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Pride Comes Before A Spin, Part 1

Spin: An aggravated stall that results in an airplane descending in a helical, or corkscrew path.

The Previous Evening

I wouldn’t say I was cocky. But, the thing about being cocky is that you don’t know you’re cocky. I was nervous, I know that much. It was my mock checkride, my instructor was going to pretend to be the pilot examiner, and we were going to figure out if I was ready to take my final exam: the private pilot checkride.

All of my requirements were taken care of. After my short solo cross-country, I had finished up my night hours, worked on flight in simulated instrument conditions, and explored a little bit more of Connecticut on my long solo cross-country. Mixed in there were a number of flights, dual and solo, made up solely of landing practice or maneuvers practice.

I always heard about other student pilots putting their lessons on hold because of events in their personal life, usually medical or financial. Luckily, my reasons were positive: I got married and went on a 5-week honeymoon in the UK. But, I hadn’t finished my training before the wedding, so everything got put on hold. Since I got back, I had been grinding out more practice sessions, and was starting to feel like I was ready.

I studied my ass off for the oral portion of the exam, and committed to memory what would be expected of me during the flight portion. I felt a mixture of nerves and excitement, which I took as a good sign. I felt nervous enough to be cautious, nervous enough to keep studying, nervous enough to know that something could blindside me, so I needed to prepare as much as possible. Before I went to sleep that night, I packed my flight bag, feeling excited and ready for the next day.

Checkride Day, 2:00 PM

We strap ourselves into the little Cessna 152, the cockpit feeling more cramped in the winter thanks to our multiple layers of clothing. A little bit of the weight is gone from my shoulders, because I nailed the oral exam. We spent the past hour in the office, going over all of the aircraft systems, theory, weather, navigation, charts, emergency procedures, regulations, and every other thing the examiner could possibly ask me. My instructor was satisfied with all of my answers, gave me some tips, I made some notes, and off to the airplane we went. We taxi out, take off, and head for the practice area, to start with maneuvers.

2:36 PM

WHAT IS HAPPENING. My brain feels sluggish as the nose of the airplane rises again, stall warning horn coming back to life, screeching like a banshee. The wings act like I’m trying to balance on a beach ball. I can’t process the information my eyes are sending me – we bank right then sharp left. The horizon blurs, the world whipping sharply over and starting to fill more and more of the windscreen.

My instructor’s arm flies into my field of view, and I realize he has reached over and pulled the throttle to idle. I lift my hand out of the way as he says “my airplane”, and the world starts to make sense again. The horizon begins to return to its traditional place, blue is up and green is down. In my peripheral vision, I see him shake his head, and I instantly know it: my next flight will not be my checkride.

9:00 PM

Sitting in front of my computer later that night, all I can think is “Thank God for my GoPro”. During our debrief, my instructor told me exactly what had happened. We were practicing power-off stalls, and during my recovery from a stall, I added full power, let the nose rise too much, got into a SECOND stall, while banking a little bit, corrected the bank with aileron while stalling, and off we went into a quickly-developing spin.

The thing is, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t remember a secondary stall. I didn’t understand in the least what had happened. When I say it was a blur, I’m not joking. The horizon blurred, my brain seemed to slow and I just couldn’t process what was happening.

It isn’t until now, looking at the video, that I see exactly what happened, and he was 100% right.

To Be Continued…

Next time, I’ll do a debrief of exactly what went wrong. If you want to play along at home, you might be able to pick out at least one thing from the image above, which I screengrabbed from just when my instructor took control, but had yet to fix the mess I had gotten us into.