby has aircraft tail numbers and signatures of pilots and others who have visited the terminal, dating back to 2003. The name “Kershner” appears several times.

It’s not surprising. The Kershner family is well known in Sewanee. Years ago, Catherine’s mentor was William K. Kershner, who wrote the book on aerobatics. That’s not a metaphor. He LITERALLY WROTE THE BOOK on aerobatics. It’s called “The Basic Aerobatic Manual with Spin and Upset Recovery Techniques,” and it’s on my desk right now.

As a professional team, Cavagnaro and Kershner eventually taught spins an aerobatics together. When Kershner died of cancer at age 77 in 2007, his 1979 Cessna 152 Aerobat, dubbed “Orville,” went to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Catherine then purchased an identical 1979 Aerobat, dubbed “Wilbur,” and continued training the Sewanee airport as a way of carrying on Kershner’s legacy.

Catherine arrived a short time later, and unlocked the terminal building. She was followed shortly by Sam, a teenager and freshly minted private pilot who would be taking the course with me. (Good on ya, Sam, for taking spins early!) Sam and I would each get two flights in the two-seater Aerobat with Catherine as the instructor (four flights total) and we would share two ground school lessons.

The first thing Catherine did was have Sam and I fill out weight-and-balance forms, so that she could calculate the centers of gravity for our respective flights. The location of the center of gravity directly impacts the flight characteristics and recovery performance of the aircraft. She then plotted our CG locations on a graph, determining that they were well within the CG envelop of the Aerobat.

The Aerobat is a utility category aircraft, meaning that it is approved for limited acrobatic maneuvers.

Catherine then spent the next 90 minutes or so — the first ground school lesson — showing Sam and I videos, walking us through the spin initiation and recovery process and answering any questions or concerns that we had. When the time came to fly, Sam went first, while I poked around the airport and enjoyed the amazing weather (the temps were in the low 80s and the humidity was practically non-existent). Sam and Catherine returned an hour or so later, and then it was my turn up to bat.

What are spins like?

Before driving to Tennessee, I watched all kinds of videos and read all kinds of write-ups on spin recovery. They all ranged from, “Oh wow! Spins were nowhere near as bad as I thought they’d be!” to “Here is the science behind why an aircraft spins.” None of the write-ups I saw told you what you actually experience, in terms of physical sensations, when a spin takes place. This little section is my attempt to fill that void.

Here are some things I noticed:

Before Flight: During our initial ground school, I asked Catherine about the amount of G-forces we would face during and after the spin. She said it would run the gambit from 0.5 Gs (half your body weight) when the aircraft first pitches over, to 1.0 G (your normal body weight) while you’re in the spin, to as much as 3.5 Gs (more than three times your body weight) as you pull up out of it.

The Tip-Over: First off, everything she told me was true. What surprised me was, I never even noticed the half a G when we pitched over. There was no lightness in the seat, but it’s likely because it happened so quickly.

The Spin Itself: This was the part that really surprised me. As I mentioned, before the flight, Catherine said that, during the spin, we would be at 1.0 G — our normal body weight. This also, was precisely what I experienced. This made no sense to me. You would think that if you’re in an aircraft that is barreling almost straight down, almost perpendicular to the ground, you would be at 0Gs — i.e., floating. If not that, then you would think the centrifugal force of the spinning would lean you to the outside of the rotation. (Catherine noted that we might feel some slight, imperceptible pull to the side.) But in the video above, when you see us pointed almost directly toward the ground and spinning, we are not only feeling 1.0G, but it’s pointed in a direction perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. In other words, during the spin, we felt like we were flying straight-and-level, at our normal body weight. This remains true, even when the rotation stops. Frankly, I don’t understand the science of this, but there you are.

The Recovery: As Catherine promised, you do start to feel the Gs when you begin to pull up in the recovery. She noted before the flight that it would be between 3.0 and 3.5 Gs — and as she suggests during the flight, it’s best to tighten your stomach during this period. It was not particularly uncomfortable. After doing several spins, I did experience some slight nausea at the end of both flights. It was nothing serious, and evaporated after only a few minutes on the ground.

Some additional observations:

‘Breaking the Rules’: First, no rules were broken. But it feels slightly disorderly, or even illegal, to give full left rudder — and I do mean FULL left rudder, with the pedal touching the floor — in the middle of a power on stall to initiate the spin. It goes against everything we are taught to do as pilots. But then how often do you get to initiate a spin ON PURPOSE? It’s a cool feeling.

Take your time and get your bearings: The first spin will leave you gobsmacked. Just take it all in and experience it. Then take a couple of minutes to get your bearings and assess it. The following spins are much easier.

It’s Safe: I can only speak to my experience with Catherine Cavagnaro and Ace Aerobatic School, but I can tell you that I felt safe the entire time. The aircraft acted exactly as she predicted it would, and we were never in danger.

‘Wilbur’ is a cool aircraft: Seriously. It’s a sturdy two-seater, and the Cessna 152 Aerobat is built to withstand the pressures we put into it during the spins. The controls are a bit lighter and more responsive than a typical 172 trainer. And it comes in red, white and blue colors. VERY Fourth of July.

Have FUN: One of my regrets about the day was that I was so focused and nervous about doing what I needed to do to get the certification that I didn’t take the time I needed to slow down and HAVE FUN. You’re spinning an airplane. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To use a tired cliché, stop and smell the roses.

Post-Flight Conclusions

In the end, I highly recommend spin training. Frankly, it’s not just for people looking to become CFIs. Anyone who gets in an aircraft — from student pilot on up — can benefit from experiencing spin recovery firsthand. It will make you more confident arounds stalls, and give you a skill that could save your life one day.

I also highly recommend Catherine Cavagnaro as an instructor. She learned from the best, and knows her stuff. And she won’t let you off the hook. Unlike what occurs in typical spin training, Catherine wants to see fully developed spins — that’s three turns or more. And you get two flights, which provides ample time to do several maneuvers.

It sticks with you. On the four-hour drive home, I found myself going over the recovery process again and again in my head, mentally refining my technique, thinking about how I could improve.

And thankful that my potato chips were still in my bag, my tea was still in the bottle, and there was no bruise on my head.

Oh, and spins are nowhere near as bad as you think they are.

Anyone interested in learning more about spins and stalls should visit Ace Aerobatic School, or email Catherine at catherine@aceaerobaticschool.com.

Travis K. Kircher is a commercially rated pilot based in Louisville, Kentucky, who flies of KLOU. He can be reached at traviskircher@protonmail.com.

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